Scotland and Brexit: Why is the ‘Remain’ Voice So Muted?

Kirsty Hughes | 13 March 2018

© 2017 Kirsty Hughes

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. That could cut UK-EU trade by almost half – and by more for services trade. Even the UK government’s own estimates show a fall of 6% in growth in Scotland under such a deal.

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.

At UK level, polls have shown a small but persistent majority for ‘remain’ since last summer. So how and why are political party dynamics in Scotland creating such a muted voice on Brexit when all remains to be played for?

Scottish Parties Muted and Conflicted on Brexit

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.

Meanwhile, there is silence on how or whether Brexit could be stopped. Some SNP voices say that’s really up to the Labour party – if it shifted, then there might be a chance. But the SNP’s current strategy is supporting ‘soft’ Brexit Labour MPs not ‘halt Brexit’ Labour (of whom there are very view at Westminster – or few who dare to say so). So the SNP have no strategy on whether Brexit could and should be overturned by a vote at Westminster or would also need a further EU referendum.

Indeed, the SNP position if anything seems to have hardened against a second EU referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has said more than once since last autumn that such a referendum is ‘almost’ irresistible. But more recently, different SNP voices have suggested there should be no second EU referendum without a veto for Scotland. That’s not on the cards – it’s just a different way of not supporting those arguing for a vote on the deal, including the LibDems and English Greens and, for civil society, the European Movement and others.

The Scottish Greens are reported to be going to pledge, at their spring conference this weekend, to campaign either for the UK to re-join the EU or for an independent Scotland to join the EU after Brexit has happened. But unlike the English and Welsh Greens, the Scottish Greens so far do not support a further EU referendum – though they have been ‘open’ to it. Yet such a strong pro-EU position surely should imply maximum efforts to stop Brexit happening?

Of course, much scenario-playing around independence feeds through both the SNP and Green positions. Could a further EU referendum mean a successful indyref2 would then have to be followed by another referendum on the exit deal between Scotland and the rest of the UK? For the SNP, there’s an even stronger motivation of not alienating the ‘yes leavers’ and also of not telling the English how to vote.

The upshot of this is a rather passive acceptance of the fact of Brexit even though it’s a year until the UK will leave – with all energies going into ‘soft’ Brexit and the devolution settlement. It’s left to others to speak out strongly: Ireland’s former Prime Minister John Bruton put it trenchantly this week in a blog: “One could say that the Brexit Referendum was a crude exercise for English power to satisfy a purely English political agenda.”

But what of Scotland’s Labour and Conservative politicians, most of whom campaigned for ‘remain’? Any ideas that Ruth Davidson might somehow be a moderating force at least pushing towards a ‘soft’ Brexit are long gone. This week Davidson lined up with Gove to demand full control of UK fishing waters – an easy demand to make if you don’t have to explain to voters the impact of the EU putting tariffs on fish, or the impact of hard borders on live seafood exports. Four of Scotland’s Tory MPs also appear to be aligned with Jacob Rees Mogg’s so-called European Research Group of extreme Brexiters.

So where an imaginative, genuinely pro-EU Scottish Conservative group might have challenged the Tory right to defend the Union by reconsidering Brexit or at least reconsidering a hard Brexit, there is no chance of this in today’s Scotland.

Scottish Labour also chose, via procedural manoeuvres, at its spring conference in Dundee last weekend to avoid a vote on whether to adopt a policy of staying in the EU’s single market. It might have been embarrassing to Jeremy Corbyn – whose speech in Dundee suggested a ‘cake and eat’ it approach to access to the single market that rivalled some of May’s wishful thinking. Ian Murray, Catherine Stihler, and Kezia Dugdale have set up a rebel Scottish Labour campaign to keep the UK in a customs union and the single market. But Scottish Labour’s spring conference missed its moment to make a real impact on the UK debate and on UK Labour.

The LibDems continue to argue the case for a further EU referendum on the deal – an argument that has increasing support in opinion polls in Scotland and the rest of the UK. But for now Scottish political party dynamics mean that the SNP is working, at Westminster, with Labour rebels, LibDems and Green MPs to push for a ‘soft’ Brexit but not to halt Brexit.

Of course, there are some on the pro-independence side who hope and believe that Brexit may yet contribute to a shift in opinion towards independence and that a bad, hard Brexit deal or even ‘no deal’ Brexit might trigger an early indyref2. But the economics of independence, including a potential hard border between Scotland and England, look much worse under a hard Brexit. And the continued delay in publishing the SNP’s Growth Commission report suggests a lack of urgency in taking up the economic arguments around independence.

In Dublin, Brexit is expected to be at least as damaging or more so for Ireland than the UK. Independence does not protect Scotland from the damage of Brexit. And whether a hard Brexit and hard border amount to a better chance of a successful vote for independence and for a successful start to independence are, to say the least, debateable questions.

A Lack of Ambition

But Scotland’s muted response to Brexit is not only about the unionist/independence divide. There is perhaps a lack of ambition here and a failure to seize the moment – perhaps one that is similar in some ways to the rest of the UK with Labour’s rebels pushing, in the main, for a ‘soft’ Brexit not to halt Brexit.

Labour politicians fears of the ‘will of the people’ (no longer the will of the people according to the polls) mixes with its own analysis of its electoral chances in England and with Corbyn’s eurosceptic tendencies. In Scotland, the SNP’s alertness to its ‘yes leavers’ support, and to not setting awkward precedents for future independence votes, is resulting in a more passive stance than might have been expected. As a result ‘remain’ voters are poorly represented.

Yet the Brexit political dynamics are fragile. A small step by one party could have knock-on, domino impacts elsewhere – if parties aimed to lead not to wait for political developments and for opinion to shift.

The Scottish Greens could back a further EU referendum and put pressure on the SNP to do the same. The SNP could stop dithering on a further EU referendum and come out for one too. That might not shift Corbyn in a hurry but it would add to the complex Labour dynamics that have slowly but eventually shifted Labour to at least support a customs union.

Scottish Labour could have chosen to back the single market – or its ‘soft’ Brexit rebels could in fact still choose to speak out for halting Brexit in the interests of Scotland and the whole UK. Ruth Davidson could have chosen ‘soft’ Brexit or another vote over fish, and backing May.

There is a big gap here – and one question is whether civil society can step successfully into it. The European Movement in Scotland is opposing Brexit and calling for a vote on the deal – but it would need a big grassroots network to really put pressure on Scotland’s political parties. There is an untapped energy, anger, concern and passion in Scotland on Brexit. It’s a failure of politics that that energy and opposition to Brexit is not so far being translated into any serious halt Brexit strategy.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.