Neither Brexit nor independence: Scotland's strange election debate


Picture of Dr. Kirsty Hughes
Dr. Kirsty Hughes

Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe

After two terrorist attacks in the last two weeks of its general election, the UK heads to the polls this Thursday unsure how the vote will finally turn out. With the polls predicting anything from a hung parliament to a substantial increase in Prime Minister Theresa May’s majority, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is for now being labelled the political ‘winner’ of the election, with May’s negative ratings increasing as her poll lead has declined.

Will the SNP hold the balance of power at Westminster?

If it is a hung parliament, then attention will turn rather quickly to the third-largest party at Westminster, the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP are expected to lose between five and ten of the 56 seats they currently hold (out of a total of 59 in Scotland), though they would still have 46 MPs even if the worst-case likely scenario. The Tories in particular – but Labour and possibly even the LibDems – all look potentially set to increase their seat tally in Scotland from the one MP each they currently have (Labour having been Scotland’s dominant party until 2015).

But the polls still have the SNP on between 40% and 43% of the vote while, just as in England, different polls tell different stories for the Scottish Tory and Labour share of the vote (one suggesting they had levelled at 25% each, another putting the Tories on 30% and Labour on 18%).

Brexit has been the elephant in the room in the Scottish election debate

Where is the independence in the EU debate?

Apart from the unpredictability of the results, another curious dimension of Scotland’s election campaign has been the lack of debate over the SNP’s declared aim of independence in the European Union. Two weeks before Theresa May triggered Article 50, Nicola Sturgeon – Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader – had announced that in the face of Brexit she wanted a second independence referendum once the withdrawal deal was done in autumn 2018.

May responded “no, not now” to this request. The Tory leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, then chose to make her Scottish general election campaign all about saying ‘no’ to a second referendum. The stage was set it seemed for a big debate about Brexit with the UK or independence in the EU. But it hasn’t happened.

Nicola Sturgeon has said that having a majority of MPs in Scotland – along with being the largest party in the Scottish parliament and winning the local council elections early last month – would mean she has a ‘triple lock’ on her request for a second independence referendum. But she has also been keen to stress that the election is about electing SNP MPs to provide opposition at Westminster to Conservative austerity policies, benefit cuts and reductions in public service spending. This has been her main line of attack.

Sturgeon has also said that if she wins a majority of MPs (which she is bound to do) she will demand a seat at the Brexit negotiating table, and will again call for Scotland to be allowed to stay in the EU’s single market and the UK (as proposed last December in the Scottish government paper ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’). This is rather curious.

The UK government rejected Sturgeon’s proposal for a differentiated deal for Scotland (on the same day as they triggered Article 50). UK government Brexit Secretary David Davis wrote to his Scottish Government counterpart Mike Russell to say – without a hint of irony – that Scotland could not be in the UK and in the EU’s single market as it would create significant trade barriers between Scotland and England and ‘regulatory confusion’. It is also clear that Nicola Sturgeon would not agree with May’s approach to the Brexit talks (outside the EU single market and customs union) – yet she is putting the emphasis on these two demands: a seat at the table and a differentiated deal.

It appears that, despite taking the bold step of calling a second independence referendum in the face of Brexit, and coming down on the side of an independent Scotland being in the EU not the European Economic Area, Nicola Sturgeon does not want to debate these issues. As a result, with the Scottish Tories and Labour both doing well out of strongly opposing a second referendum, Sturgeon looks on the defensive.

If it is a hung parliament, the attention will turn rather quickly to the third-largest party at Westminster, the Scottish National Party

Where is the Brexit challenge?

Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader – and Labour’s leader Kezia Dugdale – have been allowed to argue against independence without being challenged on Scotland being part of the UK’s Brexit, and on all the associated costs and damage that the Brexit decision is already doing and will do even more in the near future. It is understandable that the SNP did not want the general election campaign to be run as if it is a referendum campaign – with arguments over what currency an independent Scotland would use, how it would fund its deficit, and what would happen to the England-Scotland border.

But the SNP had plenty of potential Brexit ammunition to use over the damage to living standards caused by the fall in the pound since 23 June, the slowdown in growth (with eurozone growth in the first quarter of 2017 two-and-a-half times that of the UK), the trade barriers that Brexit will reintroduce, security and more.

To put the focus instead on an anti-Tory, anti-austerity narrative and, when talking about Brexit, to prioritise the demand that Scotland should be in the UK and in the EU’s single market, suggests an SNP that is not on the front foot on independence in the EU.

In the rest of the UK both Labour and the Tories accept Brexit – and so it was pushed to the sidelines of election debates. In Scotland, there is clear blue water over Brexit between the Tories and Labour, on one side, and the SNP (and Scottish Greens) on the other.

Yet Brexit has been the elephant in the room in the Scottish election debate. And whether there will be a second independence referendum before 30 March 2019 is, for now, quite unclear. It is one more Brexit conundrum.

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