Time For Some Rethinking in Scotland’s Brexit Debate?

Brexit has added some new twists to the debate about Scotland’s constitutional status. The most obvious of these is that it led the Scottish Parliament in March 2017 to request the authority needed to hold another independence referendum, only for the First Minister to put the idea back on hold in June after losing 21 seats in Mrs May’s snap Brexit election. But just as important have been two distinct debates about how Scotland should be governed if it remains in a UK that has left the EU.

The first of these debates was instigated by a white paper published by the Scottish Government just before Christmas 2016. It suggested that if the UK were to leave the EU single market and Customs Union, a separate agreement could and should be made for Scotland that would see it remain part of those arrangements. As a result, not only would Scotland enjoy a closer trade relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, but it would also continue to observe the EU’s freedom of movement provisions. However, the UK government, which not long after the Scottish Government’s white paper was published made it clear that it wanted to end freedom of movement and thus membership of the single market, has shown no interest in pursuing such an arrangement.

The second new twist was kicked off by the publication in July of the UK Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill. This sets out the arrangements needed to integrate existing EU regulations into UK domestic law and determines who, after Brexit, should be responsible for areas of decision-making that currently lie within the competence of the EU. Amongst these competences are a number, such as fishing and farming, which in Scotland are otherwise devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill makes provision for all the competences currently exercised by the EU, including those in areas that are otherwise devolved, to come to Westminster, at least in the first instance. The UK government says that, before Westminster devolves decision-making powers in these areas, it wishes to establish a UK-wide ‘common framework’ for them. The Scottish Government objects to this on the grounds that this approach re-reserves back to Westminster responsibilities devolved by the 1998 Scotland Act, and suggests the Scottish Parliament will refuse the legislative consent that by convention it will have to give for the proposal to pass into law. Although the UK and devolved governments have now agreed a set of principles for the development of common frameworks, the Scottish Government is still unhappy with the relevant provisions of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

In a new analysis paper published today on the What UK Thinks/EU website, we look at public attitudes in Scotland to these Brexit-stimulated constitutional debates. Based on interviews conducted in October with members of ScotCen’s unique mixed-mode random probability panel, it suggests that politicians on all sides of the debate need to do some rethinking if they are broker a post-Brexit constitutional settlement for Scotland that will secure majority public approval.

On the one hand, we find that there continues to be relatively little support for the idea that Scotland might have a closer trading relationship with the EU or a more liberal immigration policy for EU migrants than the rest of the UK. As many as 63% say that the rules for EU migrants coming to Scotland should be the same as for those wishing to come to any other part of the UK, while 67% feel that the rules on EU trade should be the same in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK. Only 30% think it should be easier for EU companies to do business in Scotland than elsewhere, while just 24% feel it should be easier for a EU migrant to settle north of the border. These figures are much the same as they were when we first addressed the issue at the beginning of 2017. It seems that the Scottish Government has made little headway in persuading voters of the merits of having a closer relationship with the EU than that enjoyed by the rest of the UK.

On the other hand, around three in five voters believe that all the decisions about fishing (62%) and farming (59%) that are currently made by the EU should be made in future by the Scottish government. Only around three in ten think that decision-making should be shared between the UK and the Scottish governments, as apparently envisaged by the UK government’s proposal for a ‘common framework’. Even amongst those who voted No in the September 2014 independence referendum, at least two in five think that all of the decisions currently made by Europe should be made by the Scottish Government. It would seem that the UK government would be wise to amend the EU (Withdrawal) Bill so that current EU responsibilities for fishing and farming are devolved, perhaps with some provision for the development of a ‘common framework’ that is hammered out with the participation and consent of the devolved administrations rather than by the UK government alone.

Of course, any settlement of these two issues still leaves the central question of whether Scotland should be seeking independence following the divergent Brexit result north and south of the border. To date, the opinion polls have uncovered little consistent evidence of a swing in favour of independence in the wake of the UK-wide vote to leave the EU. Our latest survey confirms that impression, even though, as today’s paper also shows, voters in Scotland are largely critical of how the Brexit process has progressed so far. Indeed, whereas a survey we conducted with our panel at the beginning of 2017 found little evidence of a swing either for or against independence (as compared with how our panel members behaved in 2014), our latest survey records a 5% swing away from independence. If this is the case, the First Minister will soon be looking for yet another reason to keep indyref2 in the long grass in which it currently rests.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.