Cameron is arguing that the Scots risk losing their European credentials – while he simultaneously jeopardises the UK's
Many [Scots] may feel that our our European cousins have been a bulwark against more madness from Westminster. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
As David Cameron stood up for prime minister's question time this week he would have felt the breath of Tory rightwingers and Ukip on his back. But as the backbenchers brayed, he might have also felt an odd discomfort at the back of his mind. Wasn't there another referendum somewhere?
In a two-day period the prime minister has lanced the no campaign's two most powerful arguments against Scottish independence, the twin arguments that have been employed ad nauseam by the media and Better Together campaigns. The first of them is that independence will result in Scotland being cast adrift from the European fold, outcast and isolated – a sort of less affluent but more northerly Albania. The second is that the very process of holding a referendum some time in the future will somehow distort, undermine and fatally destabilise business interests (which we all know are king).
Neither of these arguments were strong enough to stand up to even casual examination, but were nonetheless held to be tablets of absolute imperishable truth by most of the mainstream press. Now they lie empty, and with them much of the scare-politics of the Better Together campaign.
The cacophony of alarmist stories about Scotland does seem to have tipped from the bizarre to the gently unhinged. A year ago the Scotsman actually ran a headline saying that "Scots would lose the right to travel within EU", according to an "expert" at Edinburgh University. Since then there's been a drip-feed of distressing propaganda all very reminiscent of the Tories pre-devolution messaging. But of all the heartwarming stories that have been sent our way to enlighten the independence debate – from Skintland, to "they'll take away the Pandas!", to that lovely story that "England could bomb Scottish airports" – none has really had the same resonance as the European one. In uncertain economic times the narrative that either Scotland would be forced to accept the euro or locked out of the European family of nations – while absurd – did strike a chord.
Now even that threat looks ridiculous. Cameron has created a bizarre scenario where he might simultaneously be arguing that the Scots risk losing their European credentials while casually jeopardising the UK's.
And all this to placate the blazered ranks of Ukip? This only make sense if you believe that that their threat is genuinely a pan-UK one. But while Farage's party gets record poll ratings south of the border, in Scotland they barely register. Ukip lost its deposit in every seat it contested in Scotland in the 2010 general election and the 2011 Scottish election. At the last European election in 2009, Ukip moved into second place UK-wide in its share of the vote. In Scotland, it came last – behind the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Greens.
There are good social reasons why "Europe" isn't as loathed in Scotland. The writer Iain Macwhirter has argued: "Suspicion of the French and the Germans is part of English DNA, dating from the Napoleonic wars and beyond. Scottish public opinion doesn't feel threatened by Europe. But it will feel threatened by the loss of social protections such as the social chapter, which guarantees things such as working time limits, health and safety standards, job security and maternity leave."
Many may feel that our our European cousins have been a bulwark against more madness from Westminster. William Hague's comment on the referendum in the wake of Cameron's speech were virtually all about deregulation. It's hard to shake off the feeling that this is what the Tories really want: a light touch approach to … everything. And don't forget that this same light-touch approach brought you Leveson, the banking scandal and a litany of corporate abuse.
In December 1992 John Major held a European summit in Edinburgh. The idea, presumably, was to placate recalcitrant Scots. Somebody somewhere thought it a good idea. The Conservatives had just won the election and had made clear there would be no devolution. But as a political event it was a disaster for Major. People liked the idea of being on the European stage and began to see their capital city and themselves as citizens of Europe, not subjects of the crown. On the last day of the summit there was a demonstration for "Scottish democracy". Thirty thousand people took to the streets and heard among a crowd of speakers William McIlvanney declare: "Let's not be mealy-mouthed about all this. The Scottish parliament starts here, today!"
It did, and Cameron may have unknowingly opened the way to real change again.