Campaign news Scotland & the EU

Nicola Sturgeon’s 2020 referendum vision may need to be flexible on EU membership 

The SNP delivered a quite remarkable result in the EU elections collecting 37.7% of the vote and winning in 30 out of Scotland’s 32 council areas.  Even coming within a few hundred votes of winning in the last bastions of Lib Dem resistance, Orkney and Shetland, which must also be worrying to the temporarily resurgent Lib Dems.

The SNP increased its vote by 9% and its MEPs from two to three in a system designed to stop a single party getting three. Scottish Labour has meanwhile lost both its 2014 seats in Scotland.  Scottish Labour is effectively the only party in Scotland that can lead a future No campaign and they are down to below 10% of the vote (down 16%on 2014), coming 5th in the EU elections.  

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was on an official trip to a smaller, highly successful independent EU member state, the Republic of Ireland, when the final declaration was made.  She told reporters: “I want to see Scotland having the choice of independence within this term of the Scottish Parliament, which ends in May 2021, so towards the latter half of next year would be when I think is the right time for that choice.”

And that “Suddenly this idea of being a small independent country in the European Union, we only have to look at Ireland to see the benefits of that and many people are having their eyes opened.”

I campaigned across Scotland for a Remain vote and agree that the SNP has a mandate from the 2016 EU referendum to oppose Brexit, and so even supporting a second referendum is the right decision for the SNP. 

The Brexit party winning right across the UK means that cancelling Brexit is not really an option. The Brexit Party will however, fade away if Labour and the Conservatives deliver Brexit, allowing both main Westminster parties to regain the followers they lost to Nigel Farage’s single policy party.  However, if they fail to deliver Brexit bear in mind that The Brexit Party would at a General Election, (if they kept those EU election voters) win a massive majority and Farage would be PM. The Conservatives supplied half of The Brexit Party’s votes and they must get them back before the next General Election or face potential oblivion. 

I have said before, and received much criticism for doing so, that a second Brexit referendum would not stop Brexit.  A poll last week for The Conversation found that a second Brexit referendum was a dead heat with 43% saying they would vote to remain and 43% saying they would vote to leave. 6% said they would not vote and 8% were undecided.

In Scotland, The SNP vote was not a protest vote. Firstly, it is the party of Government and everyone knows they stand for independence. So those that want to stay in the EU but oppose independence voted for the Lib Dems.  Survey work by Ashcroft Polls found that, of the parties that increased their votes in the EU election, the main reason for voting for the Brexit party was a protest at how Brexit was being managed, which was also the second most popular reason for voting Liberal Democrat. However, the same survey found that SNP votes were not a protest as the drivers were: 

  • They seemed the most competent of all the parties on offer
  • They had the best policy on Brexit 
  • They had the best leadership of the parties on offer

Why Vote for a party

Compare that to the number one reason given by people who voted Labour and Conservative – “I always vote for that party” – and you can see two things very clearly.  Firstly, the Conservative Party and slightly less so the Labour Party are heading for annihilation in the next General Election unless they go through with Brexit. Secondly, the Brexit Party will hold onto its protest vote so long as there is something to protest about, and even a soft Brexit might keep them in the game – more than ever, therefore, a No Deal Brexit and a hard Brexiteer new Conservative PM are likely.  

Were the UK were to stay in the single market and customs union, for an independent Scotland in the EU this would be the best economic outcome.  However, if there is a No Deal then the UK will have to put up a barrier to trade with the whole world and that would include Scotland in the EU.  Under those circumstances, an independent Scotland in EFTA (European Free Trade Association – AKA the Norway relationship) would give Scotland access to the single market for our exports while allowing greater flexibility in our trading arrangements with the rest of the UK. This might therefore be the compromise we need to make. 

As a campaigning message, saying that “an independent Scotland wants to be in the EU, but we will seek to maintain maximum flexibility and consider EFTA in the event of a No Deal Brexit” would show flexibility, political maturity and convince some nervous potential Yes voters.  The other benefit would be that all suggestions of Scotland being in a queue to join the EU, claims that the EU would insist on use of the Euro and the inability of the EU to give a rock solid commitment to Scotland joining the EU until after a Yes vote (it can’t unilaterally interfere in internal politics of member nation or one in a transition period) would be negated. 

Finally, research has identified that as much as 5% of the 45% of 2014 yes votes was anti-EU.  The increase to 47-49% of independence support in the most recent polls is due to former No voters moving to Yes. It’s unscientific, I know, but the 20 or so anti-EU 2014 Yes voters I have managed to find who say they would now vote No (almost all left wing voters) would all come back to Yes if EFTA was the route to single market membership on offer. Likewise, the anti-Brexit former No switchers faced with a choice between a No Deal Brexiting UK and EFTA membership would vote Yes and as many as another 4-5% would follow them.

So, although I would prefer an independent Scotland to be in the EU, and I would even prefer the UK not to leave, the combination of a No Deal Brexit and an offer to get an independent Scotland in the EFTA lifeboat would mean a 2020 independence referendum campaign would start at 55% Yes.  

That said the independence offer has to be clear and clarity is just not possible till Brexit has happened. When it does, all the confusing scenarios fade away and Scotland’s undecided voters will then have a simple binary choice and then Yes wins, possibly not before though.

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About the author

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the Founder and Chief Executive of Business for Scotland. Before becoming CEO of Business for Scotland Gordon ran a business strategy and social media, sales & marketing consultancy.

With a degree in business, marketing and economics, Gordon has worked as an economic development planning professional, and in marketing roles specialising in pricing modelling and promotional evaluation for global companies (including P&G).

Gordon benefits (not suffers) from dyslexia, and is a proponent of the emerging New Economics School. Gordon contributes articles to Business for Scotland, The National and Believe in Scotland.


  • Gordon
    Your analysis of the voting percentages is really encouraging – but the SNP must not mis-step on this issue as it could have a huge impact on any Indy vote (the ‘low information emotional voters’) – the analysis by Dominic on the Scotland/EU trade is very succinct and revealing but it would be quickly picked up as showing the impact of Brexit would be relatively small given the 144,000 jobs in a workforce of 2-3millions. I think the impact of Brexit on working conditions (i’m thinking the Uberisation/zero-hour contract of many staff jobs across all sectors) and your point about the scottish health service being in danger needs to be highlighted. Also, how about an article on the Scotland/England border after Independence with Scotland in EFTA ? Is that likely to be an issue with voters ?

    • Thanks for the comment – a couple of things 144,000 jobs at risk is a massive number in a workforce of a couple of million and Scotland needs those exports for the balance of payments and trade.

      Secondly, you are right about the NHS and we have just written about that here – US trade deal would rip NHS Scotland from Holyrood’s control Agree on the threat to working and employment conditions.

      Finally the border and different options we are looking into but really need to know what the Brexit deal will be before we can truly analyse the impact.

  • I am one of those people that is anti-full-membership of the EU, yet I am also a Yes voter for the past and any future independence referendum. I would be very happy indeed if Scotland gained independence.

    However, on the issue of EU membership I do very strongly feel that the SNP, wedded as they are to full EU membership, are actually abusing my vote (and others like me) for independence while at same time taking it that my Yes vote is also a vote of approval for full EU membership. This seeming conflation of one vote, Yes to independence, as being a tacit approval for full EU membership really sticks in my craw – I feel it as *outright abuse* by the SNP.

    I think you are right, Gordon, in suggesting that membership of EFTA is the way to go. I do see the logic of being reasonably closely associated to the EU for an independent Scotland, that makes good sense. And, if it was EFTA then I would be fine with that. Full membership would have to be determined later, maybe after many years, and *only by a referendum* on the issue (and conflated with no other issue). If in such a referendum the majority voted for full membership then in the interests the promotion of democracy I would acquiesce to that.

    In any case, as things stand just now the SNP are outright abusing people that will vote for independence but that are not in favour of full membership of the EU. I really think they need to change tack on this issue. There is no shame in being cautious and just taking the attitude of one-step-at-a-time and see how it goes.

    • EFTA is an option to deliver single market membership and I have made sure that’s clear in the article now thanks. No one is going to get the absolute form of independence that they want. No political party of any ability to deliver or contribute to delivering independence is in favour of leaving the EU so you either have to call that a fight for another day and vote for the greater good or vote against independence. I have parked two issues that are huge for me and I will fight for them after independence but for now, the principle of Scotland benefiting from running its own affairs for the benefit of Scotland, not London trumps all.

      The SNP simply calculate that there are not enough with your view who will vote against independence because of EU membership to make it worth compromising on the key reason for independence. No point in arguing but I completely disagree with Brexit and want Scotland in the EU as first option and EFTA as a fall back.

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