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Scotland wants to avoid Brexit but doesn't know how

Peter Geoghegan Glasgow
August 17, 2018

Scottish voters overwhelmingly rejected Britain quitting the European Union. As Brexit draws nearer, many are anxious for Scotland to find a way out, but not necessarily at the price of leaving the United Kingdom.

Symbolbild Brexit EU Großbritannien Schottland Flaggen
Image: Getty Images/JJ.Mitchell

Time has done little to soften Nicola Sturgeon's view of Brexit. In June 2016, the day after the referendum, the Scottish first minister declared that a second vote on independence was "on the table" after almost two-thirds of Scots voted to remain in the European Union.

More than two years later, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader remains implacably opposed to leaving the European Union. Most of her compatriots feel the same: Polls indicate Scottish support for staying in the EU has risen further in recent months.

Read more: EU Customs Union, Single Market, Brexit — What you need to know

But opinion remains divided on what Scotland should do about the prospect of leaving the EU. On Saturday about 600 people are expected to attend a rally in Edinburgh in support of another vote on Brexit, as part of a summer of action coordinated by the People's Vote campaign.

Almost half of Scots would like a vote on the terms of the UK's departure from the European Union, according to recent polls. But Sturgeon — who has said that both a second referendum on Brexit and on Scottish independence are possible — has so far stopped short of backing calls for a so-called people's vote.

"You can't tell people they have got it wrong, that doesn't work in a democracy. When push comes to shove anything that undermines popular sovereignty is always going to be something the SNP is wary of," SNP MEP Alyn Smith told DW.

Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell at a polling station
Nicola Sturgeon has left the door open for a new vote on Brexit as well as on independenceImage: REUTERS/R. Cheyne

Smith said that any demand for a people's vote would have to come from England, where a majority of voters backed leaving the European Union in 2016.

"If [a second Brexit referendum] becomes a thing in England, we will not stand in the way of it, but it needs to become a thing in England. Scotland already voted and it voted to remain [in the EU]," says Smith.

Scots feel left out

Whether Scotland — and the rest of the UK — does vote again on Brexit will likely come down to the view of the Labour party. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, long skeptical of the European project, has resisted calls for another vote on the EU, but Scottish Labour MEP Catherine Stihler believes demands for a people's vote are "gaining resonance" both inside and outside her party.

"We have got to keep campaigning and advocating for a people's vote. It is the right way to take things forward," Stihler told DW. "People didn't vote for us to be ripped out of the single market and the customs union. It is only fair that people should have a say on what is decided."

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson — who now commands 13 MPs — was a vocal Remain supporter in 2016. In the aftermath of the referendum she called for an "open" Brexit that prioritizes free trade both with EU countries and the rest of the world. But many of her supporters backed Brexit, and Davidson has shown little willingness to diverge from Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit position.

Read more: Scottish fishermen could be 'sold down the river'

Brexit has exposed divisions between London and Edinburgh. The Scottish government has struggled to influence a process that has been very centralized from Westminster. Almost two-thirds of Scottish voters believe the UK government is ignoring their concerns over Brexit, according to recent polling.

Fishing boats in Peterhead, Scotland
It's unclear how great an impact Brexit will have on Scotland's economyImage: DW/P. Geoghegan

Many Scottish businesses are wary of leaving the EU. Representatives of the food and drink, tourism, health and social care sectors have pointed to difficulties recruiting and training staff to cope with demand for their services, particularly in Scotland's many rural communities.

With an aging population and lower levels of migration compared with the rest of the UK, Scotland risks being particularly exposed after Brexit, especially if — as Theresa May intends — the UK leaves the single market.

Brexit hasn't fueled independence push

But, so far, Brexit has not had the expected galvanizing effect for Scottish nationalists. A slim majority continues to be favor of remaining in the UK. At the same time, Brexit is often absent from the Scottish political debate.

Middle-class Scots — a constituency that largely voted to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014 — voted heavily to stay in the EU but so far remain unconvinced by the prospects for an independent Scotland. At the same time as many as a third of those Scots who voted yes to independence in 2014 also voted for Brexit.

Nicola Sturgeon has maintained that a second referendum on Scottish independence is still an option. Last March, the first minister called for the power to hold another vote on leaving the EU — but Prime Minister May refused.

Throughout the summer grassroots independence supporters have held rallies across Scotland. But some leading nationalists believe the SNP should wait to see what emerges from Brexit before committing fully to another independence referendum. This week one former SNP minister, Alex Neil, said the party should hold off until the "early 2020s" before holding another vote.

Two disappointed campaigners for Scottish independence
Brexit fears have overshadowed dreams of independenceImage: Getty Images/J. J. Mitchell

James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh University and co-author of The Scottish National Party: Transition to Power, says that while the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal would not in itself shift Scots' views on independence "the consequences of no deal have the potential to shift opinion." 

But Mitchell does not see a second independence referendum "coming any time soon."

"The costs of losing a second referendum could be very high. I imagine this cautious first minister will be reluctant to risk this until she is convinced she can win."

Brexit remains unpopular with most Scottish voters. But with little sign of a significant shift in their attitudes around independence, Sturgeon, for now, seems likely to keep the option of another vote on leaving the UK on the table, but off the ballot papers.

DW talks with Nicola Sturgeon