14 June 2021

Scots are slowly realising you can’t be independent and in the EU

By Ian Mitchell

It may not look like it from the outside, but the independence movement in Scotland is riven by a fundamental question – should an unattached Scotland join the EU or should it become genuinely independent like, say, Canada or New Zealand? SNP voters are split on the issue, which is why the party leadership has kept so quiet about it. But the more Brexit reveals weaknesses within the EU, and opportunities for Britain outside it, the more this problem will come to the fore. The SNP’s dilemma is real, and it’s an opportunity to force a realistic debate on Scotland’s future on a reluctant party leadership . 

The fact is that the Scottish electorate is broadly split three ways. The first group, who might be called the Blue Water Patriots, want to see Scotland continue as part of a progressive, outward-looking United Kingdom which helps take the rule of law out to a world which really needs it, and which prospers through having more freedom than it would if it were shackled to Brussels.

The second group, who might be called the Misty Glen Patriots, want Scotland to be independent of all outside powers, like Brexit Britain but smaller. It, too, would try to uphold the rule of law and, as such, would be able to co-operate easily with the rest of the UK. There would be no need of a hard border between the two states any more than there is between Canada and the US. 

The third group, who might be called the Euro-Submissives, want to transfer power from Edinburgh and London to Brussels. Among the negative consequences would be a lack of reciprocity between the rulers and the ruled, resulting in serious damage to the underlying principle of the rule of law. That solution would require a hard border between Scotland and England rather as there is now between Britain and Belgium.

The problem, which is slowly dawning on Scottish people, is that you cannot be independent and a member of the EU. They are mutually incompatible constitutional positions. The SNP knows this but avoids confronting the issue, hoping that by burying it, an independence mandate can be obtained in such a way that those who want genuine independence will be forced to accept “independence in Europe”. Sturgeon’s silence on this dilemma is an attempt to get Scotland into Europe by sleight of soundbite.

Compounding the nationalists’ current gloom is the fact that the election last month was not the victory Sturgeon and her followers predicted. It was a draw. In the first past the post constituency votes, parties supporting independence achieved 49.5% of the votes, and in the regional, or ‘list’ votes, where there is proportional representation, they achieved almost exactly 50%. Since that was within 2% of the 2016 result, it shows that five years of Brexit, Boris Johnson, Leo Varadkar, Covid with daily Sturgeon press conferences, and even a splendid victory over England at Twickenham in February, has made little difference to the way the Scots actually demonstrate their feelings about independence in elections rather than polls. The idea that it is the “settled will” of the Scottish people is nonsense. 

We already know that many SNP supporters are pro-Brexit. The strategy for the next five years should, I would suggest, be to split the “indy” vote into those Misty Glenners and Euro-Submissives. Of the roughly 50% of the electorate which voted for independence-supporting parties last month, I would suggest – and this is a guess as there are no official figures – about two thirds want the warm embrace of Brussels while about a third would prefer the bracing winds of “their wee bit hill and glen” (as we sing before rugby internationals). The result is that there are many who voted for an unspecified “independence” last month who would not vote for any scheme which would explicitly take Scotland back into the EU. 

If half of the Misty Glenners voted NO in a referendum that would yield a majority for staying in the Union of about 60% to 40%. As every independence supporter knows, if a second referendum produced a result like that the SNP would be dead in the water and the entire constitutional issue booted into the long grass for at least a generation, if not permanently. 

It is therefore the duty of every Blue Water Patriot to try to drive a wedge of reality and fact between the Misty Glen Patriots and the Euro-Submissives so that the next election reflects the real views of all Scots. 

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Ian Mitchell is the author of 'The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 20th Century Scotland'

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.