Now we know. Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that the UK will go to the polls on the 23rd June to decide whether to stay in the European Union.
If British voters choose to leave, it will be the very first time that the bloc has shrunk rather than expanded in size. The once seemingly inexorable eastward advance of a united continent will have been halted in Europe’s far north-west at the very moment that the foundational ideas of the EU, Schengen and solidarity, are being imperilled by the anti-refugee fences of Eastern Europe and the crushing austerity meted out by in Greece.
The fate of Europe, not just the fate of Brussels, seems to rest in British hands. But could voters also be deciding the very future of the United Kingdom?
In the Guardian, Europhile academic and intellectual Timothy Garton Ash wrote recently of the beginning of a ‘new battle of Britain’ on the horizon. ‘On its outcome,’ he wrote, ‘will depend the fate of two unions: the United Kingdom and the European Union. If the English vote to leave the EU, the Scots will vote to leave the UK. There will then be no Britain.
‘If you care about that,’ he concluded, ‘vote to remain’.
In January, former Prime Minister Tony Blair made the same claim, that Scottish independence was inevitable if the UK left the EU. As did Charles Moore in the Spectator. As did Nick Clegg last September. And in February.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears to agree. Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday if a second independence referendum – a so-called ‘IndyRef2’ – would ‘definitely’ be triggered if the UK forced Scotland out of the EU against its will, Sturgeon was unequivocal.
“Almost certainly,” she replied. “I think that would be the demand of people in Scotland. I hope this scenario doesn’t arise. I hope the UK as a whole votes to stay in the EU for a whole variety of different reasons.
“But if you cast your mind back to the Scottish referendum, the No campaign then said if Scotland voted Yes then our membership of the EU would be at risk. That was rubbish then, but that was a key argument.
“If, a couple of years later, we find ourselves, having voted to stay in the EU, being taken out against our will, I think there will be many people – including people who voted No in 2014 – who would say the only way to guarantee our EU membership is to be independent. That, I think, is inescapable.”
Sturgeon’s confidence is shared by many in the independence movement. There is a growing assumption, even certainty in some nationalist quarters, that so-called ‘Brexit’ makes the persuasiveness of the case for independence, as Sturgeon puts it, “inescapable”. All the SNP has to do to achieve its raison d’être, some say, is sit back and wait for Brexit.
There is certainly little doubt that Scotland will vote against withdrawal from the EU in June. The most recent Scottish poll shows that 66% will vote to remain and just 34% to leave. Pro-EU campaigners can only dream of such numbers in deeply Eurosceptic England.
As Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, Scotland’s leading psephologist, puts it: ‘There is no doubt, Scotland is markedly more pro-European, markedly more likely to say it’s going to vote to remain, than is the UK as a whole.’
Although, he did add: ‘The truth is the modal Scottish voter probably says we need to be inside the European Union, but we wouldn’t be unhappy if Brussels was to boss us around rather less.’
But should the SNP be so sure? Would Brexit really make Scottish independence inevitable?
A number of polls have suggested, on face value, that it might. In a recent survey of 1,000 Scots for STV News, 54% said would vote Yes to independence in such a scenario versus 39% who pledged to vote ‘No’ and 7% who were unsure. This trend has been noted since the first independence plebiscite in September 2014 and has fuelled the conventional wisdom that Brexit is curtains for Scotland’s place in the UK.
But voters are fickle creatures and overwhelmingly bad at predicting what they will think, feel or do in a hypothetical future scenario. Polls before Scotland’s 2014 vote, for example, suggested that most Scots would vote Yes to independence if the Tories won a majority in 2015, if austerity continued or if ‘devo-max’ – further devolution to Holyrood of vast new powers including over taxation – was not delivered by the UK government.
Well, the Tories duly secured a Westminster victory, massive cuts in public spending continue, the Smith Commission (itself an unambitious, watered down version of ‘devo-max’) has not been delivered and yet support for independence is currently around 43%.
If a post-Brexit IndyRef2 were to occur with support for independence at a supposed 54%, there would almost certainly be downward slippage from that number, making the re-run as tightly contested and unpredictable as the original. Given that, as Professor Curtice notes, Scotland’s commitment to the EU is largely pragmatic and hard-headed – a marriage of convenience rather than romance – a Yes vote is anything but inevitable in those particular circumstances. Will a majority of Scots, when push comes to shove, really vote for independence for the cause of European continental unity? Is Jean-Claude Juncker really the only thing standing between Scotland and statehood?
Coupled with the fickle tendency of voters everywhere, keeping those 54% of self-declared potential Yes voters on side looks quite difficult. Indeed, as the Scottish Greens’ Patrick Harvie MSP has warned, the case for independence may actually be made more rather than less difficult by Brexit given that it would create a highly problematic EU/non-EU border between Scotland and England.
Both Scotland and the rest of the UK remaining in the EU, whether as two separate member-states or one, would be in the best interests of the Scottish economy. Anything else would only give greater credence to the scare stories of border posts and trade barriers and divided families which Better Together so ruthlessly – and, sadly, effectively – spread in 2014.
Few things are inevitable in politics. In the long run, given the demographics of SNP support and the 2014 No vote, Scottish independence itself may well be, as Alex Salmond believes. Whether Brexit, however, signals a Scottish shortcut to self-determination remains to be seen.