Post-Brexit negotiations would put an independence referendum at the bottom of Cameron's to-do list
“For more than 40 years, membership of the European Union has been good for the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities across the country […]
“If we are to influence positive change in Europe, we must remain within the EU – only that guarantees a role in the EU decision-making processes on issues that affect our everyday lives.”
Sturgeon recently warned that a vote to leave would ‘almost certainly’ trigger a second referendum on Scottish independence, saying that the Scottish people would object to being taken out of the EU ‘against their will’.
It’s broadly true that there is stronger support for EU membership in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Research published today by YouGov ranks the most ‘eurosceptic’ and ‘europhile’ areas of Britain, and finds that all areas of Scotland are ‘europhile’ apart from Moray which is ‘mixed’.
This is a much more uniform picture than the rest of the country, where attitudes are not geographically grouped:
“Many of the europhile areas are university towns with lower median ages – Liverpool, Manchester, York and Bristol. And support for remaining in the EU almost always is concentrated in geographically smaller, urban areas.”
YouGov made the rankings by compiling the average net support for leaving the EU in each region, ie. looking at who would actually vote Leave.
But data published last week by NatCen Social Research found that, leaving aside the question of an actual vote, there is a significant level of euroscepticism in Scotland, where 43 per cent of people say they want the EU’s powers to be reduced.
This implies that although concerns about the EU may mirror those south of the border, in Scotland people see the risks of leaving as more serious.
But are all of Nicola Sturgeon’s supporters behind her? According to a Survation poll published last September, Scottish Labour and Lib Dem voters are more strongly in favour of the EU than SNP voters.
Sturgeon’s arguments for continued membership – security, economic stability – mirror many of those rejected by nationalists in run up to the independence referendum.
There is also the possibility that Scottish nationalists will place strategic ‘Leave’ votes in the hope of triggering an independence referendum in the wake of Brexit.
Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, has said openly that he will ‘look at it strategically from the Scottish viewpoint. It depends how Scotland can better achieve independence.’
This is a risky game. Although it is likely that a second referendum will be requested in the event of a Brexit, this does not mean it will take place. David Cameron has been determined to wield the power on the question, repeatedly stating that there will be no second referendum.
Professor Aileen McHarg, who specialises in constitutional law at the University of Strathclyde, suggests that it is ‘both politically and legally unclear’ whether a Holyrood would be able to call a second referendum without the permission of the UK government.
If the UK does leave the EU it will be embroiled for years in negotiations with Brussels, and is likely to put the Scottish question at the bottom of the pile. The withdrawal of a member state from the EU would be unprecedented; the only comparable situation happened in reverse in 1982, when Greenland staged an EU referendum after being granted self-rule by Denmark.
After Greenlanders voted to leave the EU there followed almost three years of negotiations. Britain is a much larger economy with many more ties to Brussels than Greenland had in the 1980s, so withdrawal would be much more messy and protracted.
Meanwhile the Conservatives would be granting themselves ever more powers, most of which would likely be unfavourable to devolution.
If, in the meantime, Scotland could somehow negotiate a separate relationship with the EU, it would presumably have to make budget contributions. But without being an independent member state, it would not be given a voice in forming laws that it would have to abide by, putting nationalists in an even worse position than before.
There is also the fact that, if an independent Scotland is ever to work, it needs to be based on positive support and not simply the fear of being out of Europe.
A Brexit-triggered referendum might gain short-term support for independence, but whether this would be sustainable in the midst of two separate labyrinthine sets of negotiations – leaving the UK and asking to be ‘let back in’ to Europe – is another matter.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.