Duncan MacLaren. Does Brexit mean a second independence referendum for Scotland?

Apr 24, 2016

The algebra goes something like this: EU ref: Brexit – Scotland = indyref2? In other words, if England overwhelmingly votes to leave the European Union while Scotland votes to remain in and the overall result from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, (known since the debate on independence in Scotland as rUK – rest of the UK) is to leave, will this automatically mean a second referendum on Scottish independence? The answer is maybe.

Certainly, the Scots are the most pro-European of the four nations of the UK. The Scots have consistently shown over a number of polls that they favour remaining in the EU. There are economic reasons for staying in such as the £2 billion benefit to the Scottish economy. There are social reasons such as the protection of human rights through legislation which the Westminster Parliament wishes to change but which the Scottish Government champions. Above all, there are strong historic reasons for the Scots feeling European.

Scottish monks helped Christianise the continent of Europe in early medieval times, hence the proliferation of Schottenklöster (Scottish Monasteries) in Germany and Austria. Scots traders, soldiers and philosophers, even before the reluctant 1707 Union with England, had access to markets, armies and academe all over Europe. At one time, it was a toss-up whether French or English should be the language of the Scottish court after the decline of Gaelic and we still celebrate the Vieille Alliance (Auld Alliance in Scots) between France and an independent Scotland, called by de Gaulle in 1942, “the oldest alliance in the world”.

By anecdotal contrast, English TV celebrity and ‘University Challenge’ host, Jeremy Paxton, recently called French “a useless language” and maintained French achievements were all in the past. Nigel Farage, the leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP) commented furiously that on a train from the suburbs to central London, he was surrounded by people not speaking English. Welcome to the mentality of the Little Englander who believes in a (Great) Britain (or England – the two are often interchangeable in such a mindset) comprising a feudal Royal Family, an unelected Second Chamber (the House of Lords), warm beer, cricket pitches, chauvinism and exceptionalism.

The just published manifesto of the Scottish Government led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) for the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May this year opts for campaigning to keep Scotland and the UK in the EU. It further states that there would be a second independence referendum only “if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.

Many journalists in Scotland who have an “SNP bad” obsession speculate that the very popular First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, “secretly” wants Scotland to vote to stay in and England to vote to leave. This would mean taking Scotland out of the EU against the will of the Scottish people. If this does happen, there will certainly be a constitutional crisis, but I doubt if there will be a referendum because the first part of the manifesto statement quoted above may not pertain, i.e. that independence has not necessarily become the preferred option of the majority of Scots. To hold a referendum on Scottish independence when the polls hover around the 50% mark for and then lose would scupper Scottish independence for a generation or maybe for ever. Nicola would not want that.

In addition, the right to hold a referendum on the constitution is in the hands of Westminster as it is not a devolved matter and Cameron and other Conservatives have already ruled out another referendum. The Scottish Government could hold its own referendum but Westminster could ignore it as the Spanish government has done with the Catalan independence referendum.

On the other hand, the brouhaha created by such a vote and the ensuing British jingoism with figures such as Boris Johnston, Tory leader contender and Brexit campaigner, and Nigel Farage possibly at the helm of government would so appal the Scottish people that they may clamour for another referendum. There is the added thought that being dragged out of the EU would consign Scotland to another 20 years of rule from Westminster by the Conservative Party which the Scots haven’t voted for in any numbers since 1955. The Tories have currently one MP in Scotland, a lightweight who had to be appointed the Scottish Secretary of State not because of talent but because he was their only MP!

The Tories are taking forward austerity cuts, the semi-privatisation of the National Health Service and schooling, the £800 billion renewal of Trident nuclear subs, conveniently placed within 25 miles of Glasgow, and a bellicose foreign policy to maintain a vestige of imperial grandeur, all of which is anathema to most Scottish voters. They are also in a mood to cut the budget of the Scottish Parliament.

Interestingly enough, ‘ Yes’ and ‘No’ voters in the Scottish independence referendum were asked if the Brexit scenario came about with the Scots voting to stay in, would they vote for another Scottish referendum? The answer was 70% of the Yes voters in favour and 62% of the No voters also in favour. If such a poll were to show such figures after 23rd June (voting day), the Scottish Government would certainly propose another Scottish independence referendum which, this time, would probably gain a majority ‘Yes’ vote.

The post-EU UK jingoistic reaction to a successful independence referendum would be, to say the least, interesting. Having read some of the blogs of English Brexit enthusiasts, some of them might welcome the departure of “the moaning Scots”. Little England searching for a greatness that is delusional in the current world of alliances will have been born.

Duncan MacLaren is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University and a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Glasgow.

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