Brexit has a particular edge in Scotland. In sharp contrast to the UK as a whole, the country voted decisively by 62% to 38% in favour of remaining in the EU. This had the effect of re-opening the debate about Scottish independence, against which the country had voted relatively narrowly by 55% to 45% just two years previously.
For over a quarter of a century, the SNP’s vision of independence has been one in which Scotland would be a constituent nation of the EU. In line with that stance, the party indicated in the Scottish Parliament election held just over a month before the EU referendum, that it might seek to hold another independence ballot should Scotland find itself heading for an exit from the EU against its wishes.
It was thus little surprise that, shortly after the outcome of the EU referendum was announced, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated that another independence referendum was back ‘on the table’. In the event, the path towards holding another ballot has proven far from straightforward.
Concerned that the UK government was seeking a much harder Brexit than it regarded as acceptable, in March 2017 the Scottish government made a formal request to the that the UK Parliament should grant the Scottish Parliament the legal authority it needed to be able to hold a repeat of the ballot held in 2014.
That request was rebuffed. Then, after the SNP lost 21 seats in the general election in June, the request was effectively put on hold by the First Minister until such time as the outcome of the Brexit process was clearer.
That clarity has, of course, so far not been forthcoming. Nevertheless, shortly after Easter Ms Sturgeon announced that, assuming Brexit does eventually go ahead, she wanted to hold an independence referendum before the next Scottish Parliament election due to be held in May 2021.
To that end, she was now going to introduce legislation into the Scottish Parliament that would establish the rules for a second referendum, in the hope that by the time it had reached the statute book the UK Government had either changed or been persuaded to change its mind.
These developments will ensure that the European Parliament election has a distinctive character north of the border. The debate will not only be about how Brexit should now be progressed, but also about whether Scotland should be able to seek its own solution by holding an independence referendum that might pave the way for the country to remain part of the EU even if the UK leaves.
Those in Scotland who would like to remain part of the EU therefore not only have an opportunity to vote for parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Change UK – who want the UK to hold a second EU referendum – but also to back parties such as the SNP and the Greens that – as well as supporting that move – also want Scotland to have the ability to decide the issue for itself via an independence referendum.
Early polling of how people in Scotland will vote in the European Parliament elections suggests that in practice it is the SNP that will emerge as by far the most popular choice among Remain voters. Around half of those who voted Remain in 2016 say they intend to vote for the SNP, much as they indicate they would in a Westminster or Holyrood election. This means that Labour, with only around one-fifth of the vote among Remainers, is – unlike in England – only modestly stronger among those opposed to EU membership than it is among those who voted to Leave.
Meanwhile, in common with the position south of the border, neither the Liberal Democrats nor Change UK seem able to make a major claim on the Remain vote. Meanwhile on the other side of the Brexit divide, the picture is more fragmented. True, early polling indicates that, as south of the border, many of those Leave voters who would still vote Conservative in a Westminster or a Scottish Parliament election are inclined to back the Brexit Party in the euro-ballot.
As a result, the Brexit Party already seems on course to be the most popular choice among Leave voters, albeit perhaps not to the same extent as in England. Even though the body of Leave voters is much smaller than in England and Wales, its performance could well be sufficient for the party to claim one of Scotland’s six seats.
Thereafter, however, the Leave vote appears fragmented. While at the beginning of the campaign at least around one in five seem set to vote Conservative, a similar proportion are inclined to back the SNP.
As was evident in the EU referendum, despite the party’s pro-EU stance, there has always been a segment of nationalist support that favours weakening ties with Brussels as well as London. Meanwhile, one in eight seem inclined to back Labour.
There would seem, then, little doubt that thanks to its ability to appeal to a broad coalition of Remainers and supporters of independence, these elections are likely to affirm the SNP’s position as the dominant party of Scottish politics, with some 40% or so of the vote. In contrast, the forces of unionism look set to be scattered to the four winds.
The recent revival in Conservative fortunes north of the border seems, for the time being at least to have stopped in its tracks thanks to the Brexit Party incursion, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain becalmed.
None of this will guarantee that Ms Sturgeon eventually secures her second independence referendum, let alone necessarily indicate majority popular support for independence. However, it will hardly make the task of those who wish to keep Scotland in the UK any easier.
By Sir John Curtice, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. The full report ‘European elections and Brexit’ can be found here.