On the evening of the Supreme Court hearing this week, we organised a discussion event on Scotland and Brexit with former Labour MEP David Martin and the ex-leader of the Scottish LibDems Willie Rennie. We invited people – both pro and anti- independence – who feel conflicted about the matter. As polling guru Prof John Curtice has explained, the pro-indy vote in Scotland has largely aligned with the pro-Remain vote: 69% of ex-Remain votes back independence compared to just 22% of Leave voters. We wanted to provide a forum for Remain voting Scots to air their feelings on the matter.
Mr Martin spoke about his feeling after the 2016 Brexit vote. “I really did wonder whether, if we were given a binary choice of two unions, which would be the best union to be part of. I have moved back a bit but I do fully understand why people have been on this journey,” he said.
Mr Rennie also spoke about how bereft he felt after the result – not necessarily because Britain was leaving EU institutions, but because, he felt, the nation had decided to look inwards, not outwards.
In a discussion afterwards, many people in the audience expressed their frustration with Westminster and the Conservative government. One independence supporter who attended said he did not see how a divided UK polity could provide hope for people of a pro-EU bent. Counter to that, pro-Union people pointed out that the SNP’s position did not bear much weight.
Mr Rennie expressed optimism that the mood in the UK is changing. “The drivers for all the debate in UK politics is for trying to grasp onto some form of economic growth. It recognises that Brexit has done damage to the economy and the best way to repair that is to have a closer relationship with Europe,” he said.
As for the future, Mr Martin made the point that for those Scots who want to return to the EU, independence will end up being a longer route. A Scotland-only re-entry to the EU would also mean a border with England, with customs posts required to check goods going both ways. It would be Brexit with bells on. And while he warned there was no prospect of the UK making a speedy return to the EU, both he and Mr Rennie espoused what might be called a “gradualist” approach – finding common cause with Brexit supporters to pursue practical reforms to Britain’s Brexit deal that brought us back closer to Europe. For example, it was noted that while the Welsh Government has already set up its own version of Erasmus, the supposedly pro-EU Scottish Government has still failed to do so. Get on with it.
In other words, the pro-EU cause in Scotland (and the UK) might want to take some tactical advice from the old SNP: don’t be fundamentalist about this, just work quietly and persistently to change the popular mood.
Perhaps the best message to pro-EU Scots who would prefer to remain in the UK is as follows: you probably wouldn’t start from here. But here we are. The road ahead is going to be long. But travel in hope.