September 11, 2015

Scotland in the Whirlwind of the Referendum on Britain’s Membership in the EU

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visits Craigentinny Primary School in Edinburgh to meet pupils taking part in active maths and active literacy lessons, as she prepares to set out how she plans to use new powers that are coming to Holyrood both "creatively and ambitiously".
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visits Craigentinny Primary School in Edinburgh to meet pupils taking part in active maths and active literacy lessons, as she prepares to set out how she plans to use new powers that are coming to Holyrood both "creatively and ambitiously".

It is in Estonia’s interests to support Scotland in keeping the United Kingdom within the European Union.

In the 2014 referendum, 55% of the residents of Scotland who had the right to vote voted against independence for Scotland. In the arguments of Westminster, this percentage of people voting against independence showed the will of the Scottish nation.1 However, 45% of those Scottish residents who had the right to vote did vote for independence, which means that over 1.5 million people wanted to leave a union that has lasted in its current form for 308 years.2
This cultural and political schism has shown no signs of disappearing. The opposite in fact, as English nationalism has gained new popularity first and foremost through UKIP, while Scottish nationalists who strongly support the European Union have started to support the SNP and Scotland’s current first minister Nicola Sturgeon. It is important to mention that nationalism is expressed in different forms in England and Scotland. In academic circles, UKIP is considered a far-right party that is historically known primarily for its Euroscepticism. Likewise, UKIP may be said to be a conservative nationalist party characterised by the view that supranational organisations threaten a state’s cultural and national identity. The SNP, on the other hand, is a social democratic party that is engaged in developing the Scots’ self-awareness as a nation and promotes the view that the Scottish people have a different identity from that of the English. Thus it is a liberal nationalist party that supports the right of national self-determination. Therefore, in England, one of the driving forces of the EU referendum is Euroscepticism, and the Scottish opposition to this is based on national self-awareness.
Discussions held after the independence referendum have shown that even those residents of Scotland who voted against independence a year ago are in favour of remaining in the EU, and the EU referendum is becoming a point of support for the SNP. Sturgeon thinks that the results of the EU referendum greatly depend on England, mostly because the English population is much larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words, if England votes to leave the EU, the entire United Kingdom will leave. As the SNP knows it is in the minority, it has been trying to reach an agreement that the United Kingdom will give up EU membership only if all four countries vote to do so, but this has not found favour with Prime Minister David Cameron. Sturgeon is determined and continues to support the EU, but has also pointed out that if Scotland should be forced to leave the EU against its will, there may be another independence referendum. Sturgeon has, however, also noted that another referendum may be organised only if the majority of the Scottish people want it. The EU referendum debates have undoubtedly increased the self-awareness of the Scottish people as a nation, but they have also isolated Scotland even more. The votes of the Scots, supporters of the EU, are vital in answering the question whether the United Kingdom will stay in the EU. If the United Kingdom decides to leave the EU in 2017, another independence referendum is highly probable.
The sense of indecision has only increased in the British political landscape in the context of the referendums on Scottish independence and EU membership. While the Scottish Labour Party has historically held the majority in Scotland, the number of SNP members has quadrupled since the independence referendum, and the Scottish Green Party has also grown remarkably. Undoubtedly, this happened owing to both parties’ positive attitude towards the EU. The SNP won 56 seats out of a maximum 59 at the general election held in spring, and the Labour Party lost 40 seats in Scotland.3 The SNP’s supporters have claimed that the most negative scenario for them would be if Scotland were to fail to gain independence for a second time in a row, and if they were to lose EU membership in addition to that.
The scenario concerning EU membership was considered in the run up to the independence referendum and it may be presumed that if a second referendum were organised, very similar questions would be asked. Indeed, the EU played a very important part in both the SNP nationalist campaign and the pro-union Better Together campaign. While some initially thought that an independent Scotland could automatically gain EU membership, it was discovered later that the new state would need to apply for membership. The SNP reckoned this would not be a problem since Scotland has been a member of the EU for 40 years already and it fulfils all the conditions for an applicant; they also believed that Scotland would get the approval of all 28 member states. The unionists’ campaign also discussed the EU, but pointed out that the opposite was in fact true, and Scotland’s accession to the EU would be very problematic and by no means guaranteed. One argument that underlined the many difficulties in Scotland acceding to the EU was connected to the applications of the Balkan states and Turkey, as it was explained that Scotland would have to wait until after those countries were accepted into the EU. However, new members are not accepted in a prioritised order, and applications are reviewed on the basis of a country’s readiness for accession. It would have been highly unlikely that the EU institutions would have undertaken the very expensive and time-consuming process of separating Scotland from the Union only to accept it after that again. Moreover, the associations campaigning for independence led by the Yes-campaign reminded the Conservatives of their promise to hold an EU referendum if they won the 2015 elections.4 It was claimed that if England should vote to leave the EU and Scotland against it, the only way to preserve Scottish EU membership would be for Scotland to vote for independence. The Conservative party did indeed win the elections, and the Scots voted against independence, meaning that Scotland may organise another independence referendum in the future.
During the 2014 independence referendum the unionists argued that there would be problems connected to Scotland and the EU, but the SNP currently claims that the United Kingdom’s separation from the EU without the support of Scotland may turn out to be problematic. Recent survey results show that more than half of Scottish survey participants support the United Kingdom’s EU membership, while half of the English participants want to leave the EU.5 The differences in Scotland’s and England’s views on questions related to the EU are also reflected in the preferences of the voters: supporters of large parties in Scotland, i.e. those who vote for SNP and a majority of those who vote for the Labour Party, generally support staying in the EU, while many of the supporters of England’s most popular party, the Conservatives, would prefer to leave the Union. The SNP is also likely to win next year’s Scottish parliamentary election, as they defeated the Labour Party in the general election this spring. The party has emphasised that no decision on holding a new independence referendum has yet been taken, but as the SNP claims that last year’s referendum results were not conclusive, a new referendum may be held if the United Kingdom leaves the EU. The unionists, on the other hand, say that an independent Scotland would be leaving one union to join another, and they consider the union of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom to be much stronger than the EU. David Cameron is facing an interesting challenge as it is the second time during his career when he may well become the prime minister during whose tenure the United Kingdom dissolves. The Prime Minister’s attempts to negotiate in Brussels to get more favourable conditions for the United Kingdom, avoid the state leaving the EU and prevent another independence referendum in Scotland have been unsuccessful, since the EU’s attention at the moment is mainly focused on solving the refugee crisis. The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU would also be made more difficult by the fact that should Scotland become independent, England would share a border with a very firm supporter of the EU.6 Some areas near the border of Scotland and England and a few large centres in northern England supported independence in the 2014 referendum. It is too early to discuss the consequences these two potential referendums may have on those regions or on England as a whole, but changes in the internal political climate are not inconceivable.
The discrepancies between Scotland and England in questions concerning the EU are also rooted in cultural differences. Scotland’s older generation feels that they belong to the United Kingdom, while the young identify themselves as Scots and Europeans rather than British. This tendency is much stronger in Scotland than in England, where the majority of people consider themselves primarily British. England is distancing itself from Europe on both a political and a cultural level via the media and in daily conversations between people—when talking about Europe, people mostly mean continental Europe. Although similar attitudes can also be found in Scotland, the sense of belonging to Europe is much more widespread there. The Scottish national identity seems to have spread to residents who have migrated to Scotland as well. Scottish Muslims consider themselves Scottish rather than British, and 64% of people with Middle Eastern roots voted for independence at the referendum.7 That these people feel Scottish rather than British may turn out to be crucial both during the EU membership referendum and the possible new independence referendum. It is also in the interests of the EU citizens in Scotland that the United Kingdom does not leave the EU. Although currently only British citizens have the right to vote in the EU referendum, Scotland would allow EU citizens to vote in any second independence referendum, just like in 2014. This will motivate Europeans living in Scotland to support Scottish independence in addition to its EU membership.
The EU referendum will not bring any drastic changes to British politics: remaining in the EU would not make the Euroscepticism spreading in society disappear, and separating from the EU would not make the future of the United Kingdom any clearer. It is more likely that the complex and time-consuming political negotiations which would have to be undertaken following any separation would be conducive to the uncertainty that is already ripe in British politics today. Fragmentation would be inevitable on the internal and foreign political level. A uniform EU is an important counterforce to Russian aggression, and if one of the biggest member states leaves the EU, causing the EU to split, it will mean that the security risk for Estonia could increase as a result. It is in the interests of Estonia to support Scotland in trying to keep the United Kingdom within the EU.
1 Scotland Decides – BBC, 2014. 2 Act of Union 1707 – UK Parliament. 3 Election 2015 – BBC, 2015. 4 M. Keating, The European Dimension to Scottish Constitutional Change – The Political Quarterly, 86(2), 2015, pg 201–208.
5 D. R. Edmunds, Scots Want In, English Want Out: EU Poll Reveals Split Over Brexit, 20 July 2015. 6 A. Glencross, Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question – International Affairs, 91(2) 2015, pg 303–317.
7 The thistle and the crescent – The Economist, 15–21 August 2015, pg 24.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.