Scottish politicians back EU but public weary of Brexit opinion polls

Sheer voter fatigue is only one reason the referendum has failed to catch fire

Stronger In volunteers hand out leaflets in Buchanan Street in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Stronger In volunteers hand out leaflets in Buchanan Street in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

 

Scotland does not look like a country about to make an historic decision on its future. With just a week to go, the European Union referendum campaign is conspicuous by its very absence north of the border.

Some Remain posters hanging from the window of a Glasgow tenement are notable for their rarity: the same applies for Vote Leave banner draped from a gable end in Stornoway on Lewis.

Scotland was awash in political colour ahead of its independence referendum in September 2014. This time engagement by the public is meagre, at best, despite the vote’s importance.

Scottish voters are widely expected to back Remain by a significant margin, but how many turn out is less certain. “I normally vote, but I’m not sure I’ll bother this time around,” say many Scots in so many words.

The most obvious reason for this collective disengagement is simple voter fatigue. The Scottish Parliament elections, which returned the Scottish National Party (SNP) to power for a third consecutive term, only took place last month.

Even the most committed Scottish democrat is struggling to muster enthusiasm for yet another ballot, having been asked to vote in half a dozen national elections and referendums since 2010 – and that’s not even counting council contests.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been prominent in the UK-wide Remain campaign. Earlier this week she clashed with Conservative Brexiter Michael Gove over claims that Scotland would gain new powers over immigration if Britain left.

On the ground, however, and despite their still-evident popularity, the Scottish nationalists have seemingly struggled to make an engaging case for staying in the EU.

Still, lethargy does not tell the full story. To many Scots, the European Union feels like a quintessentially English obsession. Even among Scots who want to leave, the EU is seldom a salient issue.

The referendum is a product of Conservative infighting and David Cameron’s need to placate the Tory right, and this constituency barely exists north of the border.

While Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson did stage a recovery in last month’s Scottish parliamentary elections (finishing second behind the SNP), the Conservatives won barely a fifth of the vote.

Little colour

England

Immigration is needed to replace an aging workforce. Meanwhile, Brussels and its putative legion of faceless bureaucrats feel a lot further away from Edinburgh than it does from the southeast of England.

The general thrust of the Leave campaign has limited purchase in Scotland.

Boris Johnson and other Brexiters depict an “out” vote as the first step in “making Britain great again”. But such Empire-laden appeals are at odds with a Scotland that displays an increasingly ambivalent relationship to its colonial history. There is little talk of the merits of replacing Brussels with the Commonwealth.

Calls to return powers might have an intrinsic appeal to English voters, for whom Westminster is the sole political locus.But Scotland is used to juggling competencies between London and Edinburgh.

Ironically, given the SNP’s fervent support for a Remain vote, leaving the EU would see a raft of new powers transferred to the Scottish parliament. But that is a result no nationalist politician welcomes, at least not publicly.

Scotland’s political class has been nearly unanimous in advocating staying part of the European Union. In a debate in Holyrood last month, all but a handful of rogue Labour and Tory members backed Remain.

Fiona Hyslop, the minority SNP government’s secretary for external affairs, called on advocates of Leave to “cease their smears, speculation and downright ludicrous arguments”.

On the opposition benches, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said there is “something beautiful about being part of this European family”.

Behind the platitudes, however, Scottish politicians of all stripes have been noticeably timorous in making the case for continued European Union membership.

Alex Salmond, the demob- happy former first minister, has been the most conspicuous Scottish voice in the Remain campaign. But Salmond, now SNP spokesperson for foreign affairs at Westminster, is not the force he once was north of the border.

Nevertheless, the EU referendum result could have huge implications, for Scotland and the union.

A vote to leave would reopen the issue of Scottish independence. Polls suggest the nationalists could win if the UK voted for Brexit. However, questions around currency and economics that dogged the 2014 referendum are still unresolved, ensuring a limited appetite among the SNP hierarchy for another run so soon.

Hard border

Almost as threatening for the future of the union would be Scottish support for the EU overturning a narrow Leave majority, and thus keeping the UK in. In such a scenario, English nationalism south of the border – already on the rise – could surge.

The EU referendum has failed to set the heather alight, but the vote could still have far-reaching consequences for Scotland. Whether or not that is enough to motivate voters to go to the polls will have a significant bearing on the result – for Scotland as well as the whole of the UK.