One of the more pathetic argument deployed by Remainers before the EU referendum was the notion that a vote for Leave would endanger the union by alienating Scotland, supposedly a EUphile bastion, and thus fan the flames of Scottish Nationalism.
According to Labour’s Remainer in chief, Alan Johnson, if the UK voted Leave we would be taking a “very, very high risk not just for Britain’s place in Europe but Britain’s continued unity”. Nick Clegg told us; “If we vote to leave the EU, I have no doubt that the SNP will gleefully grab the opportunity to persuade the people of Scotland to leave the UK as well.” George Osbourne asserted, “The simplest and easiest way to take the (Independence) issue off the table is to vote for Remain” as we shouldn’t give the Nationalists “any excuses.”
The First Minister herself, Nicola Sturgeon, predicted that if Scotland was “dragged out of the European Union against its wishes”, in other words if the United Kingdom as a whole voted to Leave, while Scotland voted to Remain, then there would be a sharp rise in support for Scottish Independence and might constitute the “material change in circumstances” needed to hold a second Independence referendum; “Indy-Ref 2”.
On the morning of the 24th the results looked ominous for Unionists. While the UK voted to Leave, Scotland voted to Remain by a margin of 62% to 38%, with every single council area voting remain. Nicola Sturgeon immediately announced that these results made Indy-Ref 2 “highly likely” and announced that she had ordered the preparation of the legislation necessary to enable a new independence referendum to take place.
Scotland was to recoil in horror at what Alex Salmon called “The Full English Brexit”, former Unionists were to start marching to a Nationalist war drum in the numbers necessary to swing Indy-ref 2. To win a hypothetical “Indy-ref 2” Nationalists must convince 191,969 No voters to become Yes voters. There are around a million-dual No / Remain voters in Scotland. It seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the vote than many of these thrifty Scots who had voted no because they were worried about the economic consequences of “Independence” might be convinced to change their mind because they were worried about the economic consequences of Brexit. Sturgeon bet the house on this being the case.
Happily, this gamble doesn’t seem to have paid off. In the recent general election, the SNP vote dropped from 50% of the popular vote to 37% and SNP representation dropped from 56 to 35 seats. Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives popular vote share increased from 15% to 29%, making 12 gains and getting the total number of Scottish Conservative MP’s up to 13. By a consensus of anybody with any familiarity with the contemporary Scottish political scene whatsoever, these results leave the SNP’s plans for Indy-ref 2 dead in the water for the foreseeable future.
How can all this be? Well very few of Scotland’s No / Remain voters have switched sides on the Constitutional question and in fact many are very angry that there Remain vote is being hijacked to push for an Indy-Ref 2. On the other hand, the 38% of Scots that voted Leave (1.1 million) are more than the number that voted to make Nicola Sturgeon First Minister. Furthermore, it includes around 400,000 Yes voters.
Being independent is supposed to be about thinking and acting for oneself; being autonomous and free, not being subject to others authority or jurisdiction and being self-sufficient. In other words, it means pretty much the opposite of everything involved in EU membership. Furthermore, Scotland trades four times as much with the rest of the UK as it does with the rest of the Europeans Union. It’s difficult to make an economic case for independence based on the economic risks of Brexit; especially when EU membership for Scotland would almost certainly include Eurozone membership.
Given the choice between a generous devolution settlement in a genuinely Independent United Kingdom and phony “independence in Europe”, many Yes voters prefer the latter. In fact, that’s the position now taken by Jim Silliars (more or less), the SNP’s former deputy leader and original architect of “Independence in Europe”, which underlines the bankruptcy of the position.
Many of these voters were located on the North-East of Scotland, probably because of the damage done to these coastal communities by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Once solidly Conservative territory, Angus, Moray and Banff and Buchan all returned Conservative MP’s for the first time since 1983. Of those Banff & Buchan was the only constituency in Scotland that voted Leave.
In Moray, the vote was essentially tied and in Angus the Leave vote held up well at 48% (10% above the national average). In fact, of the twelve new constituencies to return Conservative MP’s in Scotland, eight had Leave votes higher than the 38% national average, although ironically the Scottish Conservatives most prominent Brexiteer, Ross Thompson, was elected in a constituency that voted to Remain by a higher margin than the national average (68% to 32%).
Of course, many would point to Ruth Davidsons excellent leadership as a key reason for the revival, and rightly so. In 2016 the Conservatives recorded our best ever result in Scottish Parliament Elections, returning a record 31 MSP’s and displacing Labour as the main opposition to the SNP. But the fact remains that of those 73 Holyrood seats selected by FPTP only 7 returned Conservative MP’s in 2016 (unlike on the lists, where the number was 24 out of 56).
Based on those results one would have expected the Scottish Conservatives to return around 4-6 MP’s out of 59, not 13. What changed? Particularly in the North-East? Brexit. If the story of the Scottish Conservatives success in 2016 was Labour No voters becoming Tory voters, the story of Scottish Conservatives success in 2017 was of SNP Leave voters becoming Tory voters.
If you’re reading this, then like me you probably voted to Leave the European Union. Like me you believe that it’s an anti-democratic and unaccountable behemoth and a menace to Liberty. However, it seems that contrary to the popular wisdom at the time, by doing so you were not only helping to protect Britain’s sovereignty externally; but helping to preserve its unity internally.
Not bad work for one days of voting!
Euan McHardy is Head of CfL Scotland, a politics student at the University of Glasgow and Ayn Rand evangelist. Follow CfL Scotland on Twitter here.