John Lamont is MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and is a member of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. This article is from the latest edition of Bright Blue’s magazine, Centre Write.
Like many people across the UK, it took me some time to digest the news that broke on the morning of 24th June 2016. Whatever side of the argument you were on, the result of the EU referendum was a surprise to most people.
However, one person in the UK wasted no time to jump on the vote, so sure was she of the implications. As soon as the result had been declared, Nicola Sturgeon hastily called a press conference at Bute House, her official Edinburgh residence. She stood in front of assembled media and declared that a second referendum on Scottish independence was now firmly back on the table, asserting that Scots were so outraged about leaving the EU they would now want to leave the UK. Her political calculation was that she would be able to exploit the fact that the majority of Scots voted to Remain to get her flagging campaign to break up Britain back up and running.
This press conference has set the tone for the political debate in Scotland since. The SNP have time and time again confidently asserted that Brexit makes Scottish independence much more likely. At every available opportunity they have sought to utilise Brexit to argue the only option is to leave the UK. It is almost a weekly occurrence for the First Minister or one of her senior Ministers to repeat that Brexit makes Scottish independence a sure thing.
After the EU referendum, a re-energised SNP embarked on a nationwide campaign to sell their new independence message. They commissioned a so-called ‘Growth Commission’, led by Andrew Wilson, the economist, to refresh the hugely discredited economic case for leaving the UK which Scots rejected in 2014.
Given the First Minister’s confidence, an outside observer might be led to conclude that Scottish independence is a likely outcome of Brexit. But three years on from that Bute House press conference, that is not how things have turned out.
Poll after poll shows that support for Scottish independence is actually falling, despite the SNP’s best efforts. One of the most recent, commissioned by Angus Robertson, a former SNP MP, showed support for the Union is up to 62 per cent. At a time when the political establishment in the UK is consumed by Brexit and the nationalists are focused entirely on independence, support for the SNP’s cause is falling, not rising.
The SNP’s ‘Growth Commission’ came back with the conclusion that leaving the UK would result in an extra ten years of austerity, far beyond anything the UK Government has imposed, and it has now been quietly shelved by the SNP leadership.
And in 2017, the First Minister’s impulsive reaction to Brexit resulted in her losing a third of her MPs, including Alex Salmond and Robertson, both to Scottish Conservatives like myself campaigning against another independence referendum. The closer we get to Brexit, the more support for independence falls.
The SNP clearly miscalculated that Brexit would push people towards independence. So, why are Scots still backing the United Kingdom? There are, in my mind, two main reasons.
First, many independence supporters actually want to leave the EU. The SNP kept a tight lid on them during the EU referendum, but since then, senior figures such as Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, have vocally supported leaving the EU. A NatCen report found that over a third of SNP voters backed Brexit.
This makes sense; pro-Brexit Scottish nationalists are at least consistent. Why would you campaign for Holyrood to have more powers, only to want to hand large parts of them back to Brussels? The impact of the SNP’s posturing on Brexit has been that many of these voters have stopped supporting independence.
The second reason that support for independence is falling is that most Scots are, to use a good Scottish phrase, scunnered by the endless constitutional debate. The vast majority of my constituents, whether they voted Leave or Remain, just want Brexit to happen so we can talk about something else. And the last thing they want their politicians to be focusing on is another debate about breaking up the United Kingdom.
If Brexit has shown us anything it is that leaving a political union is challenging. And because the UK is a market worth four times more to Scottish businesses than the EU, Brexit would look like a walk in the park compared to leaving the UK. And unlike with the EU, Scotland is a significant net beneficiary from the UK, meaning independence would result in an instant hit to public finances, even if trade was miraculously left unaffected.
Time and time again I listen to speeches from SNP Members of Parliament outlining how damaging leaving the EU would be for Scotland. Yet, in the same breath, they argue in favour of leaving the United Kingdom. Unpicking more than 300 years’ worth of political, economic and fiscal union would be a huge undertaking, much more substantial than Brexit. So people look back on the SNP’s claim in 2014 that independence could be negotiated and delivered in 18 months and realise that this was complete nonsense. In many ways, Brexit makes the argument for leaving the UK much weaker and that is something the SNP leadership misjudged back in 2016.
Most Scots continue to support remaining part of the UK, but that could change. The SNP should not be underestimated. They have an army of highly motivated volunteers and everything their politicians do is designed to try to boost support for independence.
While we must continue to highlight the weaknesses of the SNP’s argument, the focus for politicians who want the UK to survive and thrive must be on showing Scots how they benefit from remaining part of the UK.
This article was first published in the new edition of Bright Blue’s magazine Centre Write.