UK Discussion Group: Scotland after Brexit

On 25th October the British and Irish Caucus held its first discussion event of the year.  Joining the discussion was the prominent British Labour politician the Right Honourable Douglas Alexander, and the topic of the evening was the future of Scotland in the aftermath of the Brexit Referendum.  This blog post summarizes Douglas’ presentation, and the discussion about what lies ahead for Scotland in the wake of Brexit.

Read other posts in the UK discussion group series.


By Katie Parry

The fallout from the Brexit referendum has been both nasty and highly publicized.  The UK, we see clearly, is a country deeply divided.  And this is after a referendum campaign that lasted a ‘mere’ two months; there was a two year build up to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014.  More than two years on, Scotland is still coming to terms with what a ‘No’ vote means.

British Labour politician the Right Honourable Douglas Alexander argues that the reason referenda are so visceral is that “you break the dreams of your neighbours.”  Referenda bring with them a greater degree of engagement in politics—there was an 86.4% turnout across Scotland in 2014—but this is very much a double-edged sword; the same upswells of emotion and feeling that animate an electorate can also divide it.  The official narrative is that the 2014 independence referendum was a festival of democracy, but it also left behind a country riven by major ideological differences and mutually-incompatible visions of the future.


Why the Brexit vote was different from the vote on Scottish Independence

Those who, like Douglas Alexander, were close to the Scottish referendum were unsurprised by the character of the campaign that led up to Brexit.  Both campaigns ploughed the field of identity and belonging.  The outcome, however, was different.  Whereas the Scottish referendum ended in a victory for the establishment, this year’s UK-wide referendum has cast the country into a deeply uncertain future.

Part of the explanation for the victory of the Brexit campaigners was Cameron—flushed from his unexpected 2015 General Election victory—mistakenly believed that he could use the same playbook that secured victory in Scotland.  He and Osborne had, however, made two fundamental errors in their understanding of—and their translation of—the Scottish referendum experience.

First, they did not understand that what had actually ensured victory in Scotland was that the campaign succeeded in granting voters “emotional permission” to give in to the overwhelming economic argument.  It was not the economic argument that won per se, but the fact that the No Campaign succeeded in making the electorate feel the emotional resonance of a No vote.  The Brexit campaign never managed to tie emotions to economics in the same way.

Cameron and Osborne’s second mistake was that they failed to recognize that it would be immigration—and not economics—that was at the center of the Brexit Campaign.  Immigration was simply not a major factor in Scotland in 2014, perhaps because of the country’s particular history.

In the C18th and C19th a significant number of people were evicted from traditional land tenancies as part of the Highland Clearances, and Scotland’s population has been in decline for most of the intervening 200 years.  One of the impacts of this has been that Scotland has generally been considerably more welcoming of immigrants than the UK as a whole.  The Conservative Government roundly failed to anticipate the strength of the anti-immigrant sentiment that the Brexit campaign would unleash.

Given the lesser importance of immigration in the Scottish context it is perhaps not surprising that in June Scotland voted overwhelmingly—by 62% to 38%—to remain within the EU.  Douglas Alexander offered three additional reasons for the strength of Scottish support for the Europe.

First, in Scotland there was a broad elite consensus that the UK should not leave; all major parties campaigned vigorously for Remain.  The same was not true in England, where the support of Jeremy Corbyn—the leader of the opposition—was lukewarm at best.

Second, support for Remain in Scotland was animated by dislike for Brexit leaders; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were seen as archetypal southerners with no connection to, or understanding of, what was happening north of the border.

Finally, and importantly, Scots are used to having multi-layered identity.  Many feel Scottish, then British, then European, and as such are accustomed to the idea of submission of self within a broader union.


Repercussions of Brexit for the Future of Scotland

There is a broad irony here.  Cameron and Osborne attempted to use the techniques that had been successful in Scotland to win the Brexit referendum.  They failed, and it is this very failure that has reopened the ‘Scottish Question’.  As of now ‘IndyRef2’ is not inevitable, but in October the SNP Government published the draft bill of a second independence referendum.

Public consultation on the proposals ran until January 11th 2017.  There has been no news yet on the results of this process.  If SNP leaders decide a referendum is necessary the Scottish Parliament will decide whether a vote should be held.  The UK government would then have to agree to another referendum.

Clearly we are currently a long way from Scottish Independence, but we are now—just two years after the last referendum—in a position where a rerun of this ‘once in a lifetime’ vote is a distinct possibility.  How did we get here?

The answer is clearly not ‘popular pressure’.  Generally support for independence has barely budged from the 45% who voted for it in the 2014 referendum, and until recently it was widely thought that the SNP would want to see a sustained 60% of support for independence before calling another vote.

Instead, as with Brexit, the driving force behind the desire to call this referendum is internal issues within the ruling party.  A considerable portion of the SNP MPs and the new party members want a rerun of the vote.


Nicola Sturgeon’s Delicate Balancing Act

Since 2014 Nicola Sturgeon has been performing a delicate balancing act between keeping these sections of her party happy and her own political pragmatism, which tells her that now is the time for another referendum.  Sturgeon is an extremely talented politician, and until this summer she was able to paper over the cracks within her party by asserting that she would consider a second referendum, but only in the case of a “material change in circumstances”.

With the Brexit vote, however, her bluff has been called.  She has been forced to actively entertain the prospect of another vote in the short to medium term.  One result of this has been, as mentioned above, the draft second referendum bill.  Another was Sturgeon’s recent visits to continental Europe to canvas opinions on an independent Scotland’s prospects of EU accession.

She was not met with a warm reception; she was not granted a meeting with either Donald Tusk or Angela Merkel. The Spanish Prime Minister—who has one eye on Catalonia—has been particularly vociferous in his opposition.  Scotland, it seems, would have to join the queue and apply to the EU in the ordinary fashion.  And Sturgeon has therefore given up asking; receiving an absolute no to the ‘successor state’ question would seriously damage the case for independence.

Sturgeon’s latest strategy seems to be to position herself as the principal voice in favour of the single market.  In doing so she has filled a vacuum left by Jeremy Corbyn, whose general ambivalence towards Europe makes him an unlikely and unsuitable candidate to be its champion.

It is not clear, however, if Sturgeon is sincere in her campaign against Brexit, or whether this is a test that she wants the UK to fail.  Because failure clearly would strengthen her hand for a second independence referendum; if she throws herself in to the anti-Brexit campaign but is unsuccessful then she could call the referendum “in sorrow rather than in anger.”  If this assessment of her motivations is correct, then 2019-2020 might be a prescient moment for IndyRef2.  By that point the EU exit negotiations should be concluded, and the Scottish government would therefore have something concrete to push against.


The Prospects for Scottish Independence

Victory for independence would clearly be an uphill struggle.  The always-shaky economic argument is in tatters due to a combination of the low oil prices, the uncertain position of Scotland within the EU, and the ongoing questions around an independent Scotland’s currency.

Against this backdrop, SNP would need to create a huge sense of grievance in order to persuade Scottish voters to overlook the economic risks.  This might be possible; the SNP is much better at politics than policy, and they might be able to replicate the feat of the Brexit campaign and persuade voters to give in despite the economics.

And currently it seems that Westminster is not hearing the risk of Scotland leaving—or simply doesn’t care.  Brexit, and navigating the international diplomatic arena in the era of President Trump, have been top of the agenda.  There has been little discussion of the Scotland issue.  And even if Prime Minister May turns her attention north of the border the bad personal chemistry between May and Sturgeon—and the weak architecture around dialogue—are bad omens.

What can the British Government do to keep the United Kingdom together?

What should Westminster be doing to help neutralize the risk of a second referendum?  There are two broad options.  First, they should try to engage in a major campaign to persuade the Scottish people that progress is being made.  For the United Kingdom to endure it will be vital that voters north of the border feel that their concerns are listened to—and acted on—by the UK-wide parties in London.  There are, of course, major questions around how acceptable further concessions would be to English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters, but a greater degree of values alignment should at least be attempted.

The second option would be to investigate systems that involve greater constitutional flexibility, or devolving further competencies to the Scottish Government.  Immigration policy could, for example, be a promising area of compromise.  The UK could try and negotiate a deal with Brussels whereby EU immigrants will be accepted if they have an offer of employment.  Responsibility for giving out these permits could then be devolved to cities, or to Scotland as a whole.  This would help assuage fears of demographic decline and labour shortages in Scotland, and would therefore weaken the case for independence.

At the moment, however, there is no evidence that the British government is thinking along conciliatory lines.  The mindset in a distracted Westminster is more belligerent.  The future of the United Kingdom therefore remains decidedly uncertain; two years on from the supposedly-definitive 2014 referendum the Scotland question remains far from closed.



Katie Parry is a Frank Knox fellow and a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s MPA/ID program.  She was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland, and has a particular interest in Scottish Politics.

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