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The inconvenient fact of Yes/Leave voters

The passing tourist of Scottish politics can be pardoned for presuming Scotland to be a land of excitable swivel-eyed devotees of the European integrationist project, where attitudes towards mass immigration and its cultural and economic benefits are a pole apart from the primitive tribalism expressed by our backward southern neighbours.

That is if one paid attention to no-one but the bleatings of Scotland’s right-on political and media class as nowhere is the chasm between the concerns of Scottish voters and the views of their elected politicians more divergent than on the issue of the European Union. 38% of Scottish voters supported leaving the EU whilst 5% of its MSP’s (7 out of 129) did the same. At Westminster, 24% of MP’s (158 out of 650) backed leaving the EU.

Even more surprising to the casual visitor would be the fact that SNP voters are the most Eurosceptic in Scotland and voted in the greatest number of any political party to leave the EU. It is estimated that around 1/3 of 2014 Yes voters also voted Leave in 2016, which means roughly 500,000 Yes voters supported the abandonment of the European Union in clear defiance of their political leaders.

The SNP appear intent on airbrushing Scottish Brexiteers out of history but it is the most inconvenient of facts that 1,018,322 Scots voted to leave the EU, a figure which is only 2% less than the 1,040,030 who voted for the SNP to form the Scottish government and Nicola Sturgeon to be First Minister. The SNP’s north east heartlands registered the largest votes in support of leaving the EU. 49.9% of voters in Moray voted Leave, as did 45% of Aberdeenshire, 40% of Aberdeen City and 45% of Angus.

Considering the plaudits the SNP receive for their mastery of the political arena one would have expected them to factor this concern into their strategizing, seeing as they will need to rely on these voters in the event of any second Scottish referendum.

But not only have the SNP erred in tieing Scottish independence to the European Union and framing the debate as one of Scotland in the UK vs Scotland in the EU they have behaved like a Remoaner caricature in rejecting the UK result and consistently denouncing those who voted Leave as motivated by mindless xenophobia whose democratic expression has unleashed a tidal wave of bigotry upon the land.

The SNP hierarchy gives the impression of not ever having stopped to consider that this significant section of their core support voted to leave the EU for many of the reasons they backed leaving the UK – because of a desire for greater democratic control over their own lives. Not only is the SNP’s “Independence in EU” posturing having the result of pushing Yes/Leave voters further and further away from supporting Scottish independence it will also impair them electorally, as the 400,000 SNP Leave voters are now being alienated by the core policy of their party.

During the 2014 referendum less than 15% of voters considered the EU a priority and 6% of voters believed Scotland should adopt the Euro as its currency. In 2014, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey found just 9% of people in Scotland described themselves as ‘European’, compared with 15% for Britain as a whole. Furthermore, over 60% of Scots believe current levels of immigration are too high and should be reduced, with SNP voters amongst those most in support of such a policy that is only possible outside the European Union.

It is clear there is not exactly a groundswell of support for the European Union in Scotland. Scots may be broadly in favour of being in the EU but the level of backing is shallow. The SNP have taken the 2016 Scottish Remain vote as evidence of a deep reservoir of European belonging and have dived in headfirst in an attempt to build support amongst aggrieved No/Remain voters.

Such a strategy can only be oblivious to the reality that the emotional resonance of Scots towards the EU and Europe is minimal compared to that towards the UK. On every economic, political, cultural, historical and social level the UK is the vastly more important union to Scotland.

Yet the SNP’s “Independence in the EU” strategy now depends on attracting Remain voting Unionists to their cause while losing as few independence-supporting Eurosceptics as possible. In this they are failing and their strategy is backfiring as they are losing more Yes/Leave voters than they are gaining No/Remain voters.

The SNP are taking Yes/Leave voters for fools. If there was more ideological diversity amongst the upper echelons of the SNP and organisations such as the Greens they may be a little more self-aware of the route their gung-ho Europhilia is taking them. As it stands they are taking a core section of their electorate for granted and risk alienating them for good. Yes/Leave voters will see indyref2 as exchanging rule by Westminster for an even more undemocratic, unjust and expensive rule by Brussels.

The SNP would be loath to admit it but their 2014 referendum was part of the same anti-establishment populist backlash that followed on into the EU referendum and US presidential elections, is set to reverberate into Europe throughout 2017 and beyond and will define the Western political landscape for a generation.

An electorate still angry over the financial crash and feeling ignored by their political leaders has now awoken from its slumber to vent their outrage towards the establishment at the ballot box. It is therefore somewhat of a miscalculation that by their angling for a trigger to launch a second referendum the SNP have chosen to position themselves as the face of the most establishment institution of all, the European Union. The populist tsunami the SNP rode in 2014 is now set to be turned against them in a second Scottish referendum as voters see them allied with a distant, out-of-touch technocratic elite that is contemptuous of their concerns.

Scotland is due to receive a deluge of highly valuable democratic powers as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU. Sovereignty over farming, employment law, state aid and procurement rules as well as the return of Scotland’s historic fishing territories will have strong appeal to Yes/Leave voters in any second independence referendum as a reason for choosing to remain within the UK rather than return these powers and more to the EU. The recovery of these powers also has the benefit of diluting the emotional appeal of Scottish independence by highlighting that Scotland will have greater democratic sovereignty across many more areas by remaining in the UK than by voting for Independence and joining the EU.

Generating support for and then winning a second Scottish referendum now depends on convincing voters to support Scotland joining the EU on much worse conditions than the privileged arrangement of multiple opt-outs the UK enjoyed, with Eurozone membership, full EU budget contributions and uncontrolled EU immigration being a few of the unpalatable choices they will be asked to swallow. In nearly every way the costs and downsides of separating from the UK have become accentuated by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Brexit has wounded the cause of Scottish independence and made it more difficult for Yes to prevail in a second referendum by splitting the separatist vote and causing the SNP to alienate Yes-voters who reject the European Union.

Brexit also has the potential to harm the SNP electorally, especially in the north east of Scotland, where almost half the electorate supported leaving the EU for the purpose of regaining control over fishing, farming and immigration and will now be less inclined to support a party that refuses to respect this position.

The SNP are hunting for independence support amongst Scotland’s Remain voting majority by seeking to channel their outrage at having to leave the EU. This strategy may win over a few well-heeled Edinburgh graduates but it will repel an even larger number of C2DE Yes voters. One doubts that EU-enforced austerity, membership of the Euro and enhanced payments to Brussels shall prove to be rallying cries in the working class Yes-voting strongholds of Glasgow.

About Joe Ray

Profile photo of Joe Ray
Joe Ray lives in Edinburgh and works in the social investment sector. He writes about Scottish and British politics and in particular how Brexit has changed the dynamic of the Scottish constitutional debate.

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