To say the least, the decision by England and Wales to leave the EU has created a very awkward situation for Scotland. Scottish voters have now endorsed two unions in successive referendums by opting to remain in both the UK and the EU, yet may be unable to be keep membership of both.
Both the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Labour are investigating possible routes by which Scotland could try to keep EU membership. The Scottish Nationalist MEP Alyn Smith received a standing ovation in the European parliament on June 28 after urging the EU, “do not let Scotland down now”. It may prove, however, that the only way for Scotland to secure EU membership is to break with the rest of the UK.
While the SNP argues that this Brexit vote is a “material” reason to hold a second independence referendum, there are hints of possible realignments among other parties north of the border. The current Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, made waves in April by hinting she might back independence in the event of a vote to leave the EU. She then disowned the position, but since June 23 has been refusing to rule out backing independence in the event of another vote.
Jamie Glackin, the party’s former chair, has said he is likely to vote for independence in a second referendum, while former Scottish Labour leader and first minister Henry McLeish has spoken of the attractions of independence as a route to Scotland possibly keeping EU membership. Even Labour grandee George Foulkes has given Nicola Sturgeon, the current first minister, his backing to negotiate directly with the EU regarding its future relations with Scotland.
Then there are the Scottish Lib Dems. Their UK leader, Tim Farron, has said it will fight the next election seeking a mandate to reverse the Brexit vote. Assuming it fails, is the party then going to fight a Scottish referendum effectively campaigning for Scotland to leave the EU?
The problem with Better Together
A second independence referendum will certainly put these parties in a difficult position. A strong defence of the union would be made harder than in 2014 by the stark political differences over EU membership between the UK’s nations.
Where the pro-union Better Together campaign could previously claim that political attitudes in England and Scotland were not greatly different, now there is a majority Tory UK government and the EU referendum has elevated right-wing figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The xenophobic English nationalism that came to the fore in places during the Leave campaign will not help either.
The pro-independence side in Scotland faced claims in 2014 that it was promoting an outdated narrow nationalism in an era in which cooperation is crucial. Following the EU referendum it is arguably now England that looks isolationist and Scotland that appears more internationalist.
So if all this undermines the case for Scotland in the union, what are the chances of it staying in? It is worth emphasising that we have little idea what kind of Brexit the UK will actually have. If the UK achieves a Norway-type deal to stay in the free-trade European Economic Area (EEA), which appears to be the direction of travel, it might placate some who voted Remain in Scotland.
EEA membership would mean continued participation in the single market and would potentially maintain free movement of EU citizens. This could only be welcomed by the Scottish government and would perhaps take some of the political sting from Brexit.
The economic dimension
Even if there is no “soft Brexit” of this variety, there is still the economy to potentially derail Scottish independence from the UK. Many Scottish voters were already concerned about the economic risks of independence in 2014. These have since been exacerbated by the collapse in oil prices and the alarmingly high Scottish budget deficit.
The deficit could even mean that Scotland struggles to gain entry to the EU, given the rule that a country’s deficit must be no higher than 3% of GDP – half the Scottish level. Anyone voting for Scottish independence might have to accept greater austerity in the short to medium term than if they stayed in the union.
On the other hand, remaining in the UK might look economically risky, too. As well as the uncertainty of being outside the EU, the UK could now be heading for recession and prolonged economic instability. That may be an opportunity for those arguing for a break with Westminster.
In any case, the success of the Leave campaign in England demonstrates that economic issues need not always decide the outcome of referendums. We have seen that issues of national identity can inspire voters enough to take risks despite all the dire warnings from experts and political elites. It is one more reason why another Scottish independence campaign could be harder to defeat.