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Brexit’s reorientation of Scottish politics

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  • Picture of Anthony Salamone FRSA
    Anthony Salamone FRSA
  • Economics and Finance
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Anthony Salamone FRSA on the decisive impact of Brexit on Scotland’s political system and the independence debate.

The conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the expiration of the UK’s transition period have brought some finality to Brexit. Nevertheless, the development of the new bilateral relationship between the EU and the UK will require further attention, negotiation and investment in the years ahead. Given the significant disparities in political and economic weight, the UK will largely find itself in the EU’s outer orbit.

As we begin the Brexit era, experiencing the full consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU for the first time, the moment is opportune to consider the transformative impact of Brexit on Scotland’s political system. It is well understood that the Scottish public did not support leaving the EU. Indeed, that fact is one of the few aspects of Scottish politics known across Europe and the wider world. Yet, Brexit has also catalysed a profound reorientation of the political landscape in Scotland, which is far from finished.

This reorientation has manifested in four dimensions: the prospect of a new independence referendum; the reshaping of political parties; the redefinition of devolution and intergovernmental relations; and the evolution of public opinion on independence.

A new independence referendum

The independence debate is the defining core of Scottish politics. Significant matters that have arisen over the past few years – namely, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic – have interacted with it in different ways. Brexit has become full integrated into the constitutional question, both substantively on Scotland’s relationship with the EU and instrumentally on its role within the UK union.

In its initial stages, the pandemic led to a minimisation of discussion on independence, though it remained latent in the political background. More recently, the constitutional conversation has resumed, now incorporating the issues of economic and social recovery generated by the pandemic.

Fundamentally, Brexit has raised the realistic prospect of a new independence referendum much sooner than had been previously anticipated. Before the EU referendum, the general view was that the Scottish National Party (SNP), the largest pro-independence party and party of government since 2007, would not look to hold a second referendum until clear and consistent majority support for independence had first been established. However, the contrast in June 2016 between the majority in Scotland for remaining in the EU and the UK-wide result to leave the EU altered the political equation.

In her first statement in the aftermath of the EU referendum, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested that a logical consequence of Brexit could be a new independence referendum. Subsequently, the Scottish government and wider pro-independence actors developed the argument that exiting the EU constituted a ‘material change of circumstances’ for Scotland, compared to the constitutional options in the 2014 referendum. According to this line of reasoning, it was now warranted to hold a new referendum sooner than had been intended.

By contrast, the UK government and Scotland’s pro-UK parties do not believe that a new referendum should happen for the foreseeable future. Sturgeon has twice sought to reach agreement with the UK prime minister on a referendum – in March 2017 with Theresa May, and in December 2019 with Boris Johnson – without success.

Two parallel debates are in progress: the procedural debate on whether a referendum should take place and the substantive debate on whether Scotland should become independent. Redefined by Brexit, they will both be central to the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election currently scheduled for this spring.

Political parties and Europe

The EU referendum result presented Scotland’s political parties with challenges that have affected their positions and identities. During the campaign, the five parties in the Scottish Parliament at the time– the SNP, Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, Scottish Greens and Scottish Liberal Democrats – all supported remaining in the EU. Mainstream Scottish politics as a whole was predominantly pro-EU.

In the intervening years, the parties have been obliged to respond to circumstances which they did not seek. While they succeeded in persuading the Scottish electorate to back EU membership, the overall UK result to leave the EU created a definitional contrast, in that it was no longer possible for Scotland to be both part of the UK and in the EU. This reality has led to a reshaping of the parties. In particular, it rendered the primary ideology among the pro-UK parties – pro-European Scottish unionism – obsolete.

Although such a demise is not a difficulty for the SNP, Brexit nevertheless tested the party. It has generated substantial new questions on the case for independence, related to the divergence between an independent Scotland in the EU and a post-Brexit UK outside it. The focus of the SNP’s response to Brexit also changed over time: moving from an early emphasis on securing a ‘soft Brexit’, to eventually supporting a second EU referendum, to finally arguing to ‘stop Brexit’ outright at the 2019 UK general election. While the party has long advocated ‘independence in Europe’, its evolution on Brexit has meant that it is now more strongly identified as a pro-EU party.

In mirror fashion, the Scottish Conservatives travelled in the opposite direction on Europe. Faced with the dilemma of a pro-EU result in Scotland, but as part of a UK-wide referendum, the Conservatives decided to reinforce their already-strong support for the UK union and to attract pro-Brexit voters. In deference to the UK Conservative Party, the Scottish party made successive compromises: first arguing for an ‘open Brexit’, then advocating Brexit with any deal, and then accepting a no-deal Brexit if necessary. The Scottish Conservatives forged a new identity, combining pro-UK and pro-Brexit positions.

Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats sought to sustain their pro-UK and pro-EU stances, in what is arguably now the least inhabitable space in Scottish politics. Its polarisation into a pro-EU, independence side and a pro-Brexit (or passive-Brexit), UK side leaves ever less room for these parties. While they were able to differentiate themselves somewhat by arguing for a softer Brexit and supporting an extension of the transition, for instance, the end of the formal Brexit process eliminates opportunities for them to make such distinctions.

The Scottish Greens, the other pro-independence party in the Parliament, remained steadfastly pro-EU since the 2016 referendum. The party has exercised decisive influence during the parliamentary term, such as on the budget, as the SNP currently operates a minority government. However, on Brexit, the party was less successful in distinguishing itself from the SNP and channelling its pro-EU voice into electoral success, particularly at the 2019 European Parliament election, where its vote remained static.

Devolution and intergovernmental relations

Brexit also precipitated a redefinition of Scotland’s existing constitutional settlement and the relationship between the Scottish and UK governments. The powers and functions of Scotland’s political institutions have been affected in two principal ways. First, leaving the EU has materially changed policies and policymaking. The system of devolution was built around EU membership, and numerous disagreements have ensued over where EU-related powers should reside after Brexit, how those determinations should be made and what degree of continued EU alignment Scotland can pursue.

Second, the manner in which the Brexit process was conducted has demonstrated the clear limits to the agency of Scottish political institutions under devolution, where the UK government has resolved to pursue a different course. The legislative consent procedure – through which the UK government seeks the agreement of the Scottish Parliament before the UK Parliament legislates on devolved matters – has arguably been proven to be useless.

Brexit legislation, including the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 and the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020, has been enacted over the Scottish Parliament’s refusal of legislative consent. The UK Internal Market Act 2020 was similarly rejected, but advanced regardless. Moreover, support in the Scottish Parliament for these refusals was strong, with all the parliamentary parties except the Scottish Conservatives united behind them.

Intergovernmental relations, at both political and official levels, have equally deteriorated to perhaps their lowest level since devolution began. The discord between the Scottish and UK governments has spanned issues concerning participation, information sharing and influence on the internal preparations for Brexit and the external withdrawal and future relationship negotiations with the EU.

Moreover, their differing ideologies – pro-EU Europeanism in Edinburgh and pro-Brexit Euroscepticism in London – have been almost impossible to bridge. Beyond the implications for the independence debate, this degree of animosity does not bode well for the governance of the UK state in the years ahead.

Public opinion on independence

More recently, and potentially most significantly, Brexit has substantially contributed to an evolution of public opinion on independence. Since June 2020, the last 18 consecutive published opinion polls have shown majorities for independence among decided voters. The margins have varied, but support for statehood has reached a high of 58% to date, when undecided voters are excluded.

While multiple factors have contributed to this development, including Sturgeon’s communication approach on the pandemic and the lack of support for Johnson’s policies, opinions and style, Brexit is the predominant driver of this inflection in public views on the prospect of Scottish independence. The UK’s formal departure from the EU and the distant nature of the new EU-UK relationship, combined with its recent exit from the transition, have made Brexit real for many voters. In the choice between the European Union and the UK union, more of them now seem to favour the former.

It remains to be seen whether this newfound popular support for independence endures over the medium term or indeed materialises in a future referendum. Brexit has redefined Scotland’s politics, and the Holyrood election later this year will be the first opportunity for the Scottish electorate to express an official opinion in the post-transition Brexit era. Their determination at that election should prove decisive for Scotland’s political and constitutional future.

Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, a political analysis firm in Edinburgh. A political scientist, he is a member of the Edinburgh Europa Institute.

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