Brexit could increase support for independence in pro-EU Scotland

Dr Malcolm Harvey on #StatelessChallenges

News / 03.5.16

Dr Malcolm Harvey, Research Fellow at the University of Abderdeen, spoke at a conference entitled “Stateless Nations and Europe: New Challenges, New Opportunities” on a panel looking at new territorial strategies in Europe, which took place at the University of Minho on 18 April 2016.

According to Dr Harvey, there is a perception that nationalism and European integration are somewhat contradictory ambitions, but recent research suggests that, especially for Scottish and Catalan parties, nationalism and EU integration actually complement each other. They act as mirror images, challenging EU Member States from both below and above. This feeds into the strategies of nationalist parties by emphasizing a new system of “re-scaling” of politics, with multi-level governance as a key factor, allowing minority nationalists to focus on post-sovereignty and interdependence as constitutional objectives.

Dr Harvey explained that there are, broadly, 4 phases to the SNP’s strategy on the EU: 1950s (broadly pro); 1960s-1980s (anti); late 1980s-1990s (pro); and 2000s (pro, but tepid). They now see the EU as an opportunity for statecraft activities and to establish Scotland as an international player. Scottish public opinion is favourable to the EU (in some recent polls, this extends to as much as 2:1 in favour), so a pro-EU position is also a pragmatic electoral strategy. But this is where the strategic paradox lies for the party.

In the UK’s referendum on EU membership in June, it is entirely possible that Scotland will vote to remain in the EU while England votes to leave. But the overall outcome could go either way, meaning that Scotland could be forced to leave with the rest of the UK after voting to remain in, or, alternatively, England could be forced to remain in on the basis of Scotland’s vote in favour of remaining.  In either of those scenarios, internal constitutional questions arise. He argued that the electorate on either side of the Anglo-Scottish border could be over-ruled by those on the opposite side.

Thus, paradoxically, the SNP’s strategy in supporting the EU may actually be more effective for their long-term constitutional objective (independence) if the UK withdraws from the EU. A “Brexit” against the wishes of the Scottish electorate would increase grievance in Scotland, substantially increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament and potentially increase support for independence. At the same time, it would remove the EU as a level for statecraft activities and require Scotland to begin a new accession process to gain membership – a significant drawback in the SNP’s plans for an independent Scotland.