How Brexit Became A Problem For Nicola Sturgeon

When the outcome of the EU referendum was announced, it looked at first glance as though it represented a golden opportunity for the nationalist movement. The divergence between the majority Remain vote in Scotland and the majority Leave vote across the UK as a whole provided what must have seemed to nationalists like a perfect illustration of how Scotland’s ‘democratic wishes’ could be overturned by voters in England whose values are not in tune with those of a majority of Scots.

However, new research released today as the SNP convenes in Aberdeen for its spring conference suggests that far from being an opportunity, the debate about Brexit has become a problem for the nationalist movement.  Based on the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey, the research – an early release of a chapter that will appear in the latest British Social Attitudes report due out next month – shows that attitudes towards Europe have become a new dividing line in attitudes towards independence and appear to have played an important role in the decline in SNP support in last year’s UK general election.

Not that support for independence has fallen in the wake of the Brexit referendum. On one of the three measures of attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed carried in the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, support for an independent Scotland currently stands at 45% – a little higher than the 39% recorded in 2015 before the EU referendum got underway. On a second measure, support is a little lower (46% rather than 51%). Meanwhile, at 48%, the proportion saying they would vote Yes in anther independence referendum (leaving aside those who said Don’t Know) is exactly the same as the 48% who, on the 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, said that they had voted Yes in the September 2014 ballot (a reminder that all such surveys are subject to chance variation). All in all, it looks as though the overall level of support for independence has not significantly changed in the wake of the Brexit debate.

However, what has changed is the extent to which that people’s views about independence depend on what they think about the EU. Before the EU referendum those who were doubtful about the EU – who are far more numerous than might be anticipated from the 62% Remain vote in the EU referendum – were just as likely as those who held a more favourable view of the EU to support independence. Now, however, support for independence is markedly higher amongst ‘Europhiles’ than ‘Eurosceptics’.

According to the latest SSA survey, as many as 58% of Scots can be classified as ‘Eurosceptic’, that is, that they either want Britain to leave the EU, or (more commonly) believe that the EU should have fewer powers than is currently the case. Just 37% can be regarded as Europhiles, that is, they either think the EU should remain as powerful as at present or (in a few instances) should be even more so.

Back in 2015 – before the EU referendum but after the independence referendum – 41% of Eurosceptics backed independence on the first of our three measures (that is, the measure on which the overall level of support for independence is now higher), little different from the 39% of Europhiles who took the same view. Now, however, no less than 56% of Europhiles say that they support independence, well above the 40% of Eurosceptics who do so.

Much the same picture is found if we compare those who say they would vote for independence now with those who said that they did so in the 2014 independence referendum (on which the overall level of support for independence is unchanged). Four years ago, Eurosceptics (49%) were slightly more likely than Europhiles (44%) to have voted Yes. In contrast, no less than three-fifths (60%) of Europhiles now say they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum, whereas only 40% of Eurosceptics say that they would do so.

In short, in tying the prospect of a second independence referendum to the possibility of keeping Scotland in the EU, Nicola Sturgeon appears to have created a new fissure in the nationalist movement. Before Brexit, that movement had managed to transcend the debate about Europe. Now it finds itself relatively less able to appeal to those who are sceptical about the EU than it is to those who are keenest on the European project. And, unfortunately for the First Minister, there are many fewer Europhiles north of the border than the outcome of the EU referendum suggested.

This development also seems to have affected the SNP’s fortunes in last year’s UK general election. In the 2015 election, when it almost swept the board, the party straddled the EU divide. Both a half of Eurosceptics (51%) and a half of Europhiles (49%) voted for the SNP. But in last year’s ballot, support for the party fell to just 36% among Eurosceptics, whereas it almost held up at its previous level (47%) among Europhiles.

It looks as though rather than simply being a rejection of the SNP’s plans for a second independence referendum, as commonly assumed, the decline in SNP support at the last UK election also reflected a greater antipathy to the party amongst Eurosceptics, for some of whom independence had evidently come to look a rather less attractive prospect now that it was more firmly tied to keeping Scotland in the EU. Far from being an opportunity, Brexit has, it seems, proven disruptive for Scottish nationalism, just as indeed it has for almost every other political movement and party in Britain.

This blog is co-authored by Ian Montagu, Senior Researcher at ScotCen Social Research. It is also posted on the website.



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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.