A new poll released last week showed that a majority of Scots would rather Scottish independence over Brexit. Many independence campaigners speak of Brexit as the key to achieving independence.
Meanwhile, the British press like to portray the SNP – and more specifically their leader Nicola Sturgeon – as a Machiavellian machine, privately wanting Brexit to unfold in the most harmful way so as to reignite calls for Scottish independence. However, the full implications of the UK leaving the EU do pose problems for the SNP's case which aren’t being discussed enough.
There are two issues. First, the logistics of how an EU-member independent Scotland would work alongside a post-Brexit England with which it shares a border. The news is flooded with the issues this is creating over in Northern Ireland (and occasionally Gibraltar). There were threats of border checks by the Better Together campaign in the 2014 Scottish indyref, with the then Labour leader Ed Miliband telling voters: “If you don’t want borders, vote to stay in the United Kingdom”, before adding that guards may have to be deployed. This was largely dismissed by Yes campaigners as forming part of a baseless 'project fear'.
However, if Brexit does materialise and Scotland wishes to go independent and re-join the EU, those fears materialise and become very real. While Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that the way the UK government has handled the Northern Ireland border issue in the Brexit negotiations means it cannot argue for a hard Anglo-Scottish border, Scotland does not share the specific troubled history of Northern Ireland which provided the context inthe backstop negotiations.
There are no political agreements or commitments to avoid a hard border, as the UK negotiators are keen to emphasise. In any post-Brexit indyref, therefore, Unionists will endlessly conjure up images of the area just north of Carlisle being strewn with barbed wire fences and border patrols – a propaganda war the SNP will fear they will lose to.
Secondly, there is a significant but underreported overlap in Scots that voted for both independence from the UK and the EU. It is difficult to estimate precisely how large this group is, given that I’m not aware of any substantial research into how many 'yes' voters voted to leave in 2016. This is a quite shocking hole in our current political discourse, especially given that Lord Ashcroft’s poll after the 2016 referendum showed that 36% of SNP voters voted leave – a figure almost identical to that of Labour voters.
Some analyses of this figure fall firmly into the SNP as Machiavellian plotters camp: these nationalist voters voted for Brexit so as to increase the likelihood of another independence referendum, taking coded cues from their party leaders. This conspiracy is, of course, nonsense.
To begin with, it ignores the fact that Euroscepticism has long been at the centre of the Scottish nationalist movement, both in the past (with the SNP advocating to leave the EEC in 1976) and the present (with a former leader claiming several of the Party’s MSPs secretly voted leave). More substantially, for the millions of Scots that feel alienated from mainstream politics, a vote to leave the UK and a vote to leave the EU share a lot of the same underlying reasoning. Through both, you are rejecting a Westminster elite, which for years has been ignoring you and is now hectoring you to do what it wants again. If you want to give that elite two fingers, then both Brexit and Scottish independence will do quite nicely.
Fundamentally, it comes back to the SNP’s major electoral problem: Scotland. And, more specifically, the SNP’s supporters aren’t as left-wing and progressive as they like to portray, and many of the fears around immigration and the decaying of old values exist just as much in Renfrewshire as they do Rotherham.
For these people, membership of the EU has become hyper-politicised in a way it wasn't in 2014, to the extent that they might feel their interests are no longer aligned with a pro-EU, pro-immigration independence campaign. In short, while another indyref based upon Scotland re-joining the EU might attract many of the metropolitan liberal voters which the yes campaign failed to convince in 2014, they may push much of their core base to disillusionment.
While it is true, then, that the UK leaving the EU would make another independence referendum more likely, how that vote would play out is far from set in stone.
Portrayals of the SNP as secretly colluding for a rough Brexit to radicalise Scottish nationalism are exaggerated. Nicola Sturgeon knows full well (one hopes) how damaging a rough Brexit would be to Scotland, and that there’ll be no guarantee of an easy escape route.
If politicians and the media are going to properly analyse the constitutional crises encircling Britain, they need to learn how to view the issues of Brexit not purely from a parochial Westminster perspective.
Instead, they must pay proper attention to the demographics and issues facing other parts of the UK, and not just fall into the easiest of narratives about the further flung corners of the land. After all, that’s what got them into this mess in the first place.