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The SNP face two ways on Europe, as in so many areas

How the cards fall after the European elections early this afternoon matters, of course, as all elections do, but not that much.

For most Scots, as for most people in the UK, the European Parliament, be it in Brussels or Strasbourg, is a faraway institution of which they know little. Being out of sight and therefore out of mind contributed to a typically low turnout.

But it does matter in terms of how the outcome affects the framing of the independence debate, the context in which all the Scottish parties conducted their inevitably lacklustre European campaigns.

The SNP's narrative is well established. The rise of Ukip predominantly (but not exclusively) in England, they argue, is proof the UK's two biggest nations are moving in different directions and Scottish values of tolerance and Europhilia stand in stark contrast to a southern agenda of xenophobia and Euroscepticism.

There are elements of truth in this although it amounts to the narcissism of small differences. The discourse around immigration in the Scottish media is markedly different from that in England, while Scots are a bit less Eurosceptic than their southern neighbours.

Public attitudes surveys, however, suggest the desire to limit immigration is a pan-UK phenomenon while, according to the most recent poll, 32 per cent of Scots want to withdraw from the EU compared with 40 per cent in England.

In that 8 per cent difference, the SNP would have us believe, lies a chasm so wide it cannot be crossed within the confines of the UK. But while a majority of Scots are certainly reluctant to vote Ukip they're far from hostile to its aims.

The real divergence is electoral, and reading too much into that doesn't lead anywhere particularly useful.

A vote for New Labour between 1997-2010, for example, clearly wasn't a vote for a radical left-wing agenda any more than a vote for the SNP has been since 2007.

Both parties have succeeded by capturing the centre ground, a winning electoral formula that thrives on talking left while acting centre-right. For obvious reasons, supporters of independence find it difficult to accept the findings of numerous social attitudes surveys for it undermines a core reason for being.

In the Sunday Herald, Ian Bell made a valiant effort to redefine the argument by suggesting the difference between Scotland and England was one of intent rather than attitude, concluding that independence offered "a chance - nothing more - to our better natures". That is an honest position, though hardly a compelling one: vote Yes for the possibility of doing things better.

It also assumes the possibility of change does not exist within the UK, although the achievements of the post-war consensus and part of New Labour's record (minimum wage, genuine redistribution of wealth, health and education spending and so on) undermine that assumption.

At present, Ed Miliband is pursuing an agenda well to the left of Alex Salmond in many respects, so the idea that "only" independence offers the possibility of change is a fiction, but obviously a convenient one.

The SNP are correct, however, in depicting the Westminster parties as in thrall to Ukip. A glance at yesterday's headlines found David Cameron under pressure to bring forward his promised referendum on EU membership, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg facing calls to step down following his party's performance and various rumblings about Mr Miliband's leadership, all because Ukip did well (though, as Professor John Curtice has argued, not as well as expected) in Thursday's local and European elections.

That the Farageists advanced in traditional Labour areas as well as the Tory shires will, of course, provoke soul-searching and an inevitable hardening of rhetoric between now and the 2015 General Election. There will be a quixotic attempt to out-Ukip Ukip and it will be as successful as attempts in Scotland to out-Nationalist the SNP.

That said, I've noticed that even the SNP have tempered their Euro message as a result of obvious anti-European sentiment even in apparently Europhile Scotland.

"I don't kid myself we love the EU any more than anyone else," conceded SNP MEP Alyn Smith, while towards the end of last week I heard SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing make a point of saying that her party "was not uncritical of Europe, far from it". Mr Salmond even told GQ magazine he admired the leader of Ukip, and anyone who has met Nigel Farage will be aware the feeling is mutual.

Given the SNP's generally effective big-tent strategy of being all things to all men, this change in tone makes sense, just as senior Nationalists repeatedly make clear they'd seek to retain various EU opt-outs negotiated by Tory and Labour governments of which they otherwise disapprove.

Facing two ways on Europe, as in so many other areas, has suited the SNP thus far and they will see no reason to change their approach as referendum day approaches.

And although Europe initially produced its share of difficulties for the First Minister, the Scottish Government's main argument - that an independent Scotland would be admitted to the EU - appears much stronger, largely because Jose Manuel Barroso and others went too far in stating the contrary.

Although to an extent a straw man (few had actually argued it would be expelled), this has masked continuing weaknesses when it comes to the terms and conditions of membership. The same could be said of the mooted currency union: a victory on the main point if not the detail.

The SNP also remain refuseniks when it comes to an in/out referendum on EU membership, which is self-evidently the best way to resolve the issue no matter which position you approach it from.

It's never been entirely clear why the Scottish Government believes one referendum (on independence) is a good idea and the other bad, particularly when about one-third of Scots support withdrawal from both unions.

And therein lies another important reality. Both the Ukip and SNP visions of restored sovereignty are, in an increasingly globalised world, largely quixotic. Just as a UK outside the EU would remain, as is the case with Norway and Switzerland, subject to EU strictures, so too would an independent Scotland in a currency and energy union with the rUK.

Nationalists often claim independence would restore a relationship of equality between Scotland and England and Scotland and the other EU member states but that, too, would be more theoretical and real.

As demonstrated by Denmark and Ireland, compelled to rerun referendums in order to achieve "the right result", a small, ostensibly independent, nation on the fringes of Europe will never have as much clout as larger, longer-standing members such as Germany and France. Small isn't necessarily beautiful.

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