There has been much speculation on the implications of the EU referendum for the unity of the UK. A list of EU supporters have suggested that a vote for BREXIT will lead to the break-up of Britain. But what logic lies behind these claims and what is the evidence that a vote for Brexit will precipitate a second referendum on Scottish independence?
Tony Blair has said that ‘if the United Kingdom votes to leave Europe, Scotland will vote to leave the United Kingdom’. Alan Johnson went further suggesting that if Scotland voted heavily to remain and he was a Scot, ‘I would be thinking again as well’ about independence. Sir John Major has warned of the ‘high probability’ of independence after BREXIT.
There is an obvious logic behind the claim that BREXIT might lead to another independence referendum and a vote for Scottish independence. There is ample evidence that Scotland will vote to REMAIN by a healthy margin. There is also some evidence that this might boost support for independence. Support for independence rose by 5% in an Ipsos MORI poll in February asking voters to imagine the scenario of another independence referendum following Brexit.
Membership of the EU was a key issue in the 2014 referendum with each side maintaining that victory was the only means of securing Scottish membership of the EU. Opposition to the EU existed on the fringe of both sides in the 2014 referendum but was rarely heard. That might have been different had the Tories had as many MSPs then as they have now. Six Tory MSPs support Brexit and two abstained in the recent debate in Holyrood. This constitutes a significant split the Scottish Tory group in Holyrood. The rise in support for Ruth Davidson’s party has brought the family feud on Europe to Scotland.
The signs remain that Scotland will vote convincingly to REMAIN in the EU. But it is a major leap to assume that this will result in a second referendum. We cannot assume that the UK will vote for BREXIT. Nicola Sturgeon was careful not to commit herself to another independence referendum on the strength of BREXIT. The 5% boost found in the Ipsos MORI poll was in response to a hypothetical question; it was a relatively small boost; and may prove ephemeral. It is unclear whether any putative increase in support for independence would be sustained. There are too many imponderables for a cautious politician to risk her career on a second referendum. Opposition to the EU has been the argument that has barely spoken its name in Scotland.
This hypothetical nature of the Ipsos MORI question should make Nicola Sturgeon cautious. It cannot take account of other contextual factors. Supporters of independence would have major headaches in a second referendum provoked by BREXIT. BREXIT might result in greater upheaval than independence, as many supporters of the latter believe. If so, this would be the backdrop against which the Scottish electorate will be asked to vote on independence. It would be easy for opponents of independence to portray Scottish independence as piling uncertainty on uncertainty in the wake of BREXIT.
Much of the opposition case against independence in 2014 would be even more potent in the event of BREXIT if Scotland wanted to remain in the EU. Arguments about borders made by unionist supporters could no longer be dismissed as absurd if, as seems likely, there was a much harder border in the event of rUK being outside the EU. The worries that Ireland has if the UK votes for BREXIT would be even more applicable for an independent Scotland. Regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status, it would be in Scotland’s best interests that its neighbour remains within the same common market and trading block as Scotland.
Nonetheless, BREXIT combined with a substantial Scottish vote for REMAIN would provide further evidence of the divergence of opinion north and south of the order and could substantially increase support for independence so long as there is not an immediate second independence referendum. Key issues would need to be addressed and much would depend on the nature of any post-BREXIT agreements reached with the EU. That will not be clear for some time after the EU referendum. But it is likely that BREXIT would contribute to increased support for independence over the long haul but BREXIT may be a slow burner for Scottish nationalists. The 5% increase in support for independence might disappear quickly in the event of an immediate second referendum but might equally grow and grow considerably if a second independence referendum was postponed for a few years.
James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy, Edinburgh University.
His latest book, published on Tuesday May 31st with Rob Johns is Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, published by Biteback.