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10 September 2020

Why Scotland’s forgotten Brexiteers could still prove pivotal

Nicola Sturgeon may have to separate the issue of EU membership from independence. 

By Chris Deerin

The voice of the nearly 40 per cent of Scots who voted for the UK to leave the EU in 2016 is all but mute. No one seems interested in what they think – they are drowned out by Remainer rage and recrimination. There is almost no significant mainstream politician who identifies as a Leaver, other than in practical, get-the-job-done terms. Unloved and unheard, Scottish Brexiteers are on their own.

This is a shame because it has left the nation’s debate lacking nuance and challenge. The one million pro-Leave voters are often dismissed as batty, attic-confined relatives. Scots are universally portrayed as EU enthusiasts who are itching to rejoin and mightily pissed off at the breach being forced on them by their large southern neighbours.

It’s not as simple as that. The tartan Leavers are out there, and they are not all union jack-waving Prommers. Their number includes around a third of SNP supporters. While there’s been huge attention lavished on voters who have shifted their preference on Scottish independence from No to Yes because of Brexit, there has been little focus on those who have gone the other way. But they do exist.

For one thing, it would be an interesting piece of sociology to examine how these voters have found the years since 2016. What has it been like as a Scot who supports an era-defining policy that is so widely controversial, unpopular and mocked? What is their view of how it has divided the UK and made its break up seem considerably more likely? What do they see when they look at the bungling, the sharp practice and the Trump-like populism deployed by Boris Johnson in his pursuit of Brexit? Are they alarmed by the increasing prospect of no deal? Of the British government openly breaking the law “in a limited and specific way” and the resignation of its lawyers?

According to Nicola Sturgeon, whichever way people voted on Brexit they now believe it’s a mess. “Most people I speak to – including the minority in Scotland that voted to leave – actually just want to escape the whole sorry saga,” says the First Minister. We might not want to take her word for it.

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The anti-Brexit pile-on continues. Sturgeon knows that, combined with Covid-19, the fraught EU negotiations are pushing the independence debate her way – support for the cause has risen by five or six percentage points in recent times, to what seems to be an enduring majority. 

With a month left before a deal with the EU is agreed or lost, she argues that Westminster is planning a “power grab” that amounts to “a full-frontal assault on devolution”. The British government is bent on creating an “internal market” in the UK when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, which will ensure goods flow freely even if Scotland chooses to impose different standards. The Nats claim this would force Scottish shops to stock food farmed at a lower standard than deemed acceptable by Holyrood, such as chlorinated chicken from the US. The whole thing is an “abomination”, according to the First Minister. The Scottish Parliament will vote – tokenistically, it must be said – against the bill, and is threatening legal action.

Even prominent Conservatives are worried. MSP Adam Tomkins, a professor of constitutional law, warned this week that in breaking the law the Tory government would “be in breach of our international treaty obligations”. The party “used to be good at defending our institutions”, he added.

However, Brexit poses real challenges to the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland. The newly-minted nation’s main market would continue to be the rest of the UK – the trade relationship is worth more than three times that with all 27 EU countries combined – but business could face fresh trade barriers and currency imbalances.

The SNP insists that a Yes vote in a referendum would include a mandate to rejoin the EU, but there are plenty of critics – even among Remainers – who warn that as a small nation Scotland would re-enter under considerably more onerous terms than the UK has enjoyed, and have little influence on important decisions. Scotland would be expected to join the euro, but would face problems meeting the debt requirements of membership (Scotland’s implicit budget deficit was 8.6 per cent of GDP in 2019-20, around six percentage points higher than the UK as a whole). Its monetary needs would arguably matter less to the European Central Bank than they currently do to the Bank of England.

It may be that, in due course, Sturgeon has to separate the issue of EU membership from independence, and promise a second referendum on the relationship. That may in fact be the sensible and necessary option.

The Brexit farrago will continue, and probably play to the SNP’s advantage. But there is more to Scotland’s position than straightforward Remainer lust. In due course, big questions must be posed and answered. The nation’s eurosceptics will be heard – and they will find allies in unlikely places.