Voice of Remain voters in Scotland ‘muted’ ahead of Brexit

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The voice of Remain voters in Scotland has been muted as political parties concentrate on protecting the devolution settlement or arguing for a soft Brexit, a think tank has warned.

The Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER), which celebrates its first anniversary this week, claimed “all remains to be played for” ahead of Brexit despite there being an “untapped energy, anger, concern and passion” north of the Border on the issue of leaving the European Union.

A pro-EU march takes place in Edinburgh in 2016, shortly after the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

A pro-EU march takes place in Edinburgh in 2016, shortly after the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

“Given Theresa May’s stance on leaving the EU’s customs union and single market, the UK is heading, at best, for a ‘Canada-dry’ free trade deal with the EU,” said SCER director Dr Kirsty Hughes.

“That could cut UK-EU trade by almost half – and by more for services trade.

“So why is the Remain voice in Scotland so muted? Current polls show two-thirds or more of Scottish voters now support ‘remain’. The other third are split between those who want Brexit as part of the UK and the ‘yes leavers’ who want independence outside the EU. On top of the ‘power grab’ over devolved powers, a cross-party outcry and campaign against Brexit might not seem unreasonable.

“But we are a long way now from the 92-0 vote in the Scottish Parliament (with the Tories abstaining), a week after the Brexit vote in 2016, to explore ways to keep Scotland in the EU and its single market. The ambition fell rapidly from staying in the EU to a focus on the single market – and currently Scottish Labour isn’t even supporting that.”

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The SCER was established in Edinburgh as a non-aligned independent think tank with the aim of informing the debate on Europe and providing high-quality research and analysis on EU developments.

It has launched an online fundraiser with a view to funding its work for another year.

Dr Hughes added: “It’s a year since Nicola Sturgeon’s abortive attempt to hold a second independence referendum on the back of Brexit. The Scottish Government continues to repeatedly express its ‘regret’ at the UK leaving the EU and to state that the best option would be to stay. But there is no strategy to back this up: how does the Scottish Government think this might happen and what is its role in pushing for a halt to Brexit?

“Instead, the Scottish Government’s main efforts are focused on two areas: protecting the devolution settlement including through its introduction of an EU ‘continuity’ bill at Holyrood; and linking up with Labour rebels, LibDem and Green MPs at Westminster to argue for a ‘soft’ Brexit of staying in the customs union and single market.”

Brexit minister Michael Russell said the Scottish Government was already working hard to mitigate any potential damage caused by the decision to leave the EU.

“The people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly – by a 24-point margin – to remain in the European Union,” he said. And, short of continued EU membership, the least damaging outcome for Scotland and the UK is continued membership of the single market, which is around eight times bigger than the UK’s alone, and customs union.

“The Scottish Government has set out both the significant impact of Brexit on Scotland and detailed practical policy proposals for how Scotland can retain a future relationship with the EU – indeed we were the first administration in the UK to do this in December 2016, with further information published in January this year. We will continue to work to mitigate the damage Brexit will cause to jobs, trade, investment, education and to our public services. In everything we do, we will continue to seek agreement in the best interests of the people of Scotland.”