The polling station is making a bold bid for equivalence with your local GP practice and car garage. Similar to a flu vaccination or MOT, we are now required to contemplate voting on an annual basis. This year the civic-minded among us will make two trips to the polling station, meaning it will share equal billing with the dental surgery.
The prospect of the EU referendum arguably doesn’t excite the same passions in Scotland as it does in the rest of the UK but voter weariness is only a minor factor in explaining why. It doesn’t pose the same existential dilemmas while scratching away at tender spots such as immigration and welfare. The main interest, to date at least, has been in the prospect of the EU referendum acting as a catalyst for a second independence referendum. We would really get our gums into that.
One of the most engaging articles on the referendum might have been written even before the European Council summit dribbled to an agreement. Writing in the National Review, John O’Sullivan provided a nuanced account of the dynamics at play. He drew to a conclusion by observing that the consistent strand in the two-century history of the Conservative Party was its belief that it was the party of the British state and the political embodiment of British patriotic spirt. He accepted that this spirit was animating partisans of both referendum outcomes but was clear that it was more logically fulfilled by arguing for withdrawal. Conservative voters were encouraged to look to Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher, not the 'feckless leaders' counselling that the UK should remain a member of the EU.
A problem arises. How do you reconcile acting to defend the integrity of the British state with taking action that has the very real potential of creating the circumstance for Scottish independence? Surely you can no longer claim to be a unionist while acting in such a way as to threaten the continuation of the union and, by extension, the British state? Unionists in Scotland might be forgiven for thinking they are being conscripted into a game of Russian roulette by erstwhile friends.
Observers ranging from William Hague to Timothy Garton Ash have referred to the prospect of Scottish independence as a factor worthy of serious consideration when deciding which side to support. Even Boris Johnson, in the much anticipated Telegraph column setting out his position on the referendum, acknowledged that a vote to leave might imperil the union. Mystifyingly, he went on to contend that most evidence suggested Scottish and English voters planned to vote on 'roughly the same lines'.
A recent YouGov poll found that the 10 most eurosceptic parts of the UK were in England, while four of the most europhile were in Scotland. An earlier Ipsos Mori poll for STV News found that 62% of respondents said they would vote for the UK to remain a member while 26% supported withdrawal. Should the UK vote to leave the EU, 54% of people said they would support independence compared with 39% who said they would vote for the continuation of the union. If a second independence referendum were held without the UK leaving the EU, independence would be supported by 49% while 45% would vote against. Two things are clear from this data. First, it seems likely that a majority of Scots will vote in favour of continued EU membership. Second, if this scenario transpires, but a UK-wide majority vote in favour of Brexit, support for Scottish independence will increase and support for the union will decrease.
Even Scottish business owners seem to be more favourable to the EU than the UK average. The British Chambers of Commerce published the results of a new poll on members’ attitudes to the EU referendum, finding that 60% would vote for the UK to remain a member while 30% would vote for withdrawal. In Scotland, 68% of participants said that they would vote for continued membership while 20% would vote to leave.
Despite further polling evidence suggesting that Scots would be comfortable with a looser relationship with the EU, this does not seem to form the basis of a popular desire to quit. How can this be explained? Are Scots more attached to the rights that come with EU membership or is European identify more firmly embedded? Is there a more widely-held understanding that sovereignty is not a pristine concept? Perhaps, but if you drilled into pro-EU sentiment the suspicion is that you would eventually strike something barely more substantial than custard.
Interviewed by Nick Eardley of the BBC, John Curtice argued that one of the key factors in explaining the difference in attitudes was that the SNP leadership had convinced a clear majority of the party supporters of the importance of the EU to the future of an independent Scotland. This hardly suggests firm conviction. Equally, when Nicola Sturgeon recommended that David Cameron avoid campaigning north of the border, turning Scotland into Free Derry writ large, she inadvertently testified to the fragility of European allegiances among the Scottish people. Do we really mean to suggest that our political culture is so stunted that opinions can be changed by the mere fact of a Conservative prime minister campaigning in Scotland in support of a position everyone already knows he holds? Maybe that is what happens when your political philosophy is essentially anti-Toryism. Adherents of this ideology might find the next few months confusing.
SNP figures have understandably been warning – instilling a sense of fear, some might say – that Brexit coupled with a pro-EU vote in Scotland would lead to the people of Scotland demanding a second referendum on independence. The echo of the campaign starting gun could still be heard when SNP charged the prime minister with failing to make a sufficiently positive and enthusiastic case for continued membership. It’s unclear whether irony will survive in an independent Scotland, but contrived and condescending expressions of disappointment will undoubtedly thrive. Statements in support of the EU from SNP figures have been characterised by the same platitudes as the majority of other pronouncements. There have been no sparkling arguments or indications of innovative campaign approaches.
More likely than not, Scottish nationalists will discover that arguing for the status quo offers far fewer chances for inspiring rhetoric and romanticism than the pursuit of a hazy tomorrow. This will be exacerbated by the difficulty of persuading people that the fate of a nation depends on something almost entirely peripheral to their everyday lives. The task will be akin to setting someone’s pulse racing by explaining why you love your wallpaper.
But the strategy is clear enough. The SNP will seek to blame even those Westminster figures with whom they agree for failing to deliver a UK-wide majority in favour of remaining, thus reluctantly forcing it to abandon its once-in-a-lifetime/generation pledge by seeking a second referendum in deference to the anger of the people of Scotland. Like many others favoured by Scottish nationalists, this stance casts no shadow. It is far from clear on what basis this could legitimately proceed, as Alex Bell argued recently. The SNP’s ability to divine the will of the Scottish people in all its magnificent, homogenous simplicity should not be questioned but the power to call referendums remains reserved. If the party were to include a provision in its manifesto, however, it would be able to exert considerable pressure by claiming that it had a popular mandate for a second referendum.
Does the SNP have the courage of its complaints? Some commentators have argued that Brexit would create conditions that would be far from ideal for a second campaign but if Nicola Sturgeon were truly concerned she would stop raising the prospect. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be difficulties for nationalists to overcome. A second referendum would not only have to contend with the troublesome outlook for the public finances of an independent Scotland but also serious questions about its membership of the EU. The latter, it should be recalled, was a contentious issue during the first referendum campaign when the UK was still a member of the EU. It was on these grounds that Henry Hill, writing for Conservative Home, questioned the assumption that Brexit would inevitably lead to the break-up of the UK. To a certain extent, such analysis is blinded by its rationality.
In economic terms, the case for independence certainly seems flimsier than it did in September 2014. And yet, we know that membership of the SNP has increased massively, that the party is expected to win handsomely at the Scottish Parliament elections and that support for independence has increased. The momentum favours Scottish nationalism. Hill, despite his well-reasoned arguments, has nevertheless committed to voting in favour of remaining precisely because of the risk of Scottish independence arising from the alternative outcome. RD Kernohan has reached much the same conclusion with the added prediction that a second referendum campaign in the context of Brexit would likely be even less decorous that the first.
David Cameron should be cautious about running a second consecutive campaign significantly based on the action of Scottish nationalists. Unfortunately, there are signs he will find this weapon too tempting to ignore but ideally it should be left to other figures to make the argument, assuming they are concerned about the possibility of Scottish independence.
It is a question of priorities. Those who plan to vote in favour of leaving the European Union should be clear: their actions may help to set in motion a series of events that could result in the end of the country they hope to save. The advice is simple: Don’t invite the Scottish public to the polling stations for a third time this year – lots of them are likely to have been convinced that they are mad as hell.