In the next five years, Scotland could be holding two referenda on its relationship within two unions. First, the Scottish people will determine their fate within the United Kingdom when they vote on independence in 2014. If they vote to remain within the UK then they could possibly be voting in a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Polling trends indicate that Scotland will choose to stay within the UK. Polls on Britain staying within the EU, however, are showing mixed results. A more in-depth look shows Scotland and England are much divided on continuing EU membership. If a referendum is held a possible scenario could see England pull an unwilling Scotland out of Europe. If this does happen could it be the catalyst for a second wave of Scottish nationalism?
Last weekend, polling commissioned by the FT showed that convincing the British public to support EU membership could be an uphill struggle. Were an in-out referendum held tomorrow, 50 per cent would vote to leave, with only 33 per cent opting to stay in. Meanwhile, ahead of the independence referendum, Alex Salmond has placed much emphasis on an independent Scotland joining the EU. It seems rather unusual that a politician in Britain is using Europe in an attempt to attract voters. The issue of European membership, however, isn’t as toxic in Scotland as it is in England. A second poll conducted at a similar time by Ipsos-Mori on Scottish attitudes towards an EU referendum shows that, while not overly enthusiastic about Europe, the Scottish seem to be less eurosceptic than the rest of Britain. Roughly 50 per cent of those polled said they’d vote to remain within the EU, while 34 per cent would vote to leave – the inverse of the FT’s poll of the entire British public. Given such evidence it isn’t inconceivable to think that if an EU in-out referendum does happen, Scotland could vote to stay in, while the rest of Britain votes to leave. But even if the Scottish become less enthusiastic about continuing EU membership, how easily could the English – along with Wales and Northern Ireland – pull Scotland out of Europe?
Using the 2011 AV referendum turnout figures as a proxy for a potential EU membership referendum, we can see that the Scottish only make up about 1 in 10 voters in the British electorate. The English, with their overwhelming voter power, won’t have to disagree to a large extent with Scotland to force a “Brexit”. Below are a few hypothetical results showing that England can easily take Scotland out of the EU, despite a large Scottish vote in favour of staying in.
The numbers show that unless the margin of difference between in-out votes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is exceptionally close (between 1-2 per cent ) it looks likely that Scotland’s EU fate is entirely out of its own hands. The number of votes needed from Scotland to stay in increases dramatically as the in-out margin becomes wider in the rest of Britain. Even if Scotland votes in favour of staying in by two to one, 52 per cent of the rest of the British electorate is all that’s needed to force an EU exit. In fact, even if every voter in Scotland chose to continue EU membership, it would only take about 56 per cent of the rest of Britain to vote for withdrawal to take Scotland with them.
Anyone with a bit of arithmetic can easily point out this balance of voting power. This possible scenario, however, shows that Britain could be voting on more than just EU membership. England pulling a pro-European Scotland out of the EU could have immense political consequences for years to come. For Scotland to vote to stay within the UK, only to have England take it out of the EU against its will, could re-energise Scottish nationalism.
This might be exactly what Alex Salmond needs to keep his dream of independence alive for future generations. Any Westminster government would be unlikely to allow an immediate second referendum but nationalism can have persistence. In Canada, the Québécois overwhelmingly voted against independence in 1980. But by remaining determined they were able to achieve a second referendum 15 years later. In 1995, independence was extremely close with 49.42 per cent voting ‘yes’. If Scottish nationalism is strengthened by England pulling Scotland out of the EU, when most Scots would rather stay in, we shouldn’t necesarily expect the uncertainty over Scotland’s future to end in 2014.
Glenn Gottfried is research fellow at IPPR