Three lessons for EU campaigners on Scotland’s would-be Independence Day

The post-referendum shake-up of Scottish politics highlights the importance of winning big


Had recent history panned out differently, a Saltire would now be flying over Edinburgh Castle in place of the Union Flag and Scotland (or about half of it at least) would be celebrating its Independence Day.

Instead, Scotland is still the troubled middle child of Great Britain which remains, as Joe Pike puts it, ‘a kingdom united but a country divided’.

Of course, these divisions have fallen out of the spotlight in recent months as attention shifts to the EU referendum on 23 June.

Three months out, Remain is holding its solid lead in the polls (as No did in Scotland) and although there may be polling upsets between now and June, few Remain supporters perceive a serious risk of Brexit.

But what lessons does Scotland’s tumultuous post-referendum period offer to the Stronger In campaign?

1. Only a big win will put the argument to bed

Inherent to referendums is the risk that, instead of settling a dispute once and for all, the campaign merely serves to highlight an entrench existing divisions.

Although ‘No’ won in Scotland with 55.3 per cent of the vote, a year and a half later support for independence has risen to a 15-year high, the SNP has steamrollered its pro-Union opponents and a second referendum, whether triggered by Brexit or something else, seems imminent.

Based on existing polling, Remain is likely to win a similar or smaller victory and the Scottish experience shows that it might not be enough to permanently consolidate Britain’s position in Europe.

Neither would it heal the rifts in the Tory party, which should particularly worry David Cameron and his allies.

2. Stand up, but be careful who you stand by

While no one really won the Scottish referendum, we all know that the Labour Party lost. Their pro-Union alliance with the Tories precipitated the collapse of their support in Scotland, perhaps permanently, and drastically reduced their chances of forming a government in Westminster.

That’s why Jeremy Corbyn has refused to share a platform with the Tories in the run-up to the EU vote. It may also explain why—with David Cameron dominating the discussion—Labour’s pro-Europe campaign still hasn’t gotten off the ground.

However, the result is that over 40 per cent of voters don’t even know what Labour’s stance is, and their core supporters — who are far more likely to support Remain than Conservative voters—are scarcely engaging with the debate at all.

3. Don’t leave your campaign to the last minute

Pike suggests that the point at which UK politics fundamentally shifted was not on referendum night but two weeks before, when a YouGov-Sunday Times poll showed that ‘Yes’ had taken the lead.

At that point, the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble snapped into panic mode. PMQs were cancelled as David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all scarpered north to join the campaign, and the now-ubiquitous ‘Project Fear’ kicked into overdrive.

While they managed to salvage the Better Together campaign, the surge in support for independence massively boosted the SNP, and the negative nature of the final weeks of the campaign left a bitter taste in many Scottish mouths.

Engaging and mobilising voters early, with a positive message, is essential to the lasting success of the Remain campaign.

At present, although they hold a clear lead among decided voters, they are vulnerable to shifts in support and engagement among soft Remains and undecideds.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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