Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to back a second Brexit referendum will come as no surprise to those who understand her or her party. Her only hesitation has been that Scotland had already made its position clear when 62% of Scottish voters supported Remain, and there is a danger that a second referendum would still result in a vote to Leave.
During the Brexit referendum, some commentators suggested that the SNP privately wanted the UK as a whole to vote Leave, and Scotland to vote Remain. It was assumed to part of the SNP’s game plan to force a second independence referendum. Tony Blair was amongst those who assumed that such a scenario would play into the SNP’s hands and lead to Scottish independence.
But this obsession with the SNP as a Machiavellian machine pursuing independence at any cost betrayed a lack of understanding of that party and of Scottish politics.
The SNP leadership have always understood that Brexit would create significant new challenges. It hoped that the UK would remain in the EU. To understand why, it is necessary to understand the nature of its primary goal. Independence in Europe has been the SNP’s stated objective for thirty years.
At that time European integration was moving apace under the skilful leadership of Jacques Delors, French Socialist President of the European Commission. His vision of the European Union appealed to many in the SNP, with its emphasis on social Europe and an EU that was mindful of diversity within states as well as between states.
The fact that Margaret Thatcher strenuously opposed Delors only encouraged the SNP to embrace European Union membership.
But most important was a fundamental change in SNP understanding of independence. For many years, the SNP had been accused of wanting to build border controls between Scotland and England. The ‘separatist’ label had stuck amongst sections of the electorate.
Jim Sillars, one of the leading advocates of independence in Europe then (who has subsequently changed his view on EU membership), argued that independence in Europe ‘destroys the separatist jibe forever’.
In essence, the SNP retained nationalist rhetoric with references to ‘independence’, but adopted a policy of seeking state interdependence with the UK and within the wider EU. But in the context of Brexit, the key aspect of this policy is not what the SNP wanted for Scotland, but what it had assumed would be the case regarding the rest of the UK (rUK). It was assumed that rUK would remain in the EU.
The border between Scotland and rUK would be much like it had always been. EU membership on both sides of the border meant the continued free movement of people, goods, capital and services.
Brexit changes that. An independent Scotland as a member of the European Union would have a land border with rUK outside the EU. Many of the problems brilliantly articulated in Bordering two unions, a recent book on Northern Ireland and Brexit, would also confront an independent Scotland.
There would not be the prospect of disrupting the peace process as in Northern Ireland but the frictionless border would be replaced by some border controls – even with what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘soft Brexit’.
Separatism has returned to UK politics: not through any policy position from the SNP, but because of Brexit separatism. Nicola Sturgeon knows this well. While public opinion in Scotland diverged from rUK in the Brexit referendum and will likely diverge further as many Scots feel increasingly alienated from policies pursued by a government in London with little support in Scotland, it does not follow that voters in Scotland will turn increasingly to independence.
Much will depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. The harder the Brexit, the more challenging the border issue becomes for an independent Scotland in the EU. It will also make Scots more aggrieved, more alienated but probably no more likely to support independence.
The SNP’s best prospect lies in a reversal of the Brexit decision. But anyone who believes that locking Scotland into the UK through Brexit is a solution, should be aware of fomenting a sense of aggrieved alienation that modern Scottish nationalism long since abandoned.
Brexit was built on grievance politics and looks set to create more grievances and even reignite old Scottish grievances. There are no winners in this constitutional imbroglio with Brexit. That is why Nicola Sturgeon supports a second Brexit referendum.
By James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy, University of Edinburgh.