Nine reasons Scotland is more Remain, (and what will happen if it's dragged out)

Polls consistently show Scotland is considerably more likely to vote to remain in the European Union than England and Wales. Here’s why – and what could happen is she’s dragged out.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
14 June 2016

Flags outside the Scottish parliament, Calum Hutchinson, Wikimedia

There are two main questions people ask me about Scotland and the European referendum. Why is Remain considerably ahead in the polls in Scotland, but not the rest of Great Britain? And, what will happen if Scotland is dragged out of the EU, despite voting to remain. Here’s my best attempt at answers to each.

Why is Scotland more likely to vote to Remain?

Here are nine partial answers. Feel free to add others in the comments below.

1. The Scots and English think very differently about identity

For most Scots, being Scottish and British is, to use an old analogy, a bit like Russian dolls. One can sit comfortably inside the other, without any conflict. That means it’s easy enough to add another one – European – on top. The Scots don’t really notice it, think about it or feel particularly uncomfortable about it. Englishness and Britishness, though, are different. As Anthony Barnett points out in his excellent Blimey, it could be Brexit!, English people essentially see the two as synonymous, as two sides of the same coin, with Englishness facing in and Britishness facing out. Adding the ‘European’ identity to that feels like an imposition.

2. Scots are less bothered about immigration

It's easier to make the case for immigration to someone with a cousin who is an immigrant somewhere else

Scottish attitudes on immigration aren’t as different from those in England as some would like to make out. But they are different. As a 2014 Migration Observatory study showed, Scots are about 17% less likely to think migration levels should be reduced, and notably more likely to say that immigration is good for the country. Immigration also seems less salient as an issue in Scotland. Why? There has been plenty of speculation.

Perhaps it’s political leadership – both the Scottish National Party and Scottish Labour have been pretty good at making the case that Scotland needs immigrants. The weakness of the Tories and UKIP in that part of the country means they don’t run off to the right on this issue very often. Perhaps it’s the extent to which Scotland a nation of emigrants – as SNP MEP Alyn Smith recently wrote, “There’s barely a single Scottish family that didn’t grow up sending the Broons or Oor Wullie Annual to far flung loved ones, economic migrants all, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere.”

It’s easier to make the case for immigration to someone with a cousin who is an immigrant somewhere else. Perhaps it’s the difference in rural histories: enclosure encourages country-dwellers to want to ‘protect’ their patch, clearance leaves a desire to de-clear. Maybe it’s that Scotland is better educated than the rest of the UK.

Some have suggested that it’s because there’s less immigration, though that contradicts the trend across the rest of the UK that the places with the least immigration tend to be most concerned about it.

3. England has a different legal system to the rest of Europe

One argument for why England is (even) more eurosceptic than much of the rest of the continent is its different legal system. England, Wales, and both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have common law systems. The rest of the EU has civil law systems.

This difference, as Jeremy Fox has outlined, goes some way to “explaining why the UK seems constantly to struggle with EU bureaucratic rigidity and with what Eurosceptics perceive as undemocratic regulatory incontinence”, and it’s even an argument deployed in Brexit, the Movie.

Scotland, though, is different. Up here, we have a hybrid system: half-civil law, half-common law. And so the nature, habit and behaviours of EU institutions seem much less alien to the Scots than they do to people in England.

In the video below, watched by more than four million people, prominent Brexit campaigner Dan Hannan refers twice to the common law legal system as a reason to exit. This argument doesn’t apply in Scotland. And whilst few notice it consciously, it’s interesting to consider the broader cultural impacts and sense of 'foreignness' created by such a difference.

4) The ‘reclaim our sovereignty’ thing has a whole different meaning in Scotland

OK, it’s all a bit complex. Because both ‘our’ and ‘sovereignty’ have slightly different implications in Scotland. First, what people see as their nation – who they would mean by ‘we’ if they were to say “We should govern ourselves” isn’t simple here. In the 2011 census, 8% of people in Scotland ticked only the ‘British’ box. 62% identified only as Scottish, and 18% put a tick next to both ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’.

That means that roughly only a quarter of Scots see themselves as partly or primarily British. It seems likely that these are the same people as those who say they would vote against independence even if they thought it would make them £500 a year richer, and who were the key targets for for the Scottish Conservative’s recent election campaign. For these people, the appeal to reclaim Britain’s national sovereignty by leaving the EU presumably has some purchase “We (i.e. the British) should govern ourselves”.

But for the significant majority who identify as Scottish primarily, the question of sovereignty is more complex. Either they believe that it is best restored through Scottish independence, or they are perfectly happy with and used to pooling sovereignty in the modern world.

The Scottish mythology is that the people of Scotland are sovereign

Secondly, the English tradition is that sovereignty lies with the crown in parliament (and, traditionally, came to the monarch from God). Or, as it’s interpreted these days, parliament is in charge. The Scottish mythology is that the people of Scotland are sovereign. This was declared by most Scottish politicians in 1989 in the famous Claim of Right, and is a tradition which claims to go back to the Declaration of Arbroath, which some see as the first expression in the Western world of the idea of ‘popular sovereignty’ – i.e. it is the people who appoint (and can depose) the monarch, not God.

These differences express themselves in a soft way in much of the conversation found around democracy in England and Scotland. Interestingly, the difference is commonly found in the more fringe elements of the movements for Scottish independence and leaving the EU respectively: the small group camping outside the Scottish parliament and their supporters have a habit of referring to themselves (much to the embarrassment of the rest of the movement) as ‘very sovereign Scots’ (sometimes abbreviated to “VSS” on Facebook). The most off-the-wall corner of the Leave vote, on the other hand, is probably the UKIP Christian Brothers. They talk about “our nationhood and the ancient Laws and Freedoms bestowed on us by God”.

5) There’s no one to promote leaving the EU in Scotland

My brother once described modern Scottish identity as one big in-joke. And if this is right, then the UKIP MEP David Coburn is a part of that – a blundering idiot not even taken seriously by his own cluster of supporters. He is, in other words, hardly an effective advocate for Leave. Beyond him, a couple of new Tory MSPs support leaving the EU, as does Jim Sillars, who quit as deputy leader of the SNP when I was seven. That’s basically it. No other prominent SNP or Scottish Labour figure is backing a Leave vote. No one cares what George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan think any more, so much so that I nearly didn’t bother mentioning them here, and no one here thinks of Michael Gove as a Scottish politician.

There are certainly people in Scotland who are against the EU – as I write, the Labour Leave campaign is in Fraserburgh interviewing fishermen. But there isn’t really any credible political figure to represent this view. Which I suppose, in itself, is telling.

6) Scots believe constitutions can change

According to the latest social attitudes survey, most people in Scotland like most people in England think the EU should have less power. The English response to this belief is more often than not to vote to Leave, while the Scots’ response seems likely to be to vote to Remain. There is an obvious explanation: Scotland in the last two decades has gone through an astonishing period of constitutional change: devolution, then more devolution, then more; a new voting system for local government; votes at 16; and the independence referendum. England, meanwhile, has seen almost nothing this century: police commissioners and a rejigging of the top of the court system. Perhaps the difference between Scotland and England is not so much the complaint, but the belief that things can change.

Ironically, if this is true, England is voting to leave Europe because it sees that Westminster can’t be changed, and assumes this is true of Brussels too.

7) Different attitudes to monarchy and British Empire kitsch

In 2011, there were 5,500 applications for Royal Wedding street parties in England and Wales. In Scotland, there were fewer than 30

Scotland was as complicit in the Empire as any other part of the UK. But the folk memory doesn’t quite seem to be the same. It’s sometimes hard to get a grip on culture, as we all have different experiences and things can be hard to quantify. Certainly, there seems to be less in Scotland of what I call British Empire kitsch and its iconography. And a good example of this is in attitudes to the monarchy.

In 2011, there were 5,500 applications for Royal Wedding street parties in England and Wales. In Scotland, there were fewer than 30, with 20 of those in Edinburgh. There were more celebrations in Sheffield than in Scotland. This is despite the fact that, of course, William Windsor and Catherine Middleton met in St Andrews.

This trend is found in the polls too. In Scotland, 48% support the monarchy, with 32% against, and 20% ‘don’t know’. Across the UK as a whole, three quarters of people support the monarchy with only 18% being republicans. If you consider that Scotland makes up about a tenth of that figure, then English monarchism is a little stronger still.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to support the monarchy and the EU. Prince William has indicated fairly strongly his support for the union. But it does seem that much of the Leave vote is based in a cry back to imperial Britishness, tied into empire, Commonwealth and monarchy. And there is pretty good evidence that these strings don’t tug so strongly on Scottish hearts.

8) The referendum is an English thing

this referendum has arrived in Scotland like a stag-do from the south coast

Scepticism of the EU is rife across the continent. But, as Anthony Barnett has argued, this referendum; the circumstances of its making, is an English thing. In Scotland, people seem largely befuddled by the whole affair. It feels, as I suppose the Scottish referendum did to most English people, like it’s come from nowhere. Northern Ireland (and Gibraltar) will both also almost certainly vote to Remain, and Wales seems to lean Remain somewhat more than England (though not much, showing how wrong it is to believe any one simple narrative).

Perhaps, as Barnett argues, this a sideways expression of a trapped identity which really needs its own parliament to express itself. Perhaps it’s about the failure to come to terms with a lost empire – a failure which is true in the rest of the UK too, but seems to play out differently. Whatever it is, this referendum has arrived in Scotland like a stag-do from the south coast, and the main reaction seems to be to politely ignore it, and hope it doesn’t miss its train back home in the morning.

9) We're used to different levels of government

Rather like identity, Scots have become accustomed to a more normal European style situation, where different decisions are made by different levels of government: when people here talk about 'the government', they might equally mean 'the Scottish government' or 'the UK government'. People in England, on the other hand, live in one of the most centralised governance systems on earth. So the idea that more than one parliament has power over them often seems to feel a little weird to them (you?). Of course, internationally, it's really the English/British system that's weird.

What will happen if the UK votes to Leave, but Scotland to Remain?

Given all of this, there has been much speculation about what will happen if Scotland votes Remain, but the UK as a whole votes Leave. Here’s my best guess. Nicola Sturgeon will, immediately, seek permission from Holyrood to negotiate with the EU terms for Scotland to Remain. Where in the past, Brussels has refused to talk to the Scottish first minister, doing so in this context would be outrageous.

There are, in theory at least, two ways in which Scotland could stay in the EU in this context. Either, we (and perhaps Northern Ireland and Gibraltar) could remain in both the EU and the UK despite England and Wales leaving. Denmark, after all, has three nations, one of which is in, and two of which (the Faroe Islands and Greenland) are out. Alternatively, Scotland could hold a second referendum on independence.

If the the Scottish government and the EU can find a way to make the former option possible  – which probably a) depends upon the rest of the UK remaining in the common market and b) requires the agreement of Westminster  –  then my instinct is that both sides would go for it. For the EU, it saves face. For Sturgeon, it’s less risky than a second referendum, and is a further step towards independence.

On the other hand, there may be another referendum  – perhaps if the middle ground turns out to be impossible for technical or political reasons. I suspect the SNP would only call it if the EU offered positive terms for continued membership. In that circumstance, what would happen is an interesting question. I’ve spoken to senior activists in the Scottish Liberal Democrats who tell me that they would vote for independence in that context, and that they expect there would be a significant split in their party. Where most staff in Scottish NGOs voted Yes last time (if an informal but reasonably wide-ranging survey I did at the time is to believed) their organisations stayed quiet. I suspect many would put their heads above the parapet in this context. Where the Church of Scotland took no position in the independence referendum, it has backed a Remain vote, just as it backed devolution in 1997. Where Scottish Labour still had some resource and residual loyalty in 2014, it has been crushed, leaving the Tories on 23% as the primary advocates of the Union.

Polls at the moment do not show any increase in support for independence if Scotland is taken out of the EU. But contingent polls (‘what would think if’) are notoriously inaccurate, and if civil society swung behind independence as a path to stay in the EU, then my suspicion, if I had to guess, is that independence would win such a vote.

But, who knows what will happen...

I’m going to end on a proviso. There are plenty people up here – supporters of all parties and none – who will vote leave. And lots of undecideds. So things could change, even now. And if I’m honest, most people don’t really seem to care very much. Events are moving fast, and could easily slip from one track to another. What will happen over the next few months? Who on earth knows.

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