Scotland's Brexit choices


Picture of Dr. Kirsty Hughes
Dr. Kirsty Hughes

Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on the European Union membership, Scotland voted ‘Remain’ by 62% to 38% ‒ with a remain majority across all 32 voting areas. More recent polls suggest support for staying in the Union has gone up further, even as high as 69% according to one poll.

Yet while London-based, pro-remain campaign groups are pushing for a ‘people’s vote’ on any Brexit deal – with the alternative being staying in the EU – Scottish political parties have been more noticeable by their absence than presence in this debate. This rather surprising anomaly has a number of roots.

All of Scotland’s main five political parties campaigned in 2016 for a ‘Remain’ vote – the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Greens (also pro-independence like the SNP), Labour, Conservatives and LibDem. UKIP – who played a key role in the vote in England and Wales – never had a foothold in Scotland, though there is currently one UKIP MEP amongst Scotland’s six MEPs.

Within a week of the vote in 2016, the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, in a rare moment of cross-party unity, voted 92-0 ‒ with the Tories abstaining ‒ to seek ways to keep Scotland in the EU and/or in its single market. But in the subsequent two years, that moment of pro-European togetherness has fractured.

Scotland voted ‘Remain’ by 62% to 38%

Scottish Labour and Conservatives have both gone along with Brexit, in line with their UK party leaders. The LibDems – in line with their UK party – have backed a ‘people’s vote’ on the deal, with the position that staying in the EU would likely be better than any possible Brexit deal.

The two pro-independence parties – the SNP and Greens – who together have a majority in the Scottish parliament have to some extent diverged on Brexit. Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie MSP has argued recently that Brexit is so damaging it is past time to call a halt. But while the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon – First Minister of Scotland – has said it would be better if Brexit were halted, she and her Brexit minister Michael Russell, have put much more emphasis on pushing for a ‘soft’ Brexit of staying in both the EU customs union and single market. This now looks difficult for them, after May’s Chequers meeting and shift towards a ‘softer’ Brexit – being close to May’s approach is not the SNP strategy.

Their other political priority has been to defend Scotland’s devolved powers from a post-Brexit ‘power grab’ by Westminster – with Holyrood passing its own ‘continuity’ bill in place of Westminster’s EU withdrawal bill, a stand-off that will come before the UK’s Supreme Court at the end of July.

As the increasingly shambolic Brexit process continues, it is quite surprising that the SNP – the third largest party at Westminster as well as in government in Scotland – is not demanding a halt to Brexit and/or a people’s vote. The main explanation for this lies in the way independence cuts across Brexit politics in Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon – First Minister of Scotland – has said it would be better if Brexit were halted

Support for independence has, overall, remained relatively steady in Scotland since the 2014 independence referendum, when 55% voted to stay in the UK against 45% for independence. But, crucially, at the time of the EU referendum, about a third of independence supporters voted for ‘Leave’. And in the last two years, there has, so far, been no real ‘Brexit bounce’ creating a majority for independence, though a majority in younger age groups certainly exists according to polls.

Recent polls suggest that there has now been more polarisation with ‘Leave’ voters more likely to be anti-independence, with only one in four pro-independence voters now supporting leaving. This might make it more pertinent for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to push to halt Brexit and/or to demand independence in the EU. But the politics of this is more complex.

When Theresa May called her early general election in mid-2017, not only did the Tories lose seats but the SNP also went down from their stunning 2015 result of 56 MPs to 35 MPs. Many saw this loss of seats as coming from Nicola Sturgeon’s call in March 2017 for another independence referendum given Brexit – a call that Theresa May successfully rebuffed. Some of the seats lost were in the North-East of Scotland where there were more ‘Leave’ voters and fishing communities who stand to benefit (unlike West coast fishermen) from any favourable shift in quotas to the UK.

Scotland (like Ireland) will be seriously negatively impacted in economic terms by a hard Brexit

The SNP has, therefore, been reluctant to alienate ‘Yes/Leave’ voters any further. This has left the two-thirds of voters who support ‘Rremain’ ‒ roughly equally split between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on independence ‒ without a strong anti-Brexit political voice. Ironically, this is similar to Labour’s supporters strong pro-remain views also not being represented by Jeremy Corbyn.

The SNP’s pro-independence stance also impacts on their Brexit position in other ways. The SNP has said it would not block a people’s vote on the Brexit deal but not come out to actively support it. The SNP is wary of setting a precedent whereby, if there were a ‘yes’ vote in a second independence referendum, their opponents might demand a further vote on the Scotland-UK divorce deal. For similar reasons, the SNP are reluctant to tell the English to think again and argue parties in England should give a lead to ‘Remain’ voters there.

This is, however, a very short-sighted policy – and a rather passive one. Scotland (like Ireland) will be seriously negatively impacted in economic terms by a hard Brexit – whether independent or not. Yet the Scottish government has chosen to let its independence concerns weaken its pro-EU stance. A strong Scottish call to halt Brexit and to have a further EU referendum could impact sharply onto UK politics. But for now, there is no sign of such a welcome development.

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