Why English euroscepticism could doom the Union

With Scottish voters far more pro-European than their English counterparts, the increasing doubt over EU membership could shift the odds in favour of independence.

A UKIP victory in the 2014 European elections could prove a game-changer in shaking up Scotland's independence referendum, putting the Yes camp back in the race, leading academic expert Charlie Jeffrey told the IPPR at the launch of a new report on Englishness earlier this week.

Many Scots say that if Britain seemed likely to leave the EU, they could change their minds about independence. Polling suggests this could erode the current steady lead for the pro-Union campaign and turn the referendum into a neck-and-neck race.

Jeffrey said that a UKIP victory in the 2014 elections, and increasing pressure for an in/out referendum in the political and media reactions to this, would create a sense that Britain's membership is in doubt, just a few months before the independence vote next September.

Professor Jeffrey, who heads the University of Edinburgh's politics department, is one of the co-authors of the new IPPR report England and its two Unions, which shows that there are increasingly divergent views of the EU north and south of the border, with English voters becoming more strongly eurosceptic and taking the prospect of exit very seriously, while most Scots believe that the benefits of EU membership outweigh the disadvantages.

The Future of England survey 2012 showed English voters saying they would vote to leave the EU by 50% to 33% in a referendum on the UK's membership. By contrast, a February 2013 poll showed Scots would vote to stay in the EU by 53% to 34% in a referendum on UK membership, while EU membership in the event of an independent Scotland was supported by 61% to 33%.

The IPPR report notes that many Scottish voters say that the prospect of the UK leaving the EU could shift their vote in a 2014 independence referendum. A May 2013 panelbase survey found attitudes to independence tied 44% both for and against "if the UK was looking likely to withdraw from the EU", compared to an otherwise steady lead for the pro-Union campaign.

Most polls find almost a third of voters favouring independence and a majority against. "Euroscepticism elsewhere in the UK could potentially narrow that gap if the Scots feel they could be dragged out of the EU against their will ... English Euroscepticism may be as much of a challenge for the UK's union as is Alex Salmond", says the report.

British eurosceptic politicians in both UKIP and the Conservative Party have tended to be strongly pro-Union. Nigel Farage has been emphasising his ambitions to expand in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. He told the Belfast Telegraph this week that he hoped to create a Dublin branch too.

The IPPR report shows that this Unionist perspective is not shared by the most anti-European voters. A strong sense of British identity is associated with more pro-EU attitudes, while the strength of English identity is strongly linked to Eurosceptic views. Those who say they are 'English not British' would vote to leave the EU by an overwhelming 72% to 17%, and those who are 'more English than British' by 58% to 28%. Those who are more British than English would vote to stay in by 45% to 37%

While UKIP want to end one Union and save another, there are English majorities for the Union with Scotland and, currently, for leaving the EU too, but that ticket is unpopular in Scotland.

Uncertainty over the EU had previously been difficult territory for Alex Salmond, as a claim to hold legal advice saying that an independent Scotland would not have to reapply for the EU unravelled. Increasing uncertainty about UK membership of the EU makes that a less potent charge, and could put the boot on the other foot. The issue also presents a potential "two unions" dilemma for pro-European Scots who support Alistair Darling and the 'Better Together' campaign.

There are currently Scottish majorities for staying in the UK and staying in the EU too. But this is not in Scottish hands. Only if the rise of English euroscepticism is checked would Scots be able to choose both unions for themselves.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond watch the Wimbledon men's final. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.