Many of those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU are already waving the Union Jack. Metaphorically in most, though not all, cases. David Davis, the backbench Conservative MP who is surely doing more to frustrate David Cameron than the official leader of the opposition, wrote on his website that he backs Brexit so that ‘the United Kingdom, the first great liberal democracy of the modern era…can recover control of her own destiny’. UKIP leader Nigel Farage asserted at a ‘Grassroots Out’ rally in Manchester earlier this month that ‘we want our country back’, and implored other politicians to put ‘country before party’. Daniel Hannan, the influential Conservative MEP, has described Britain leaving the EU as our independence day, whilst UKIP stood at the last general election under the banner of ‘Believe in Britain’.
There is however a problem with pro-Brexit politicians appealing to British patriotism. More than a problem in fact, almost a contradiction. The objection is this, if Britain does vote to leave the EU, there’s a good chance that Scotland will respond by voting to leave the UK. In short, Brexit threatens Britain as a political entity, and the logical position for a British patriot to take, at least for the time being, is to back Britain’s continued membership of the EU. As a result Brexit campaigners don’t own the Union Jack, the flag of the country then could end up fracturing. On the contrary it would make more sense if they waved just about any other piece of cloth. An old tea towel perhaps, or the flag of Mauritania, but not the Union Jack.
On 18 September 2014 the Scottish people voted, by 55.3% to 44.7%, that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. A significant, though far from overwhelming, victory for the unionist position. But the Scottish independence question didn’t go away. In the May 2015 General Election the SNP took 50% of the Scottish vote, whilst the unionist vote was split three ways between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. As a result, assisted by Westminster’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the SNP secured 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. In September 2014 Alex Salmond described Scottish independence as a ‘once in a generation, perhaps even once in a lifetime, opportunity’. Since then the SNP have changed their tune. At the SNP’s 2015 conference in Aberdeen the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, made it clear that she would support a second referendum if she was confident of winning it, and has refused to rule out holding one during the next Scottish Parliament.
The SNP need a grievance, to strengthen nationalist opinion and justify holding a second referendum so soon after the first. I doubt they care what the grievance is. If they though Leicester City winning the Premier League would persuade Scots to vote for independence they would doubtless denounce it as an ‘insult to Scotland’, and call a second referendum. In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, so the SNP abhor an unexploited grievance. When legislation was passed in October last year, to introduce an additional stage in the passage of legislation which only applies to England, where it would be examined in Committee by only English MP’s, the SNP erupted in faux outrage. Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, described the change as a ‘Slap in the face to Scots voters which they are unlikely to forget’. Thus far there is no sign that Scottish voters agree. The change has now come into effect, and few people in England, let alone Scotland, seem to have noticed.
Brexit though would be different. Scotland might not be overwhelmingly pro-EU, but it is significantly more so than England or Wales. A Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times and Heart FM, conducted between January 8-14, found that 65% of Scots want to stay in the EU, and only 35% want to leave. The national polls are far closer. Moreover, the gap between Scottish and national polls may well widen further during the referendum campaign. Almost all of the major figures in Scottish politics, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, look like they will back remaining in the EU. By contrast in England and Northern Ireland Wales serious political figures are already backing Brexit. In addition UKIP has a serious presence in England and Wales, giving the ‘Out’ campaign a strong grassroots network to draw on. UKIP in Scotland on the other hand, despite having one MEP, is not a serious political force. The ‘Out’ campaign in Scotland, to put it bluntly, is likely to be short in terms of both leaders and foot soldiers.
The SNP leadership have made it clear that, if Scotland votes to remain in the EU but the UK as a whole votes to leave, they will see this as justification for a second referendum. At the SNP’s 2015 conference Sturgeon described this eventuality as ‘breaching the terms of last year’s vote’ in which case ‘you may well find that demand for a second independence referendum is unstoppable’. This would be reasonable. If the UK votes to leave the EU it would become a very different country, for better or worse, than the one Scotland voted to remain part of in 2014. And if there was a second independence referendum under these circumstances, the nationalists would have a pretty good chance of winning it. The Panelbase poll mentioned earlier, carried out in January of this year, found that 47% of the Scottish electorate back independence. However in the event of the UK leaving the EU this rises to 52%. Thus Brexit would both provide the SNP with legitimate grounds for holding a second referendum so soon after the 2014 poll, and improve their chances of success.
One of the main reasons why the nationalists lost the 2014 referendum was the uncertainty associated with independence. The SNP couldn’t conclusively answer a number of key questions, such as on Scotland’s currency and status within the EU, in the event of a yes vote. As a result most Scot’s chose the status-quo. However if we vote to leave the EU the status-quo won’t be an option. The various pro-Brexit campaigns can’t even agree with each other what the UK’s relationship would be with the EU, and indeed with our other trading partners, in the event of Brexit. It would also give Scottish independence campaigners a more compelling vision. They would be able to advocate an internationalist, outward looking and business friendly Scotland benefiting from being an English speaking country with full access to European markets, and good relations with other European countries. That’s pretty much what Scotland has at the moment, as a result of being part of the UK and of the UK being part of the EU. Clearly Brexit could threaten this, and push middle-class and moderate Scot’s, unimpressed by Sturgeon’s social-democratic rhetoric, towards voting for independence.
Other European leaders would also be less hostile towards Scottish independence in the event of Brexit. Most, and perhaps all, EU leaders were clearly backing the ‘no’ campaign in 2014, and it was made clear that Scotland couldn’t expect any favours if she voted to leave the UK and then reapplied for EU membership. As a result, to get into the EU, Scotland would probably have had to commit to join the Euro and the Schengen zone. My strong suspicion is that if the UK votes to leave the EU, and Scotland then votes to leave the UK, Scotland will be offered Eurozone and Schengen opt-outs as part of her EU membership. EU leaders will feel they owe the UK Government no favours, on the contrary there will surely be a level of antagonism towards the UK, and their fear of encouraging separatism movements in other European countries will be reduced, as they will be able to frame Scottish independence as a unique event in response to Brexit. European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva has told the BBC that ‘We make every effort for the Scottish people not to have to face a choice between Britain and the EU’. I think it’s fair to interpret this as meaning that, if the UK votes to leave the EU, Scotland will be encouraged to remain in some form.
In short, if the UK votes to leave the EU in the near future, it looks more likely than not that Scotland will respond by voting to leave the UK. Thus the EU referendum is a battle for Britain, but not in quite the same way that some Brexit campaigners seem to think.