English Parties Back EU Referendum Bill, SNP Doesn’t

Yesterday, the House of Commons gave the legislation necessary for a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union its First Reading. The bill passed easily with 544 votes for the bill and only 53 against. The one-sided result stems from the support the idea of a referendum has among MPs from both the governing Conservative Party and main opposition Labour Party. Given that situation, the bill eventually will become law. What is significant here is the 53 nays all came from the Scottish National Party. In other words, this referendum will be an English choice.

The bill has several more hurdles to clear before it receives Royal Assent and becomes a law. The First Reading, which is what yesterday’s event was, is a formally, where the bill is simply introduced to the House. The Second Reading will allow MPs to debate and posture. If it passes, it then goes to the Committee Stage where legislators will go over every line to put the bill into something resembling its final form. When a bill passes out of committee, it goes to the Report Stage, where in the entire House can discuss and amend the bill. This is followed by the Third Reading, wherein the final bill is debated and approved or rejected. Presuming it makes it through the Third Reading, the bill then goes through the entire process again in Lords.

The Conservatives have the votes in Commons to pass the bill all on their own, and given Labour’s support, there is a majority to back the bill in the House of Lords. At worst, Their Lordships will delay and tweak the language, but they will not defeat it. Royal Assent will come in plenty of time for Mr. Cameron to hold his referendum by the end of 2017 as promised.

In the recent electoral unpleasantness, Labour opposed the referendum. However, since Ed Miliband failed miserably to lead his party to victory, the party has had second thoughts. Having lost its Scottish base, it is now desperate to find seats in England that it can win. Someday, the die-hards believe, there will be a Labour government with or without Scottish MPs, and backing the referendum is one way to appeal to the segment of Labour-friendly voters who hate foreigners — the UK Independece Party’s left as it were.

However, the SNP’s decision to oppose the bill while no other party did means that this referendum is an English decision taken by English MPs. At least, that is how the Nats can cast it. Scotland is more pro-Europe than much of England. A YouGov poll carried out in Scotland earlier this year showed 52 per cent support for remaining in the EU, compared to just 29 per cent support for leaving. Across the entire UK, those in favor of staying is little more than half the Scottish figure with a substantial number of undecideds.

This sets the stage for a very dangerous set of circumstances. Holding a referendum on the UK leaving Europe is being opposed by Scotland’s MPs and by most Scots. England has the votes to take the UK out of the EU no matter how the Celtic fringe votes. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, got it right when he said, “if the UK falls out of the EU, Scotland within a heartbeat will pull out of the UK. We will have lost two unions in one parliament.”

Of course, just because the Conservatives and Labour back the referendum doesn’t mean they will campaign to leave Europe. Indeed, one expects David Cameron and whomever Labour chooses as its leader will both work very hard to present any changes wrung from Brussels as a huge accomplishment. A single change of a comma will be sold as sufficient to keep Britain in the EU. The trouble is that there is a significant vote in England for leaving no matter what. UKIP won 3.9 million votes despite the fact that the first-past-the-post system encourages tactical voting and backing larger parties. One presumes a hard core 5 million votes to leave no matter what conditions are met. And that’s before adding in the effects of Tory Eurosceptic MPs campaigning and some of the old Labour suspicions of the EU as a capitalists’ club coming into play.

The Tories and Labourites are playing a very dangerous game. To parrot the most popular line of the 2010 general election campaign, “I agree with Nick” — two unions could be lost.