Article Published February 14th, 2020

by Dr Kirsty Hughes

Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations

12th February 2019

Brexit day has come and gone. There were Saltires, EU flags and crowds at the Scottish parliament. But while everything changed as the UK left the EU, is it, for now, the case that nothing has changed in Scottish politics? It seems not. It’s early days but the combination of Brexit with Boris Johnson as prime minister is already impacting on Scotland’s political dynamics. And that impact is surely only going to strengthen.

Heading for Independence?

So is Scotland on a one-way track to independence in the EU? That would be too simplistic amidst the shifting debates around both independence and Europe. But the polls have already shifted a little but symbolically, as some ‘remain’ voters decide to back independence over staying in a Brexit UK.

Of the latest three polls on independence in the last couple of weeks, one, Survation, had a 50:50% tie on independence while YouGov found 51% support for independence and Panelbase 52%. As in earlier polls, there’s a very striking age demographic here too. In the YouGov poll, two-thirds of the under-50s supported independence, but just over one third of the over-50s . Younger age groups are also more pro-EU – and, of course, across the population, Scotland is a much more ‘remain’ country than the rest of the UK.

There is much debate, political manoeuvring and future elections and campaigns yet to come. But the Scottish government’s policy of independence in the EU looks like it has majority support for now.

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was in Brussels this week – giving a talk at a leading Brussels think tank, meeting Michel Barnier and European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, before heading to London to give a talk at the Foreign Press Association. This has the feel of a politics, that for all Sturgeon’s caution, is starting to shift and ramp up the dynamic a bit, despite Boris Johnson’s clear ‘no’ to another independence referendum.

A Fractious and Fracturing Union

It’s not clear how, when or whether the stand-off between London and Edinburgh on having another independence referendum will be resolved. But the UK’s politics post-Brexit looks both fractious and fracturing.

When Theresa May was prime minister, she did little to bridge the gap between pro-Brexit England and Wales, and ‘remain’ Scotland. Formal consultations between UK and Scottish ministers and officials were limited and mostly unproductive as she focused on her failing efforts to build a majority for her Brexit plans in her cabinet, party and at Westminster.

But under Johnson, the political stand-off has clearly – and deliberately on his part – intensified, with knock-on effects even to technical consultations at official level. Johnson may insist he wants the union to be ‘front and centre’ of his government, but this is an aggressive, London-centric approach not a compromising one.

The UK hosts the vital COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this year. So far, the UK government has not only dismissed its first chair (and has only just appointed a new one) but has also been fractious in its dealings with the Scottish government. But Scotland has – North Sea oil apart – rather progressive and advanced climate policies, and the Scottish government does not look like spoiling its European and international reputation on climate by indulging Johnson with a sharp public spat on this. Whether the UK government will start sounding more conciliatory here remains an open question.

Meanwhile, we are promised a £5million pro-UK advertising campaign in the coming days. If it’s as inept and out-of-touch as the supposed, rather ludicrous plans for a Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge, then the campaign will be counter-productive too. The Scottish government’s in-depth proposals this January for a ‘Scottish visa’, devolving some of migration policy to Scotland (hugely dependent on inflows of people across sectors from tourism and agriculture to research, social care and the NHS), was rejected within hours.

Yet an advertising campaign, whether slick or inept, will not paper over the cracks in the union. It was the prime minister himself, after all, who decided to agree a special status for Northern Ireland whereby it stays in the EU’s single market for goods and in practice (if not in theory) in the EU’s customs union. The Brexit debate since 2016 had already intensified the reunification debate in Ireland – even before the outcome of Ireland’s election this week. But Johnson’s agreement with the EU to put a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea (however much and however bizarrely he may now deny that) has put a quite remarkable fracture into the UK’s internal economic relations (hard now to talk of rebuilding a UK internal market) – with knock-on political impacts that will continue into the foreseeable future.

In Ireland, it is easy to come across political and academic discussions around multi-level governance, and multiple identities – something that is an inevitable part of the reality of the Good Friday Agreement. Yet in the UK, there are few equivalent conversations about what the relations between its component parts might develop into (albeit some interesting academic work including by Scottish and Welsh researchers).

Even in the face of Northern Ireland being given a radically new status post-Brexit, the Conservative government pretence is of a single (rather centralised) union striding out into the world. Meanwhile, Labour struggles with its post-election defeat and leadership election, with little sign any leadership candidate knows what sort of positions to take around the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and with the occasional, rather light suggestion of some form of federal future for the UK.

But Corbyn bequeathed one interesting dimension to the Scottish independence debate – his acknowledgement that there could be a second Scottish independence referendum (even while he would still be against independence as such). This position is broadly the one that the two lead candidates in the Labour leadership election – Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey – both seem to be adopting. Scottish Labour, meanwhile, is still coming to terms with its dismal election performance, back to having just one sole Labour MP in Scotland. Even so, there are rumblings of debate in Scottish Labour about what position to take on independence as well as on a second referendum.

None of this, any more than a further increase in support for independence, will push Johnson to agree another referendum. But it certainly changes the dynamics of the political debate – and puts the question of democracy and self-determination centre stage. Nicola Sturgeon is not going to get her 2020 independence referendum but she may yet get a majority (with or without the Scottish Greens) at the Holyrood elections in May next year.

Where the Scottish government goes next on independence, if it remains in power next year, is an open and much debated question. Some are pushing for a consultative referendum, arguing it would be legal under current legislation. There’s an acknowledgement that this would be tested in the courts – and the outcome might go either way. Or if the courts backed an advisory vote, Boris Johnson could the choose to change the Scotland Act. This could be counter-productive to the independence cause or it might ramp up support for it.

Nicola Sturgeon is not minded to go down this road any time soon but left the door slightly ajar on the question in her own announcement, made on Brexit day, on ‘where next’ on independence. The pro-independence side are certainly mindful of Catalonia – and while supportive and sympathetic most also recognise that the prospect of an independent Scotland in the EU needs a legal and constitutionally valid referendum to take place. What is clear too is that a continuing ‘no’ to a referendum from Johnson is not going to halt the independence debate, and may even give it more energy rather than undermine it.

Scotland’s European Future

The fact of Brexit has impacted in several ways on Scotland’s independence and European debates. Scotland voted 62% for remain in 2016, and polls since then show somewhat higher support for the EU still. At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, the pro-union side threatened that an independent Scotland would find it hard to re-join the EU. Now the route to re-joining the EU looks to many more likely through independence than through the prospect of the UK re-joining the EU.

The fact of Brexit, along with repeated success in Scottish, UK and European elections for the SNP, also makes a strong political case for another referendum. And, too, with the UK’s departure from the EU two weeks ago, the choices in Scotland have narrowed. Those who once supported being in the UK and in the EU now face a different choice of being either in the UK outside the EU or in an independent Scotland in the EU.

But independence is not only about Europe. It’s about self-determination and different views of Scotland’s future as a country. Brexit has changed some key dynamics of that debate but it is still only part of it. Even so, Scotland’s future relations with the rest of the UK – and how a divorce agreement might look – is a key question for the independence debate. And those relations will now be strongly affected by Brexit and by whatever future UK-EU relationship emerges over time (some of it by December this year but much still to determine in the years thereafter). So Europe has in multiple ways grown in importance in the debate over what a future independent Scotland would look like.

How quickly an independent Scotland could re-join the EU and what challenges it might face (deficit, currency, borders and more) are frequently debated issues. Certainly, the mood music from Brussels is now much more positive than in 2014. And the Scottish government is burnishing its European credentials, with new small ‘hubs’ in Dublin, Berlin and Paris alongside its Brussels’ office, with a new European strategy published, symbolically, on Brexit day, and with plans to stay aligned to EU laws as far as possible in devolved areas including environment.

In the end, as a long-standing democracy and market economy, and as a country that spent nearly half a century in the EU, the question of an independent Scotland re-joining the EU is more one of when rather than whether. Nor is Scotland leaving the UK union the same as the UK leaving the European union – as some argue. Scotland leaving one union to re-join another is a rather different proposition to the UK simply heading off into the relative unknown of being a third country with little clout, at European or global level, compared to the EU.

But some issues, notably on borders, raise similar challenges to what we see with Brexit. If an independent Scotland is in the EU, its land border with England will be the external border of the EU – comparable to the border at Calais or in the Irish Sea to the Republic of Ireland. Consequently, the direction of the UK-EU talks and their implications for borders – and too how the Britain to Northern Ireland Irish Sea border develops – is closely watched from Scotland, though Scottish government figures are loathe to say much on such a sensitive topic.

Yet even here, Johnson’s Brexit path changes the debate and even the language. The Scottish independence debate has frequently referred to the ‘rest of the UK’ (shortened to rUK). But with Northern Ireland having its own special status, this is no longer an accurate description when considering borders. Should it now be the rest of Great Britain (rGB)? Or just England and Wales (E&W)?

It also reverses the sides of the argument in strange ways: the UK government tells us that border frictions at Dover are inevitable and will be ok – so will they say the opposite in the independence debate (quite probably but also contradictory)? Meanwhile, the Scottish government rightly criticises the damaging economics of a hard GB-EU border but will surely not say the same, or not in such strong terms, about a future Scottish-rGB border.

A minority on the independence side would rather an independent Scotland was a third country outside the EU – some of these are ‘Lexiters’. Others would support a Norway option in the European Economic Area. But even the EEA option would still mean a major regulatory border with rGB – while for Scottish-Northern Ireland trade, EEA membership would mean an open regulatory border in terms of goods (but not services) and a customs border with the EU.

In the end, the fact of Brexit has meant the future relationships across the UK and Ireland will be a patchwork of differing types of borders. Borders may be a tricky issue for the pro-independence side, but in a situation where different borders are popping up all around, it also may prove to be an issue that can be de-dramatized as the debate develops.

Overall, Scotland’s independence debate is likely to intensify in the coming months and years. And it will remain intertwined in many ways with the evolving path of Brexit and UK-EU relations. Politics is always open to surprises and sudden shifts. But for now independence remains firmly in place as the central issue at the heart of Scottish politics.