Referendum to deepen Anglo-Scottish political gap
English and Scottish views on staying in European Union are increasingly at odds
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon: The SNP leader is among the most vocal proponents of the EU. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
When the UK last held a referendum on Europe in 1975, more than two-thirds of English voters wanted to remain in the then European Community. Support among Scots was more muted; while a majority voted in favour, Shetland and the Western Isles were the only places in Britain to advocate leaving.
Four decades on, political roles have reversed. In England voters – and politicians – are deeply divided over the European Union. North of the border, however, the consensus is firmly Europhilic: polls suggest well over 60 per cent of Scots will opt to stay in the EU. Every major political party is solidly against Brexit.
Back in 1975, the Scottish National Party campaigned vigorously for withdrawal, warning that the European Community could strike “a death blow to our very existence as a nation”. This time SNP leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon is among the most vocal proponents of the EU. Even the Scottish Tories are almost uniformly pro-European, in contrast to their Westminster counterparts.
If the EU is the hot topic in English politics, ambivalence is the overriding mood with the public in Scotland ahead of June’s poll. Where Europe has long been the bête noire of a significant part of the English electorate, it has rarely been a priority in Scotland – even with those who want to leave.
“This obsession with sovereignty, you don’t find that in Scotland,” says Michael Keating, professor of politics at Edinburgh University. “Even Eurosceptics in Scotland don’t obsess about Europe. The issue is just not that salient. It is not nearly as polarised.”
The overriding air of detachment is explained by geography and politics. From the devolved Edinburgh parliament – never mind hundreds of miles north in the islands – Brussels can feel very distant.
The fear of Eurocrat encroachment often voiced in England’s leafy Home Counties is generally absent from Scottish debate.
Distance is not the only factor. As with much else in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, in Scotland the EU is increasingly seen through the prism of constitutional politics. Many nationalists point to widespread pro-European sentiment as symptomatic of broader political differences with their English neighbours.
“Almost every issue in Scottish politics is filtered through the national question, so when we debate our relationship to Europe, what we are really debating is our relationship to London and the rest of the UK,” says Jamie Maxwell, press officer with Rise, a left-wing pro-independence group.
Brexit struggles for coverage against the backdrop of May’s Scottish parliament elections, which the SNP is widely expected to win. The debate focus on overtly English concerns has further dampened Scottish voters.
“Scots may be less than enthusiastic about the June referendum because the dominant voices on both the ‘In’ side and the ‘Out’ side are English and right wing. The Tory government, backed by British big business, supports ‘In’. The Tory right, Ukip, and the tabloid press support ‘Out’. These are not voices that are likely to resonate with Scottish voters,” says Maxwell.
The anti-EU coalition in Scotland has been hindered by a lack of unity. The Scottish branch of Ukip is riven by infighting and splits. Former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars – who previously campaigned for “independence in Europe” – is practically the only high-profile nationalist advocating an “Out” vote. Former Scottish Labour MP Tom Harris is heading the official “Leave” campaign but party leader Kezia Dugdale is strongly in favour of remaining.
Nevertheless, polls suggest as many as 35 per cent of Scots will vote to leave. Journalist and author David Torrance highlights a “democratic deficit” between voters and the country’s political classes.
Even if Scots vote overwhelmingly in favour of the EU, the result could have huge implications for Scotland’s political future – particularly if England votes to leave. “The first scenario is that all four nations of the UK vote to withdraw; this seems unlikely given the Scottish figures. The second is that England votes to come out and Scotland to stay in. The weight of English votes means that Scotland has to leave the EU against its will.
“This represents the material change of circumstances that the SNP has stated as a reason for a new independence referendum on the slogan of Scotland in Europe,” says Keating.
Polls suggest the SNP could win an independence vote if the UK left the EU. But with questions around currency and economics still unresolved, there is limited appetite for another run so soon among the SNP hierarchy.
Even if nationalists were able to win on a platform of independence within the EU, with England outside the union, the Anglo-Scottish border would become a hard EU frontier – which neither government would want.
Conversely, if Scottish votes to stay in the EU were enough to overturn a slender English “Leave” majority, support for nationalism south of the border could surge.
Brexit might not presage the rapid break-up of Britain, but it would create radical constitutional change within the UK’s devolved structures. Much control of Scottish affairs currently held in Brussels – including fisheries and agriculture – would be transferred to Edinburgh, not London.
A nationalist-dominated Scottish parliament could still choose to follow EU rules and legislative changes, even if formally outside the union.
“If Scotland wanted to continue playing the European game, they could shadow Brussels rather than London even from outside the EU,” says Keating.
The most likely outcome is still a unanimous UK vote to remain, but the orthodox pro-EU view in Scotland of a social Europe is increasingly at odds with the vision propounded by David Cameron.
Even if Scotland and England vote the same way on June 23rd, the Brexit referendum is more likely to deepen the political gap across both sides of the border than to mend bridges between London and Edinburgh.