A Difficult Choice? Inside the UK/Outside the EU vs. Inside the EU/Outside the UK

Brexit means that the choice facing voters in another referendum on independence would be fundamentally different from that in 2014. In that referendum, a vote to remain part of the Union was also a vote to remain a member of the EU. Now, given that the Scottish National Party says that an independent Scotland would seek to become a full member of the European Union, any referendum on independence would effectively ask people in Scotland: would Scotland be better off remaining part of the UK and outside of the EU, or better off as a full member of the EU but no longer part of the UK?

There is already evidence that, unlike when the referendum was held in 2014, people’s attitudes towards Brexit are now related to their attitudes towards independence. Those who back Brexit are more likely to support remaining part of the Union, while those who would prefer to re-join the EU are more likely to support independence.

Meanwhile, previous research has also shown that the Scottish public are generally less pessimistic about the consequences of independence than they are of Brexit. On three of the key issues in the constitutional debate, the economy, influence in the world, and national pride, more Scots view Brexit as negative for Britain than regard independence as bad for Scotland.

However, this still leaves the question of how voters respond when asked to directly compare the consequences of being a member of the EU but outside the UK with the benefits of being in the UK but outside the EU. A poll conducted by Redfield and Wilton last summer is the first to have asked the Scottish public directly to make this comparison. Respondents were asked under which of the two scenarios a range of possible consequences would be more likely to occur. Table 1 summarises the results.


The figures are, in general, encouraging for those who would like Scotland to become an independent country within the EU. With the exception of ‘more immigration’, which some may see as a good thing and others not, each possible outcome was framed positively. And in each case more believe the outcome would occur if Scotland were part of the EU than believe it would if Scotland were in the UK.

Immigration aside, the biggest gap in response is for ‘more funding support and subsidies’ (22 points). Just over four in ten (42%) Scots think this would occur as a member of the EU, whereas only one in five (20%) believe it would do so within the UK. This might be discouraging news for unionists who argue that Scotland benefits from the fiscal transfers that occur within the UK. Scots were also notably more likely to say Scotland would have a ‘stronger voice in world affairs’ as part of the EU (40%) than believe it would do so as part of the UK (19%).

At the other end of the table, the gap is smaller. Scots are only eight points more likely to think that being in the EU would result in a better NHS, and only ten points more likely to feel that Scotland would be more united. In both these instances this is in part at least because a relatively large proportion of people (27%) think it would make no difference either way. Even in the case of the NHS a little under a quarter (24%) feel that things would actually be better as part of the UK.

Meanwhile, in the case of ‘more immigration’, as many as 40% think this would be more likely as part of the EU while just 14% reckon it is more likely to happen as part of the UK. As many as a half of 2019 SNP voters think more immigration would occur as part of the EU, but so also do 35% of Tory voters. While some nationalists might regard more immigration as a potential benefit of EU membership, for many unionists it may well be regarded as a disadvantage.

However, if there were to be a second referendum on Scottish independence in the near future, not only would the benefit of being in the EU rather than the UK be a key issue, but also whether it is likely that an independent Scotland would be accepted as a member. If not, independence would leave Scotland outside the EU and the UK.

For the most part voters believe that an independent Scotland would be accepted into the EU. In this Redfield & Wilton poll, 47% said it was ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ that the EU would accept an independent Scotland’s application, while only 27% thought it ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’. SNP voters are particularly optimistic on this front, with around three-quarters (73%) considering it ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ that the EU would accept Scotland’s application. In contrast, and as we might anticipate, Conservative voters are highly sceptical. Nearly three-quarters (73%) believe an application would be rejected.

However, despite this optimism there is no sure way of determining whether an independent Scotland’s application would be successful. And if that confidence were to be undermined, independence might well come to seem a less attractive prospect. Certainly, when voters are asked about the consequences of Scottish independence for the economy and the cost of living without membership or otherwise of the EU being mentioned in the question, Scots tend to be more pessimistic about the prospect of independence than is implied by the polling reported here.

In any future independence referendum, therefore, the question of Brexit and EU membership would seem bound to play a key role. Membership of the EU would be a key part of the pro-independence argument. Supporters of the Union will either have to convince Scots of the benefits of Brexit or that an independent Scotland’s application to the EU is unlikely to be accepted. On the evidence of this polling, this might prove a difficult task.


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About the author

Alex Scholes is a Senior Researcher in the Social Attitudes team at ScotCen Social Research, with a particular interest in political attitudes. He works on a range of projects including the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which tracks changing public attitudes in Scotland to a range of different political and social issues.