Is Brexit a Springboard or a Balancing Act for Nicola Sturgeon?

The outcome of the EU referendum appeared to represent a political opportunity for the nationalist movement. The majority vote to remain in the EU (by 62% to 38%) was sharply at odds with the outcome across the UK as a whole, and there seemed to be no better illustration of the nationalist argument that, for so long as it remains part of the UK, Scotland’s ‘democratic’ wishes are always at risk of being overturned by the different political outlook of voters living south of the border. Indeed, the First Minister reiterated her belief that Brexit has ‘materially strengthened’ the case for independence ahead of the Commons vote on the Prime Minister’s deal last week, asserting that Scotland’s voice has been ‘completely ignored and sidelined’ throughout the Brexit process.

Yet, so far at least, Brexit has not proven to be the constitutional game-changer that many had anticipated. The level of support for independence has proven to be remarkably stable. However, the character of that support has undergone an important change as a result of the Brexit process.

On average the 13 polls of how people would vote in a second independence referendum conducted during 2018 found (after excluding those who said they did not know how they would vote) that 45% now back independence, while 55% would prefer to stay in the UK. These figures replicate exactly the outcome of the September 2014 ballot.

One feature of that referendum was that, despite an intense argument during the campaign about whether or not an independent Scotland could automatically sign up as a member of the EU, people’s views on Europe made little difference to whether they voted Yes or No to independence. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, 49% of those who could be classified as Eurosceptics voted Yes, while so also did 44% of those who could be considered Europhiles.

However, the most recent SSA, conducted after the 2017 general election, uncovered a very different picture. Just 40% of Eurosceptics said that they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum, compared with no less than 60% of Europhiles. The finding suggested that Brexit has created a new fissure in the nationalist movement.

More recent polling confirms that support for independence is now markedly higher among Remain supporters than Leave voters. Across the six polls of independence referendum vote intentions undertaken since August 2018, on average a half (51%) of Remain supporters say they would vote Yes in a hypothetical second independence referendum, compared with just one third (33%) of Leave voters.

This Brexit fissure has also had an impact on the pattern of support for the SNP. According to SSA, around a half of both Eurosceptics and Europhiles voted for the party in the 2015 UK general election. However, whereas the SNP’s support largely held firm among Europhiles in the 2017 contest, it fell by as much as 15 points (to 36%) among Eurosceptics.

This gap is also to be found in recent polls. On average, the eight polls of vote intentions in a UK general election conducted since August 2018 have found that 41% of Remain supporters currently say they would back the SNP, compared with just 30% of Leave voters.

The relatively pro-Remain character of SNP support has been reflected in (and may well have been occasioned by) the party’s stance on Brexit. Initially after the EU referendum the party argued for a soft Brexit that would see the UK remain in the single market and the customs union – or at least for a deal that would allow Scotland to do so. But the UK government has never shown any interest in such a step, and, after some hesitation, in October the party came out in favour of holding a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership – in the hope that this would result in a reversal of the Brexit decision. The party’s stance was reiterated ahead of last week’s meaningful vote in Westminster by Ms Sturgeon who encouraged MPs to ‘coalesce’ behind the idea of a second EU referendum in the event of the Prime Minister’s deal being defeated in the Commons, arguing that the ‘door to staying in the EU is now clearly open and Westminster MPs must not slam it shut’.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a second EU referendum seems to be relatively popular with SNP supporters. For example, in late October 2018, Survation found that 64% of those who voted for the party in 2017 supported the idea of ‘holding a People’s Vote – a referendum – asking the public their view’. Meanwhile, in December Panelbase reported that 71% of 2017 SNP voters would support ‘having a second referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU’.

It might be thought that backing a second EU referendum in the hope of securing a different result would be an easy decision for a party that has called for another referendum on independence in the hope that the result might be different second time around. However, any referendum on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU might be thought to create a precedent for what should happen should Scotland vote to become independent at any point in the future. It might be argued that the terms of Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK should similarly be put to a second vote before they are put into effect – a suggestion against which the SNP has long set its face. Meanwhile if a second EU referendum were indeed to result in a reversal of Brexit, the idea that the UK’s decision to leave the EU might prove a springboard for independence will certainly have been consigned to the scrapyard.

The First Minister said earlier this month that she hoped to reveal the SNP’s suggested timetable for a second independence referendum ‘very soon’, fuelling speculation that the party intends to call for a ballot on Scotland’s constitutional future in the coming weeks. However, it is clear that Brexit has not made it any easier for Scotland’s nationalist movement to win a second independence referendum (while polling suggests that many Yes voters remain reticent about holding another referendum soon). The more the SNP finds itself in the vanguard of the campaign to halt Brexit via a second EU referendum the greater the risk that the party loses ground among the minority of its supporters who back Leave, and if a second independence referendum is ever to be won, it could well be crucial that the party keeps its more Eurosceptic supporters on board.

Rather than providing a springboard to independence, Brexit currently looks like more of a balancing act so far as the nationalist movement is concerned.

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About the author

Ian Montagu is a doctoral student at the University of Strathclyde and was previously a Senior Researcher at ScotCen Social Research. Ian has a particular interest in political attitudes and social equality, and is currently researching associations between attitudes towards the European Union and other areas of public policy.