Tom Peterkin: Is Scotland’s love affair with Europe going cold?

Pro-independence supporters with Saltires and EU flags (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Pro-independence supporters with Saltires and EU flags (Picture: AFP/Getty)
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There are signs that attitudes in Scotland post-Brexit are changing, which may pose challenges for Nicola Sturgeon, writes Tom Peterkin.

Ever since the late 13th century when the Auld Alliance saw barrels of the finest French wines land at Leith, Scotland has seen itself as a nation that casts its eye towards Europe.

The close diplomatic and military ties between Scotland and France survived for centuries and were lubricated by the flow of claret to these shores as well as a desire to unite against a common enemy – the Auld Enemy.

In much the same way that French wine has flown down Scottish gullets, much water has passed under the bridge since then. Even so, the passage of time has done little to erode the notion that Scotland has been a nation of Europhiles in a way that our neighbours south of the border perhaps have not.

That notion was backed up in the EU referendum where 62 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted to Remain. Since then the apparent disparity between the Scottish Remain vote and the overall UK vote which saw 52 per cent favour Leaving has formed the basis of Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit strategy.

The most obvious manifestation of that was Ms Sturgeon’s decision to use the differing Brexit trends north and south of the border as an argument for a second Scottish independence referendum.

The intensity of the backlash to Ms Sturgeon’s assumption that Brexit would fuel demands for a second referendum was such that the First Minister was forced to think again.

READ MORE: Majority of Scots want to end freedom of movement post-Brexit

Ms Sturgeon’s revised strategy has seen a toning down of the independence referendum rhetoric (while taking care to reassure independence supporters that the prospect of another vote is kept simmering on the back burner).

Having discovered the hard way that reacting to Brexit by promising a second referendum is far from universally popular, the SNP leader has looked elsewhere to maintain Scotland’s Europhile credentials.

At the heart of her response to Brexit is the idea that Scotland has a more liberal approach to immigration than elsewhere in the UK. Therefore Scotland should have the powers to take charge of its own border policy.

In one of her first pronouncements of the New Year, Ms Sturgeon underlined her commitment to Scotland having its own immigration system.

Making an economic case for more immigration to Scotland, she condemned “the reckless ideology of Tory Brexiteers” arguing that more people were required in Scotland to combat the declining working-age population.

The inability to boost the working-age population through immigration was a “growing threat to our economic well-being”, she warned.

READ MORE: Scotland facing constitutional crisis over Brexit bill

The difficulty that Ms Sturgeon might face, however, is that her attempts to contrast a welcoming Scotland with our English neighbours may not chime with the views of the electorate.

That, at least, was the apparent message of research released this week by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), led by Professor Sir John Curtice.

An overriding theme of the research, published by NatCen’s “What the UK Thinks” project, was that attitudes towards the main issues thrown up by Brexit are not that dissimilar north and south of the border.

A survey conducted for the project found that 63 per cent of Scots think the entire UK should have the same immigration regime after it leaves the EU next year.

Furthermore, the survey found that, while Scottish independence supporters are more inclined to contemplate Scotland having different immigration rules than the rest of the UK, the proportion who think there should be UK-wide system is growing. Back in February last year, two-in-five independence supporters thought the rules should be the same across the UK. Now more than half of Yes voters say they do not want a separate Scottish system.

The survey of 859 Scots and 2,168 people across Britain found only 24 per cent of Scots back Ms Sturgeon’s call for a less strict immigration system than south of the border. While 59 per cent of Scots wanted an end to freedom of movement compared to 64 per cent of people across Britain. There were more signs of a uniformity of views across the UK when the sample was asked about trade. Around two thirds (67 per cent) thought that Scotland should have the same rules on trade as the rest of the UK post Brexit.

Incidentally, further evidence of views on Brexit converging north and south of the border came when individuals were asked how they thought the UK Government has been handling the negotiations.

This time, however, it appears that English views are falling into line with Scottish views, with an increased pessimism evident south of the border.

In the UK as a whole 61 per cent now believe that the process is being handled badly compared with 41 per cent in February last year. That compared with a Scottish increase from 59 per cent to 69 per cent over the same period.

As Sir John put it: “One striking pattern stands out from our findings so far. Even though Scotland voted very differently in the EU referendum, attitudes towards Brexit are notable for their similarity to those in the rest of the UK rather than for their difference.”

If, as the mood music suggests, there has been a cooling of Scotland’s European love affair, it take more than casks of wine to overcome the challenges facing Ms Sturgeon’s distinctively Scottish approach to Brexit.