All of us need to start thinking about the EU referendum

It’s looking increasingly likely that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is going to take place sometime this year.

There’s been speculation recently that David Cameron may go for a vote as early as June, if he concludes his renegotiations with other European countries in February.

That means that all of us need to start thinking now about this very important issue.

I’ve said before that June would not be the right time to hold this referendum.

It would mean a campaign clash with the Scottish Parliament elections being held in May – as well as with those in Wales, Northern Ireland and London – and it is frankly disrespectful to voters to hold two important votes so close together.

But I’ve got a bigger concern with the current EU debate – that is the fact that the benefits of EU membership seem to be getting lost amongst the Prime Minister’s narrow points of renegotiation.

Right from the start, this entire process seems to have been more about David Cameron trying to heal splits within the Tory party, rather than any meaningful debate about our place in the EU.

The Tories have a long history of falling out with each other on this matter.

Margaret Thatcher alienated herself from her senior Cabinet members with her hostility to Europe – a running sore which eventually became a factor in her downfall.

And John Major’s entire premiership was overshadowed by the same issue – with the increasingly bitter splits ultimately helping to sweep the Tories from power.

So in that context, it’s maybe no surprise that David Cameron seems to be more interested in the future of the Tory party than the future of Europe.

But this short-sighted approach could jeopardise the outcome of the referendum.

Rather than focussing on the very narrow, technical points about his renegotiation package – which, frankly, very few people outside the political bubble are actually paying attention to – the Prime Minister, if he really wants the UK to stay in the EU, should be making a positive case.

The EU is not perfect, no one is saying it is – in many areas it is badly in need of reform. But in my view the benefits of EU membership outweigh these drawbacks.

It gives Scots businesses access to the single market of over half a billion people.

Our membership also encourages substantial investment in Scotland from companies who want access to that market. And that means jobs – thousands of jobs which would be put at risk by our withdrawal of the EU.

Scots students can study across the EU – a wonderful opportunity to broaden their horizons and improve their language skills.

And of course, we can all go on holiday – and, for those who want to, even retire abroad – with the minimum of fuss.

These benefits are worth shouting about – and SNP politicians will certainly be making this positive case over the next few months.

If you’d asked me six months ago what I thought the referendum result would be, I would have said I was pretty confident that the UK will vote to stay in the EU.

But given the direction of the debate, and although I am still confident that Scotland will vote to remain, I am less certain than I was about the result south of the border.

One thing is for sure though – it would be a democratic outrage if Scotland, or any nation in the UK, were to be dragged out of the EU against its will.

As things stand, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

A poll a couple of weeks ago showed that 65% of Scots favoured remaining in the EU – incidentally, that’s far higher than the percentage that voted to remain in the UK in 2014.

But such a strong ‘in’ vote here in Scotland would count for nothing if people in England voted to leave – even by a much narrower margin. In these circumstance, Scotland would be outvoted and heading for the EU exit door against our will.

This is certainly not a situation that I want to see happen, and I will be campaigning for the whole of the UK to vote to stay in.

I think it’s time the Prime Minister did likewise. Because just now, for someone who claims to support Britain’s membership of the EU, David Cameron frankly has a strange way of showing it.

He needs to raise his game, show a bit of real leadership and stop kowtowing to the Tory Euro-sceptics.