The dismal state of the Scottish independence debate in Westminster

Politicians, especially progressives, must recognise a nation’s right to choose

January 16, 2020
Scottish independence supporters march through Glasgow. Photo:  Ewan Bootman/NurPhoto/PA Images
Scottish independence supporters march through Glasgow. Photo: Ewan Bootman/NurPhoto/PA Images

Will Brexit lead to an independent Scotland? The question has been asked many times in the last few years. But now Brexit is definitely going ahead in just two weeks, with a Tory government firmly installed for the next five years, the question has gathered new intensity.

Boris Johnson’s “no” this week, to Nicola Sturgeon’s request for the transfer of powers to Holyrood to hold another independence referendum, is entirely unsurprising. And, equally well understood by both sides, the independence debate is not going away.

The choice for Scotland—a majority Remain country—is now clear: independence in the EU or Brexit within the UK. These questions are already much debated: can an independent Scotland re-join the EU (basic answer, as a European state, yes), how long will it take, how hard might it be, what are the implications for the border with England? What is certain is that the debate requires a nuance all too absence from Westminster politics of late.

This week Labour’s leadership candidates have added to the strident Tory dismissal of a second independence vote. Jess Phillips has declared herself 100 per cent committed to the union and engaged in a Twitter spat with Nicola Sturgeon. Lisa Nandy outrageously suggested, in her Andrew Neil interview, that Scottish nationalism could be tackled by learning lessons from Catalonia, where pro-independence politicians remain jailed.

Yet while Johnson wants to end the use of the word “Brexit” and Labour’s candidates mostly accept that the Brexit debate is now over, in Scotland the Brexit and independence debates are intertwined. They are, and will remain, centre stage.

We have yet to see polling on independence now that Brexit is definitely happening. But one poll in the autumn put support for independence at 50:50. And recent polls that asked hypothetically about support if Brexit happened show a small but clear majority for independence.

There is also a strong demographic pattern—young people under 35 are the strongest supporters of both independence and membership of the EU, while those over 55 are most clearly opposed to independence. Meanwhile, polls suggest around two-thirds of Scottish voters back remaining in the EU while, of the third that back leaving, a chunk (another third) are still in favour of independence.

Politicians should take note of this range of public opinion in Scotland before they make dismissive statements. Insisting that Scotland made its choice in 2014, when EU membership was not in question, and cannot now think again in the face of the damaging change that Brexit represents—nor however many times the SNP wins elections—is surely unacceptable and counter-productive.

Labour, of course, faces several inter-related challenges in coming to a sensible position on Scotland. Scottish Labour is in total disarray; now occupying a lowly third place after the SNP and Conservatives. And most senior Labour politicians want to avoid the difficult option of arguing to re-join the EU.

It’s early days both for Labour and for pro-Europeans in England and Wales more broadly to come to a decision on what it means to be pro-EU with Brexit going ahead. Labour may focus for now on opposing Johnson’s path towards a hard, Canada-style Brexit.

At some point, it will have to say what it will do differently. But whether the party goes for fudge or a customs union or something else, this is not going to cut much ice in Scotland, where the option of independence in the EU will continue to be debated, whatever London-based politicians say. Certainly Ireland, as a small EU member state, looks like an attractive role model to many when contrasted with the right-wing Brexit now looming.

Labour could attempt a more mature approach. Its new leader could insist that they want the whole UK to be a Scandinavian-style democracy (tricky though that is outside the EU) and that they hope Scotland would choose to be part of that while recognising that it does, of course, have a choice. They could even consider what England and Wales’ European and international future might look like—with Northern Ireland anyway having its own special status, and Scotland possibly independent in the EU in future. This discussion seems to be almost entirely absent in England for now, yet it’s a debate that needs to start.

While Labour is now reconciled to Brexit, Scotland is not, and independence will remain the central political issue. The opportunity to re-join the EU will be one core part of that debate. Politically, it is clear, the UK is diverging for the foreseeable future. How fast and how fundamental that fragmentation may be is set to remain a major question.

Kirsty Hughes, Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations