After the Brexit vote: Quo vadis, Scotland?

Birgit Bujard, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Online-Forschung e.V.

With the broader implications of the referendum still largely unclear, Scotland finds itself at a crossroads – it must now weigh its options wisely between its commitment to the EU on the one hand and the UK on the other. More than half a year after the Brexit vote, what are Scotland’s future prospects, particularly regarding independence?

While nationalism in England – particularly in the shape of the UK Independence Party – has been a key driving force in paving the way for the EU referendum which resulted in the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, nationalism in Scotland has taken a different form. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which supports independence and currently holds 54 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons, making it the third largest party at Westminster, is very much pro-European. Moreover, in Scotland there appears to be less opposition to immigration – one of the key issues in the EU referendum debate – than in other parts of the UK. These considerable differences show a divide in the politics and political cultures between Scotland and other regions of the UK.

Mapping the divide

When the British electorate voted for the UK to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, significant regional differences in voting behaviour became apparent. While voters in Wales and England in majority chose to support the leave side, voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted for the UK to remain part of the European Union. In Scotland, 62% of voters had backed Remain as opposed to 38 % who had voted for Britain to leave the EU. Remain led in all of Scotland’s 32 council areas.

This was different from the outcome of the previous referendum on membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975, when the Western Isles and Shetland had been the only UK local authority areas in which a majority voted to leave. Then, 58 % of Scottish voters had voted to remain in the EEC, which was lower than the UK-wide average of 67 %. In the 2016 EU referendum, Scotland voted to remain in the EU despite the same forces being at play as they were in England and Wales, e.g. social divisions along the lines of age and education. However, in Scotland, where UKIP has little impact and where a pro-European SNP has become the dominant party in the political system, views that encouraged English and Welsh voters to support leaving the EU had less impact.

EU membership is seen as strengthening the credibility of Scotland’s case for independence and is not considered as a restriction on its sovereignty

This difference in voting behaviour in the EU referendum has very much to do with a different framing of the EU north and south of the border in the UK. In the 1970s, Scottish voters were not enthusiastic about European integration, but while England became more sceptical over the years, Scotland grew more supportive. This change was fostered by several factors, i.e. local authorities in Scotland found the European Commission more receptive to its interests than the government in Westminster. The Scottish Trade Union Congress saw the European Community as supporting trade union rights. There were also shifts in Labour Party and Scottish National Party thinking towards supporting European integration. Margaret Thatcher’s growing scepticism with regard to European integration supported this trend. Years later, UKIP was perceived as a blunter version of her English nationalism and therefore failed to gain significant support in Scotland. In 1975, the SNP had campaigned for a no vote, but since the late 1980s, the party has argued that Scotland should be independent in Europe. Thus, EU membership is seen as strengthening the credibility of Scotland’s case for independence and is not considered as a restriction on its sovereignty. Yet this view is not shared by all supporters of the SNP as there are nationalists who do view EU membership as an encroachment on Scotland’s sovereignty.

Scottish independence – another referendum on the horizon?

The outcome of the 2016 EU referendum brought the issue of how Scotland should be governed back onto the political agenda. Immediately after the EU referendum, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that another independence referendum was ‘on the table’. (Yet Scotland does not have the power to call an independence referendum. It needs the consent of the UK government.) The SNP government had been re-elected in May 2016 on the basis of a manifesto which stated that ‘if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’ it would be acceptable for the Scottish Parliament to propose a second referendum on independence. In the 2014 referendum, 45 % of the voters had supported Scottish independence while 55 % had opposed it.

The pro-EU referendum result in Scotland reflected a unique consensus amongst the political parties in Scotland that EU membership is important for the country

After the June EU referendum, the SNP government furthermore announced that in light of the vote of the Scottish people, it would explore options for Scotland to remain in the EU if the rest of the UK left. The pro-EU referendum result in Scotland also reflected a unique consensus amongst the political parties in Scotland that EU membership is important for the country. Following the referendum, the Scottish Parliament gave First Minister Sturgeon a mandate to hold direct talks with European institutions and the UK government to seek to protect Scotland’s place in the EU. While Sturgeon’s meetings with the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz immediately after the referendum were cordial, both EU politicians made clear that the EU would not be drawn into separate talks on Scotland’s future without the UK.

Public support for Scottish independence had on average not receded significantly after the 2014 referendum, but supporters of independence remained in a minority. In the 2016 polls leading up to the EU referendum, on average 47 % of respondents supported independence. Polls conducted immediately after the EU referendum showed a rise in support for independence but numbers were still well short of the 60 % threshold the SNP had set itself to be reached before calling another referendum on Scottish independence. Moreover, polls conducted with a larger distance to the EU referendum showed that the Brexit vote of June 2016 was not a game-changer and has made little difference to the balance of opinion on Scottish independence: There was no lasting swing in either direction. In the Scottish Parliament, however, there is currently a pro-independence majority consisting of the SNP and the Scottish Greens. But Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party all oppose a second independence referendum. With time, Nicola Sturgeon appeared to modify her position. In October 2016, she announced that her government intended to hold a second independence referendum in the case of a ‘hard’ Brexit and the Scottish government published a draft referendum bill for consultation. Later, Scotland’s first minister said that her party was looking to work with other parties to avoid a hard Brexit and would present its own proposals as to how Scotland could remain in the single market even if the UK left.

Scotland’s place in Europe

Half a year after the EU referendum, in December 2016, the Scottish government published its plan on ‘Scotland’s place in Europe’. It argues that the second best option – short of EU membership – is for Britain to stay in the European Single Market through the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and also in the EU Customs Union. However, should the UK leave the single market and the customs union, the plan calls for Scotland to remain within the single market. Moreover, the Scottish Parliament should have the necessary powers to facilitate pan-European links in areas such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus and Europol. Thus, the plan proposes a ‘flexible’ Brexit.

The fact that Britain will leave the EU should not lead to a greater concentration of powers in the central government

In line with what was perceived as the UK government’s intention to achieve special deals for certain sectors of the economy, the plan envisages different strategies for different nations and regions with regard to their relationship with the EU in the future. From the Scottish point of view, the fact that Britain will leave the EU should not lead to a greater concentration of powers in the central government. Powers returning from Brussels, which have already been within the Scottish Parliament’s current responsibilities, such as fisheries and agriculture, should instead remain fully devolved. The plan proposes that the division of powers between the Scottish and the Westminster Parliament should be reconsidered in light of the change that would come about in the UK’s constitutional settlement due to its exit from the EU. The SNP government further demands that, if it will not be possible to keep Scotland in the single market, the authority on the protection of citizens’ and workers’ rights in Scotland should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. It argues that the UK government outside of the single market would be under less pressure to uphold existing standards of protection currently available under European Single Market rules. The Scottish government also opposes a limit on the free movement of people which it considers to be damaging to the Scottish economy. In its plan, it instead calls for a more flexible approach to immigration for the different UK regions, which would allow Scotland to pursue its own distinctive approach to immigration. In early January 2017, Nicola Sturgeon signalled that she would put a second independence referendum on hold in favour of a soft Brexit compromise with the UK government, which would see Britain remain a member of the European Single Market.

An uncertain road ahead

The SNP government’s plan for a flexible Brexit faces several obstacles, mainly the question if the UK government supports it. While Theresa May after her first visit to Scotland upon becoming prime minister initially argued that a UK-wide approach had to be found, her rhetoric hardened, particularly around the time of the Conservative Party conference in October 2016, when she suggested that her government alone would negotiate Brexit without interference from other administrations. She rebuffed Sturgeon’s calls for a differentiated solution by saying that there would be no opt-out from Brexit. Subsequent actions on the part of the central government, i.e. the creation of its Brexit cabinet committee without permanent representation for the devolved administrations, did not help either to give the impression that the May government was particularly interested in including the British regions in the further deliberations on Brexit. In January 2017, Prime Minister May set out her view of Britain’s future relationship with the EU in a speech in London, which included leaving the European Single Market as well as the EU Customs Union. Instead she called for a free-trade deal and some kind of customs agreement with the EU. This in turn prompted Nicola Sturgeon to reiterate the likelihood of another independence referendum in Scotland – albeit without mentioning a time frame for it. In accordance with existing devolution legislation, relations with the EU are a matter for the UK government. According to the traditional Westminster perspective, this means that the devolved regions do not have any say on this but might be consulted out of courtesy. But taking Britain out of the European Union is not merely a foreign policy decision, as it will also affect matters such as agriculture and fisheries. Moreover, according to the ‘legislative consent’ (Sewel) convention, Westminster normally does not legislate on devolved matters or alter the powers of the devolved bodies without their consent. After the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, the unionist parties agreed to include this provision in the Scotland Act of 2016, giving it legal standing for the first time. However, with regard to triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty in order to start the exit process from the EU, the UK Supreme Court in late January 2017 ruled that the UK central government was not legally obligated to consult the devolved administrations on it.

With regard to the European Union, it has to be remembered that it is a union of states and the European Single Market an association of states. To give Scotland a special status in the EU would require the European Union to make exceptional concessions on an issue of principle to permit a member state to be partly in and partly out of the EU. This would be very different from the often mentioned example of Greenland and Denmark, where the larger part of the state is an EU member and the smaller is not. This would not be the case with Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Spanish government, for instance, has already dismissed the Scottish government’s proposals in light of secessionist movements in its own country.

The UK central government will have to find some kind of compromise with the Scottish administration over the UK’s future relationship with the European Union

While it is questionable whether Scotland will be able to remain in the single market after Britain leaves the EU, pressure from Scotland on the UK government for more devolution and federalism as a result of the Brexit vote does not only emanate from the SNP. In December 2016, for instance, the leader of the Scottish Labour party Kezia Dugdale called for a transformation of Britain into a federal state with Scotland taking control over fisheries, agriculture and employment rights, which are currently covered by EU law, but will be repatriated once Britain leaves the EU. The Brexit vote has shown that the question of Scotland’s future governance can be expected to pose a problem that the government in London will have to address. The UK central government will have to find some kind of compromise with the Scottish administration over the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. Yet, though the Scottish public might be more pro-European than their counterparts in England and Wales as the outcome of last year’s EU referendum has shown, judging by opinion polls conducted in the last few months, the majority of Scottish citizens – at least at this point in time – do not appear to see membership of the European Union as so important that it would be worth for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom for it. While Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will not want to call an independence referendum she does not feel confident she can win, she and her government will continue to oppose the Tory government’s plan for a ‘hard’ Brexit. Moreover, in the long term the UK central government’s non-inclusive policy on this issue might foster further anti-Westminster sentiment north the UK border and increase divisions between London and Scotland.

Birgit Bujard is managing director of the German Society for Online Research.