There is a great deal of loose talk going around about how a British vote to leave the European Union will result in the break up of the United Kingdom. It is being force-fed by two self-interested groups – Nationalists who are trying to manufacture a second referendum and EU apologists who are trying to halt a haemorrhage of Unionist votes to the Leave campaign. An opinion poll that appeared yesterday fed into their lazy thinking.
A singular poll is, by its very nature, only a snapshot,subject to the ebb and flow of public sentiment as the EU referendum develops. We may not even have the referendum until 2017 or, more likely, September this year, so there’s a great deal that can go wrong for the Nationalists or EU supporters before then.
Consider the hurdles that a break-up of the UK due to a Brexit vote has to cross before it becomes a reality.
Firstly the UK has to vote for Brexit when the referendum comes. Despite a lead of six points for leaving the EU, it is early days for believing that will indeed be the outcome. Not until the real campaign has been under way for a month, with all of the big guns such as the Prime Minister firing off, will the value of opinion polls begin to matter.
Next, Scotland has to vote to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK, or even just England, votes to leave.
At the moment the polling has been fairly consistent, with a 65 per cent-35 per cent Scottish split in favour of remain against leave, but this does not reflect the fact that there has been no proper airing of the issues at hand. For the last five years or more, the debate about Scottish independence has taken up practically all of the oxygen available in political discourse with little breathing space left to discuss much else. Why, it’s hard enough to raise vital issues about the NHS, school attainment or children’s commissars without Scotland’s interests in leaving or staying in the EU being considered.
On nearly every occasion that the EU is discussed, it is through the prism of how it will effect the independence question – whether Scotland would remain in the EU if it left the UK, whether Alex Salmond had legal advice on this issue, why Gordon Wilson and Jim Sillars believed genuine independence required Scotland to leave the EU – and now whether Brexit will trigger a second referendum.
Rarely do we hear how Brexit might impact Scotland – positively or negatively – on jobs, export opportunities, democratic accountability, fisheries management, public finances, regulatory burdens and the rest, and if we do it is usually complacent platitudes or simplistic scaremongering that Better Together would have been proud of.
Polling tells us that the strongest sympathy towards leaving the EU was amongst supporters of the Yes campaign during the independence referendum and that while the Scottish Conservative supporters are evenly split, nearly a third of the more numerous Nationalist support would favour freedom from the EU. Amongst Labour a quarter of its support rejects EU membership, and yet for now no MSP or senior elected politician of any party beyond Ukip has stepped forward to give these members of the electorate a voice. Surely then it is reasonable to expect that when some politicians finally discover the courage to speak out on behalf of those voters, the 65-35 split might begin to narrow to 60-40 or 55-45?
Were a closer result the outcome then would Brexit be enough for people in Scotland to believe that they had a grievance worthy of holding another independence referendum? When Glasgow and Dundee voted differently to most of Scotland, their citizens had to accept the result in the round – and Scotland would have to do the same.
It is no surprise, then, that no less a person than the First Minister has gone on record on more than one occasion to say Brexit by itself would not trigger a second referendum. When pressed by the BBC, she rejected such a notion declaring the need for “clear and consistent” evidence to justify such an intervention.
Sturgeon is no fool, she knows that while there could be genuine concern about Scotland being outside the EU, the electorate might continue to believe that the greater threat would be to leave the real economic and social union that benefits Scotland, namely the UK. Better to nurse the hyped-up grievance and continue to win elections than bring about a referendum that kills independence for good and mortally wounds the SNP in the process.
To cap it all, even if Scots were offered a second independence referendum because of Brexit,they would have to address the issue about the membership terms Scotland could expect.
There would be no Fontainebleau membership discount that Margaret Thatcher won on offer, there would be no guarantee of continuing the various opt-outs that John Major had negotiated. Acceptance of the Schengen treaty would be expected as would be a commitment to join the euro once the Scottish economy had converged (and if Greece and Portugal could be admitted Scotland would have few excuses to decline.) Fishing would remain controlled by Brussels and attempts by Scottish governments to renationalise the railways or introduce anti-austerity measures would be prevented by Brussels and Frankfurt. Meanwhile the UK would be saving £12 billion a year, controlling its own borders – including between Scotland and England – while farming and fishing would be under national management and Jeremy Corbyn would be able to introduce his policies. No wonder the Irish are nervous that they may be better leaving the EU too if the UK jumps first.
Few things are inevitable in politics and the idea that a Brexit vote will lead to Scottish independence is nothing other than bellicose sabre-rattling by the First Minister and fearmongering by EU apologists. Far better to have a debate about the real costs and benefits of EU membership so we can decide on the merits of the case, free from its impacts on the Union.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain and member of Leave.EU