The Tories may reject Europe, but Scotland has its own ideas

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If Britain left Europe, would Scotland leave Britain? With all eyes on Westminster, as the Conservative Party agonises over Britain's future in Europe, this is not a question that has been seriously put. And yet the first departure might well lead to a second. It begins to look as if we can no longer have one Union without the other.

For a growing number of Tories, the last hope of winning the next election is to run on an aggressively nationalist manifesto. They would reject the common currency, and present Labour as the party that would sell out Britain's independence and sovereignty. The Prime Minister appears to think, as Andrew Marr put it in Wednesday's Independent, that "if he wins the election he can steer the party back to a pragmatic, mild pro- Europeanism". But to give way to the Europhobes on EMU would open the floodgates to an irresistible backbench, grassroots onrush against British membership of a "federalist" European Union.

The stunting of Britain that would follow - a fetid chauvinism in politics, a sagging away into economic stagnation - is one prospect. But there's another prospect: a split within the structure of the United Kingdom. One of the curious things about the European Union is how differently it is valued - in different places. These are variations not just between member states, but between parts and regions of states. Bavaria is only modestly keen on the EU, while Rheinland-Pfalz is wildly enthusiastic. It's the same story in Britain.

In recent years, Scotland has started a discreet love affair with Europe. Maastricht and the moves towards political union, disapproved of by the English, only gave the affair more spice for the Scots. And as time passes, this relationship grows richer, fonder and harder to contemplate breaking off. It is about development and about business, but it also has an alluring political flavour which the Scots have no mind to resist. "As a small European nation..." has become the cliche opening of countless speeches and articles north of the Border. The Scottish National Party long ago adopted the slogan of "Independence in Europe". But the notion that Scotland's national identity may be more at home in Europe than in the United Kingdom has spread far beyond political nationalists.

As an integral part of the British state, Scotland has no separate representation in the Council of Ministers or on the Commission, and only eight members in the European Parliament. But a thick web of informal presence has been spun in Brussels. "Scotland Europa", established in 1992, is an umbrella organisation pushing and representing Scottish interests. It now has 60 members, some with office space on the premises, from the Scottish Whisky Association to the Scottish TUC and Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities: the most powerful body in Scotland next to the Scottish Office).

The publication "Jock Tamson's Bairns", issued by Scottish Enterprise, is an intriguing directory to Scots involved in Europe, whether in the woodwork of EU institutions such as the Commission or free-floating business people, journalists or simply influential fellow-countrymen. A typical figure in this network is Rosemary McKenna, a North Lanarkshire councillor (Labour) who is a past president of Cosla, chairperson of Scotland Europa, a member of the European Committee of the Regions and a board member of Scottish Enterprise (the old Scottish Development Agency).

There are many such networks and lobbies in Brussels. The German Lander (states) have offices so opulent that they are almost embassies. But Scotland outclasses the lobbies of other parts of the UK. David Martin, Labour MEP for the Lothians, is vice-president of the European Parliament and guides its regional policies. Charles Gray, once Scotland's most powerful local politician as Labour's leader of Strathclyde region, is vice-president of the Committee of the Regions. Winnie Ewing (SNP), MEP for the Highlands and Islands, is still "Madame Ecosse" and the Strasbourg parliament's longest-serving member.

All this adds up to a stake in Europe that is about power and politics as well as money. It is mostly a Labour stake, held by the party that currently scores 53 per cent in the opinion polls and dominates local government. The SNP has its people here and there in the Scottish web at Brussels, but the Tories, who officially govern Scotland, are invisible. Denied the power it would wield through a parliament in Edinburgh, Scottish Labour finds growing compensations in Europe.

Scotland certainly does well out of European money. Of the pounds 1.8bn that Britain gets annually from the "structural funds" ( regional and social), Scotland gets about pounds 200m - more than proportionate to population. The Scottish Office distributes pounds 400m in EU grants for agriculture, environment and fisheries. But the European relationship is active as well as passive; Scotland sends 55 per cent of its exports to the EU, and builds one personal computer out of every three used there.

A MORI poll taken two years ago showed up the gap between English and Scottish perceptions of Europe. In Scotland, 45 per cent thought British membership was "a good thing", against only 37 per cent in the UK as a whole; the net majority of approvers over disapprovers was 27 per cent in Scotland, but only 11 per cent in the UK. Almost one Scot in four felt better off because of EU membership, against 14 per cent overall. The Scottish answer to the "good thing" question was almost exactly the same as the answer polled in Germany.

Public awareness of the European dimension is harder to assess. But few people in Scotland are ignorant about the inflow of European funding. It is placarded on the sites of new roads and bridges, pinned on the noticeboards of university departments, inscribed over the entries of rebuilt tenements, advertised in the farming pages of every rural weekly paper. Europe is where renewal comes from. It is where you go to raise cash and - when Westminster seems deaf - to find ears open to Scotland's complaints and needs.

Talking to Scottish professionals, I find that they are well aware of the EU's vices. Like their English colleagues, they growl about the "democratic deficit" of an unaccountable bureaucracy and a weak European Parliament. But their rant stops short of the frantic hostility common in southern England. The image of a German-led empire bent on destroying British liberties, from the sovereign Parliament to the curly banana, seems far-fetched in Scotland.

So what will happen if a Europhobe Tory government is returned at the next election and begins to back out of Europe? Scotland's love affair with Brussels is, I think, irreversible. It is not just the vested interest in Europe of corporate Scotland and its entrepreneurial class that would be at stake. It is also the sense that, for the first time since the 1707 Union, the Scots are dealing directly with the outside world without the mediation of London.

That Union with England worked, especially in the last century, because it gave a poor and peripheral Scotland access to global opportunity through the British Empire. If the Union now comes to mean a retreat into insularity and a severing of Scotland's links with Europe, it will have betrayed its ancient, underlying bargain. But the Scots will never make Little Englanders, and the Union would not long survive that betrayal.