Brexit’s Impact on Scottish Independence

  • This article was wrote before the 2019 European Parliament elections – in the wake of that election the First Minister of Scotland has moved her plan forward for a second independence referendum to 2020

Brexit, the dreaded word that echoes in the cities, towns, and fields across the UK, the word that holds with it the polarization, exhaustion, and anger of a nation; and the word that could hold the root to the breakup of the United Kingdom. 

There has never been a time of such political and social upheaval ever before within my lifetime. The moment the 2016 EU referendum outcome was announced, it divided the country; facing backlash with millions still campaigning to revoke article 50, the intricate dangers and complexity that come with Northern Ireland leaving the EU, and the anger from Scotland and Northern Ireland who voted to remain. 

Could this anger added with a still large passion for Scottish independence spell danger for the UK? That is what I aim to find out. From interviewing politicians, the public and reading the polls, all to discover just what Brexit’s impact on the Scottish independence movement has been. 

Take your mind back to September of 2014, the results were in and Scotland had voted to remain in the UK; for many, the vote didn’t satisfy their William Wallace-esk passions, and for them the independence movement carried on. Yet the likelihood of another referendum anytime soon and even more so the likelihood of the results of that referendum being a yes for independence were very slim. 

Fast forward to 2019 and that slim chance has become significantly bigger, such to the point that the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has called for a second Scottish referendum by 2021. She does so on the grounds that Scotland, having voted to remain in the EU by a whopping 62%, is being taken out of the EU against its will, and that such an action should allow Scotland another chance to have a vote on Scottish independence. Yet unsurprisingly Westminster, as of right now, is refusing to grant a referendum by 2021. The Deputy Prime Minister, David Lidington, has claimed that there is no proof of a surge in pro-Scottish independence sentiments; there for there is no stance for a second Scottish independence referendum as the 2014 referendum has still settled the debate.  

However, there has been an increase in Scottish independence supporters since Brexit, after a 2019 poll by YouGov and the Times showed that support for Scottish independence has rising to 49% for yes and 51% for no; this is the highest support for independence since February 2015. This shows an increase from YouGov’s last poll on the topic in June 2018 that found support for independence as yes by 45% and no by 55%.  Yet is this change because of Brexit? YouGov says yes. As the difference in opinion seems to be largely because of EU remain voters, who have changed their mind on Scottish Independence; as out of that 2018 poll, those who were pro-EU were against Scottish independence by 53%/47%, compare this to the EU remainers (in the 2019 poll) who are now in favour of Scottish independence by 54%/46% . It would seem that the dragged out uncertainty of Brexit has lead remainers towards Independence. 

I personally carried out my own research on the topic that supports this by conducting a survey on the matter. When asked if Brexit had changed their opinion on Scottish independence, 31% said yes; and when asked in the event of a second Scottish independence referendum would they vote for independence, a majority of 57% said yes, an increase from the number of survey takers who were pro-independence back in 2014: 45%.  29% said they would vote no in a second referendum, while 14% said they were undecided.  

So there can be no argument that Brexit has influenced remainers on the topic of Scottish independence, yet has it changed the minds of leave voters? Not very much would be the answer, as YouGov’s Poll, had EU-leave voters still opposed to Scottish independence by 68% to 32%, only one point different than in the previous poll.     

We have talked about Brexit’s impact on the everyday people of Scotland, but what impact has it had on Scottish politicians? To answer this, I asked two politicians on opposite sides of the barricades: Kate Forbes SNP MSP and Conservative MSP, Donald Cameron. 

Contrary to the Deputy PMs statement, Ms Forbes, when I asked her how hopeful she was for them granting a referendum to the 2021 timeframe said: “Very hopeful, but in the meantime I would like to see support for independence increase to such an extent that the Prime Minister is unable to withstand the calls for another referendum.” I was also very curious to know whether Brexit had impacted not just support for independence, but for the SNP: “There have certainly been new recruits to the SNP and as somebody who also campaigns on the doorstep, I can see people considering voting SNP for the first time,” she told me. 

I went on to ask her what it is about the people of Scotland today that makes her think that a second referendum would have a different outcome than the first one. She said: “It’s evident from the polls that support has changed and continues to change. The circumstances have completely changed in that there is no longer a status quo and people are faced with the choice of two different forms of change.” While that may be true, what is to happen if we end up staying in the EU? I asked Kate that if Article 50 was revoked what it would mean for the Scottish independence movement. She said: “There was a case to be made for independence before Brexit – Brexit just makes the case even clearer.”  

However, I can only see the independence movement taking a massive hit if the UK stays in the EU. The prospect of leaving the EU is what has brought so many people to becoming pro-independence; it is something that the people of Scotland care about greatly. Out of all the people who took my survey, when asked if EU membership was more important to them than a UK membership, a resounding 63% said yes. If the UK remained in the EU and a second referendum took place, the prospect of leaving the UK and the danger of leaving the EU would be too great a risk for many voters in Scotland.  

One person I surveyed had this to say: “Brexit has shown the state of politics in the UK to be seemingly very corrupt and strange. The state within Scotland seems better. Scotland out of the UK but in the EU would be preferable to Scotland in the UK but out of the EU. However, if I am honest I think that Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU would be best.” 

The SNP have of course faced criticism for asking for a referendum at this time. One particular loud voice is the Scottish Sectary David Mundell saying: “Nicola Sturgeon needs to listen to the views of the Scottish people and concentrate on improving Scotland’s economy and schools, not continually trying to orchestrate upheaval and division.”  

Yet the First Minister has encouraged opposition to come forward with plans for Scotland’s future in a post-Brexit world, saying: “So, as we take the necessary legislative steps over the next few months (In bringing a second Scottish referendum), I will also seek to open up space for us to come together and find areas of agreement as mature politicians should.”  

When I asked Kate the question of how she would respond to those claims that now is not the time to have an independence referendum, and that in the aftermath of Brexit, it should be a time for recovery rather than further political upheaval?  

She responded with: “There is still no aftermath of Brexit because it has not been delivered, which itself demonstrates the problem that Brexit is not something that just happens and we all move on. The consequences will be long-lasting.” 

On the opposition side to independence, when I asked Tory MSP Donald Cameron what benefits there were to remaining in the UK union post-Brexit he had this to say:  

“Fundamentally, the idea of maintaining our 300 plus year old Union, and clear benefits of pulling and sharing our resources is a clear reason to remain in the UK post-Brexit. The rest of the UK is Scotland’s largest trading market, accounting for over 60% of our exports, and any barriers created as a result of leaving the UK would, in my view, be catastrophic for the Scottish economy. In times of economic crisis, the four home nations have been able to support each other, whether that was the financial crash in 2008 or the oil price crash in 2014 for example.” 

When I asked Mr Cameron what his response would be to the claim that Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, shows the inequality of the UK union, he replied with:  

“ The EU referendum was fought on a UK-wide basis, with the question being one which asked about the UK’s membership of the EU. Each individual voter had a clear choice of whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU. I voted to remain in the EU, but as a democrat, of course I respect the result. In my view, the argument that ‘Scotland is being taken out of the EU against its will’ not only ignores the fact that more than one million Scots voted to leave the EU, but an argument created by the SNP simply to foist a second divisive independence referendum onto the people of Scotland, despite the fact that very few people want a re-run of that particular plebiscite.”  

Yet I don’t know how true that is. With the polls showing an increase on independence sentiments, and my own survey’s research on the topic, I don’t believe that we can say “that very few” people would like to see a second referendum.  

The debate on when a second referendum would take place is relatively still in the open, while the Scottish government has set its target, more support for independence will have to grow for Westminster to grant one.  But when does the public want to see a referendum? My own survey showed that 66% wanted to see a Scotland referendum within the next five years, 22% didn’t, while 12% didn’t want to see one at all.  

Yet a major impact is whether we actually leave the EU, and while I have already said that if we remain it will majorly impact Scottish independence, you would have to be blind not to realise that the chaos of Brexit has damaged relations between Westminster and Scotland for generations. One person I surveyed on talking about the 2014 referendum said that they, “Voted to stay in the UK because we were told that it was the only way to ensure we stayed in the EU; they lied!” The way that Brexit has so far played out has set an example of what happens when the UK union doesn’t work; when there is such divisive opinions and disorder in parliament that the country stagnates into a state of bickering. 

In conclusion, Brexit has changed many voters’ minds on Scottish independence, with people either fed up with Westminster, or the prospect of EU membership with an independent Scotland, but more support will be needed for another referendum to take place. However, whether or not Brexit is the catalyst for Scottish independence, and if there is a vote in 2021 or not, Brexit will always hold a place in the Scottish independence movement. It will always be there to fuel passions and anger, it will always be there to impact on Scottish independence. 

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