Brexit: the Scottish Dimension

Those south of the border (and sometimes those north of it) may find it hard to understand just how different the political scene is in Scotland both generally and more specifically about Brexit.

Even before devolution in 1999, Scotland was different – a separate legal system, a different education system and the lack of an established church were just the most obvious differences.  Since then devolved powers have expanded the differences markedly. Scotland has become much more self-confident culturally, too, in the last 20 years or so.

The media is quite separate too – The Scotsman, the Daily Record, the (Glasgow) Herald, The (Dundee) Courier), the (Aberdeen) Press and Journal and, above all, the Sunday Post are all widely read. And the (Scottish) Sun takes a different line from its UK parent. Then of course there are BBC Scotland, STV, and Radio Scotland, which is widely listened to.

In the arts there are the 3 Scottish National Galleries and the National Museum of Scotland, all in Edinburgh. Then there’s the National Theatre of Scotland as well Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble all part of a vibrant performing arts scene. And you mustn’t forget that Scotland boasts its own sporting teams in just about everything from rugby to netball. 

Politically the major – and obvious – difference is the strength of the Scottish National Party (SNP). After devolution in 1999, there was a Labour/Lib Dem coalition but in 2007 this was replaced by a minority SNP administration. Even with being elected by proportional representation the SNP managed to win an absolute majority in 2011. They didn’t repeat this in 2016 and now govern with the support of the Scottish Green Party.

With their overall majority in 2011, the SNP were able to follow through on their manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on independence.  Held in 2014 the result was a clear win for the Union with 45% for independence and 55% against.  Although the result appears pretty clear cut, there was panic in the anti-independence ranks when a poll the weekend before the vote suggested a narrow lead for ‘Yes’ (to independence). Gordon Brown was wheeled out to make the so-called ‘pledge’ of greater powers to the Scottish government.

It’s worth noting that both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems campaigned against independence; the Scottish Greens supported it. The campaign was fought vigorously on both sides and has definitely led to greater political engagement in Scotland. One argument likely to have swung it for ‘No’ was the so-called ‘project fear’ about the economic consequences of independence. Ironically another strong argument against independence was that it would take Scotland out of the EU!  

In the Brexit referendum in 2016, Scotland voted convincingly for Remain by 62% to 38%. Given the UK wide vote to Leave, the SNP government saw this as a chance to bolster support for Independence and a further referendum. This was duly proposed in February 2017 and vigorously opposed by Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems.

One cannot ignore Westminster in all this. The impact of Scotland on Westminster general elections may be under appreciated. In 1992, against expectations John Major re-entered No 10; 12 Scottish Tories provided his majority. In 1997 when Labour swept to power the Tories were wiped out in Scotland with most of their seats going to the SNP or Lib Dems. The Tories regained one Scottish seat in 2001 and that was the only one they held until 2017. The 2015 GE also produced a dramatic result in Scotland with the SNP taking 56 of the 59 seats reducing Labour and the Lib Dems – along with the Tories – to one seat apiece. And this on about 50% of the popular vote; an inevitable consequence of the first past the post electoral system for Westminster elections.

The big shift in 2017 was a result of the three unionist parties campaigning on an anti-independence platform. FPTP won 13 Scottish seats for the Tories, giving Theresa May and now Boris Johnson their majority. An echo of 1992 perhaps! It’s worth noting that Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular in Scotland, much more so than south of the border.

So where does this leave Scotland on Brexit? The official SNP line is strongly pro EU but some 30% of their supporters are actually for Leave. The Tory position is of course for Leave but their Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, is a strong Remainer and while Labour vascillates its Scottish leader, known as a eurosceptic, has now come out in favour of a further vote on any Brexit pledging to campaign for Remain. The Lib Dems are unionist but pro EU and the Greens support independence and are also pro EU. As a result Labour and the Lib Dems seem to be more focused on fighting the SNP than the Tory Westminster government. The Lib Dems, in particular, seem to use all their limited bandwidth to attack the SNP, not for, say, their record on education, but because of the SNP’s stance on independence. This completely overwhelms their views on Brexit and makes an anti-Brexit alliance very difficult to form. In many ways it’s bizarre as the Lib Dems have traditionally been in favour of ‘Home Rule’ and of the type of electoral reform which would inevitably result in coalitions with their equally inevitable compromises.