With just over 18 months to go until the UK leaves the European Union, the Brexit debate in Scotland is remarkably muted. Scotland – like Northern Ireland – voted to remain in the EU in 2016. But while London’s mayor Sadiq Khan called this summer for the UK to think again and stay in the EU, Scotland’s politicians are more likely to be heard calling for a ‘soft’ Brexit rather than a halt to Brexit. Over 60 leading Scottish civil society figures did call, in an open letter this summer, for a halt to Brexit but there were no MPs, and just two MEPs on the list.
Before the EU referendum, many pundits – not least in London – could be heard predicting that Scotland would head rapidly towards a second independence referendum in the event of a ‘leave’ vote – one that would probably result in a ‘yes’ to independence. Instead, despite a 62% ‘remain’ vote in Scotland to 38% ‘leave’, the Scottish public has remained divided on independence, with the ‘no’ side mostly ahead in a range of polls this year.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, having called for a second independence referendum in March in the face of Theresa May’s imminent triggering of Article 50, then backed off after the SNP’s weaker – if still strong – performance in the June general election. Overall, there appears to have been no ‘Brexit bounce’ for independence, and any future independence referendum looks for now as if it may be after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 rather than before.
The chance for Scotland to stay seamlessly in the EU as an independent state have already gone, assuming the UK does leave in March 2019. Even if a second independence referendum were held in 2018 that wouldn’t give enough time for Scotland to go independent before the UK left the EU – though it might give time to arrange some form of ‘special deal’ for Scotland to aid its transition to independence in the EU. But for now, a 2018 second independence referendum is not on the cards.
Brexit Caution in a Pro-EU Country
The current low-key approach to Brexit in Scotland reflects a range of political issues linked in particular to independence but also linked to strong anti-austerity views in Scotland. In summer 2016, first responses in Scotland to the Brexit vote in England and Wales (which meant a Brexit choice for the UK as a whole) were not low key. Nicole Sturgeon flew to Brussels and met European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Within a week of the vote, the Scottish parliament voted 92-0 to support a resolution calling for Scotland to stay in the EU or in the single market – with only the Tories abstaining. And some polls, in those first few weeks, showed a Brexit bounce for independence, with a couple of polls putting the ‘yes’ side ahead.
But the debate in Scotland soon turned towards the question of staying in the EU’s single market. And it took until December 2016 for the Scottish government to produce its paper setting out its argument as to how Scotland could stay in both the UK and the EU’s single market, even while the rest of the UK was outside the single market. Sturgeon presented this as a compromise offer to the UK government. But Theresa May and David Davis were not interested – and formally rejected the proposal in March.
More broadly, the Scottish government has called for the UK as a whole to stay in both the EU’s single market and the customs union, with SNP MPs at Westminster liaising with Labour rebels and LibDem and Green MPs on how to push for such a ‘soft’ Brexit. Of course, since the UK government is insisting (despite its August customs union paper) that it will run an independent trade policy and that it will not stay in the single market, a hard Brexit remains on the cards.
But even staying in the EU’s single market (but not the customs union) would impose costs and frictions at borders – while the UK government hard Brexit stance is already leading to firms moving staff and activities to the EU27. And a Norway-style soft Brexit would impose major democratic costs on the UK – with no vote and little influence over future EU regulations that the UK would have to follow.
So why is the Scottish government not being heard strongly demanding that the UK as a whole think again on Brexit, as the economic and political damage mounts? And why too is it not, in the face of current and likely future Brexit damage to Scotland, pushing strongly for independence in the EU – which remains SNP policy? Equally, where are Scottish Labour and LibDem MPs demanding a halt to Brexit?
Scottish politicians, ironically given the pro-EU vote last year, are essentially in the mainstream of UK politics, accepting the ‘leave’ vote and treating Brexit as highly likely to happen. In their calls for a ‘soft’ Brexit, they are within the pan-UK spectrum of political voices arguing over the type of Brexit – even while the UK public remains equally split still over ‘remain’ and ‘leave’.
Yet there is a separate Scottish politics at play here too. Firstly, SNP politicians are loathe to be seen to be telling English and Welsh voters how to vote or that their referendum choice was not valid, and to call for a second EU referendum. Despite SNP support for a second independence referendum, they do not want to set a precedent that could in the future see English or Welsh voices call on Scottish voters to think again if they had just voted for independence.
This is, in many ways, a strange caution. In the run up to the 2016 vote, Sturgeon had argued that all four parts of the UK should have a veto on leaving the EU – something the UK government unsurprisingly rejected. And Scotland, for now, is indeed part of the UK and strongly affected by Brexit. But SNP politicians – like many Labour politicians across the UK – would only respond if UK (and English and Welsh) public opinion shifted strongly towards halting Brexit rather than giving a lead on that.
Nor has the SNP supported the LibDem call for a second EU referendum at the end of the Brexit talks, on the final deal (something the pro-independence Scottish Greens, like their English and Welsh counterparts, are sympathetic to). The SNP reasoning on this is clear: a bad Brexit deal may be the moment for a new push on a second independence referendum – blurring that by focusing on a second EU referendum could get in the way. Yet whether independent or not, Scotland will be strongly and negatively affected by the rest of the UK leaving the EU – just as Brexit already is, and will continue to be, damaging to Ireland’s economy. And, with a hard Brexit, an independent Scotland in the EU would face a new border between Scotland and England (something that might deter votes for independence).
There are other strong political forces at work too. One third of SNP supporters voted to leave the EU last year – wanting an independent Scotland outside the EU. Scotland’s 62% who voted ‘remain’ are roughly half in favour of independence, half not. A number of SNP and independence supporters are lukewarm on the EU from a left wing point of view not just a nationalist point of view – opposed to the eurozone’s neoliberal austerity policies, its perceived anti-interventionist industrial policies, concerned at EU fisheries policies. Some, as a result, prefer the idea of an independent Scotland in the European Economic Area, despite the attendant democratic deficit – others would reject even that.
The SNP, in its long-term drive for independence, has to try to keep both its pro-EU majority on board and its pro-EEA and/or anti-EU voters on board, while also attracting to a ‘yes’ vote some pro-EU former ‘no’ voters. It’s a complex mix and one that for now is resulting in the Scottish government putting its emphasis on a cautious ‘soft’ Brexit approach and on arguing, like Wales, for full devolution of EU powers in devolved areas back to Holyrood – and so opposing the Repeal Bill as it stands.
At UK level, Brexit politics within the government are increasingly chaotic, the UK cutting a weak and confused figure in talks with Brussels so far. If the chaos deepens along with growing negative impacts of Brexit in the coming 18 months, Scottish politics could change rapidly. Many pro-independence voices are arguing for a second independence referendum in three or four years – and many do not want an independence choice driven by Brexit. But if public opinion changes on independence, in the face of mounting chaos, calls for ‘indyref2’ could come back swiftly. But of course, calls for a second EU referendum might suddenly become much sharper too if public opinion changes on the EU across the UK in the face of the same chaos.
For now, Scotland’s cautious approach looks set to continue – muted on Brexit, long-term on independence. But, as the Brexit muddle unfolds, Scotland’s politics could change rapidly and sharply. The future is anything but certain.
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