Playing with independence

Brexit is driving Scotland’s constitutional stand-off

10th January 2023
Carlton Brick

Scotland’s elite hide behind the promise of independence but voters want real democratic change far more than either a break with the UK or a return to the EU, writes Carlton Brick.

The preoccupation with Scottish independence obscures the potential for meaningful constitutional reform in Scotland. As Ben Wray and James Foley wryly observe in their recent book Scotland After Britain, ‘…conflict over independence, real or imagined, serves to distract from the absence of other disagreements, and the absence of electoral choice’. For Scotland’s political establishment, the ‘independence question’ has long served as an ideological safe space, a form of performative contestation, that has allowed both Unionist and Nationalist elites to isolate themselves from the demos and negate the demand for meaningful democratic change.

As 2022 came to an end, sections of the Unionist establishment south of the border seemed resigned to the fact that 2023 may possibly see the end of the century’s old political union between Scotland and the UK. For some time now, many have argued that the Conservative government’s continued refusal to allow Scotland a second referendum on independence will only deepen secessionist sentiment in Scotland. These fears appeared to have been realised as opinion polls reported that support for independence had risen to 56 per cent in the wake of the UK Supreme Court’s ruling in November that the decision to grant a second referendum lay with the UK government and not its Scottish counterpart.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s report on constitutional reform in the UK, commissioned by Labour leader, Kier Stammer, and published last month, has done nothing to assuage these concerns. A recent Spectator editorial suggested that Brown’s plans will only deepen the constitutional impasse even further. Advocating further but limited powers to the devolved nations, the 40 recommendations in the report stop well short of anything resembling a Scottish independence referendum. In fact, Brown, a long-standing defender of the Union, publicly endorses the Conservative government’s refusal to cede to the SNP’s demand for a second independence referendum by October 2023.

Rather than 2023 marking the dissolution of the United Kingdom, most expect to see only further entrenchment of a divisive constitutional stand-off – ‘… on one side a powerful independence movement which will not give up, on the other a decisive ‘no’ vote in the 2014 referendum’.

But such a fatalistic outlook doesn’t quite stack up. Firstly, far from going from strength-to-strength, confidence within the independence movement is perhaps at its lowest ever ebb. Secondly, such a miserabilist outlook uncritically swallows the myth that post-Brexit, Scottish voters want nothing more than a return to the EU. This misunderstands both the fundamentally changed character of the independence debate and the role it plays in Scotland. It also underestimates the way in which Brexit provoked a demand for real democratic change amongst sections of the Scottish electorate. It is not for nothing that 40 per cent of Scots voted to leave in 2016.

Independence movement at a standstill

Unionist pessimism south of the border, has nothing on the sneering cynicism of the nationalists in Scotland. For some time now, there has been a growing realisation that – despite the bells and whistles – the SNP’s desire for another referendum, let alone independence, has waned. Despite 15 years of SNP electoral dominance, for many critical voices within the Yes movement Scottish independence seems more unlikely than at any time since the modern independence movement began in the 1930s. The momentum generated by the 2014 referendum campaign has largely dissipated, left to wither on the vine by a self-serving SNP.

When viewed systematically over a period of time, polls consistently indicate that public opinion on Scottish independence has never really topped 2014 levels which, even back then, were not sufficient to prevent a pretty emphatic 55-45% defeat for the ‘Yes’ vote. A recent poll for The Scotsman newspaper, conducted over the week of 16th – 21st December, showed a 51 – 49% reversal in favour of Scotland staying in the UK, suggesting that any apparent nationalist surge that greeted the Supreme Court decision had already begun to peter out. One Scottish journalist quipped that the most significant thing about the rebooted IndyRef2 was that it served only to illustrate the ‘extent to which the SNP are opposed within the wider Yes movement’.

Pro-independence academic Gerry Hassan offered the withering assessment that there was very little reason to believe that the IndyRef2 campaign would actually ‘amount to anything’. The independence supporting Conter website, went so far as to describe it as ‘fake’. Noting the forthcoming Scottish parliament elections in 2024, it argued IndyRef2 was little more than another cynical Sturgeon ‘election campaign in disguise’. And as if to rub salt into the wound, just a matter of weeks after the Supreme Court ruled against the right of the Scottish parliament to call a referendum – a decision that Sturgeon decried as an assault on Scottish democracy – the SNP scrapped its £20 million referendum kitty.

The SNPs real success, then, has not been to advance the cause of independence but to make it a Remainer issue. Since 2016, the question of Scottish independence has become synonymous with the Remainer backlash against the leave vote. The post-2014 Yes movement has become the singularly most vociferous opponent of the principle of national sovereignty itself.

Nicola Sturgeon has always appeared more comfortable playing the Remainer poster girl than advocating for Scottish national sovereignty. As Scotland’s first minister she has had a generally ambigious – if not decidedly uncomfortable – relationship with the independence movement. Repeatedly refusing to attend the pro-independence ‘All Under One Banner’ marches – arguably amongst the biggest in Scottish history – she jumped at the opportunity to play a key role in the anti-Brexit ‘Peoples’ Vote’ demonstrations in London, posing for selfies with former Blair spin-doctor Alastair Campbell.

There are, of course, those who have embraced this post-nationalist, anti-populist turn. Gerry Hassan has recently argued that if the independence movement is to have any realistic future, it must first create an idea of Scotland ‘that goes beyond nationalism’. ‘There is’, Hassan is adamant, ‘no version of Scottish independence that ends up looking like ‘Sexit’ – a Scottish version of Brexit – pursuing an unattainable idea of absolute sovereignty in the modern world’. According to Hassan, national sovereignty, ‘divides’, ‘harms’ and ‘distorts democracy’. Scottish independence can only succeed if it recognises ‘…the terrible shadow of the 2016 Brexit referendum’.

The myth of Scottish Europhilia

Despite all the bluster, the wholesale assumption that Scots have a far more welcoming attitude towards the European political union than the English exists only in the ‘realm of myth’. Drawing upon data from the Scottish Attitudes Survey, political scientist David McCrone points out that in 2015 60 per cent of Scots openly identified as Eurosceptic – just 5 per cent below the figure for England. According to a 2016 survey conducted by only 2 per cent of Scots consider themselves to be European.

Celebrated psephologist Professor John Curtice notes that prior to the 2016 Brexit vote, the percentage of the Scottish population who thought the UK should leave the EU, and were also likely to vote in favour of Scottish independence, stood at just below 50 per cent. This compares with 44 per cent of Scots who support remaining in the EU and would be likely to vote yes to independence in a referendum. Accordingly, the British Election Study indicates that there is little, if any, meaningful difference between the percentage of Scottish yes voters in 2014 who voted remain in 2016 (62%) and those who voted no in 2014 and also voted to remain in 2016 (60%).

The 2016 vote to leave the EU was not the boon to the independence cause that ‘nationalist politicians had perhaps anticipated’. When mapped across the pre- and post-2016 period, polls suggest that the correlation between holding pro-EU attitudes and voting for independence is in fact a minority opinion amongst the Scottish electorate. In 2014 independence became a mainstream issue but not a majority opinion. Even the repeated election of a pro-nationalist government has not resulted in a consistently meaningful rise in public support for Scottish independence.

However, despite public opinion, the independence narrative has continued to suffocate political and public life in Scotland. This tendency has two contributory factors. It is a direct consequence of the SNP’s successful equation of the myth of Scottish Europhilia with Scottish independence. It is also a result of the unwillingness of Scotland’s pro-unionist parties to effectively take issue with this myth. In 2016, under Sturgeon’s orchestration, the ‘Yes’ movement became the principal advocate for reversing the referendum vote, and the unionist establishment seemed more than happy to play along.

The 2017 general election and Scotland’s ‘yellow wall’

Brexit was always about more than the establishment parties thought it was. For many ordinary people, and in particular those who had largely been forgotten, ignored and patronised by the political establishment, it was about reinserting the voice of the demos back into British politics. Boris Johnson, along with others in the so-called pro-Brexit establishment, never really grasped its democratic importance. Rhetorically committed to restoring Britain’s national sovereignty, they lacked the intellectual and political commitment to it as an ideal, failing to grasp its radial transformative potential. For them Brexit was a purely strategic issue. The morning after the referendum vote in 2016, before the result was even announced, Johnson and Farage were busy holding a press conference enthusiastically ceding to a Remainer victory.

The Westminster Tories’ lack of conviction to Brexit is matched by their Scottish counterparts who, under the leadership of anti-Brexiteer Ruth Davidson, took great steps to distance themselves from the ‘Get Brexit Done’ rhetoric of the Johnson government. Davidson, who described herself a ‘close friend’ of former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, both erstwhile Remainers, resigned as Scottish Tory leader in 2019 citing Brexit as the reason.

The Scottish Tories’ refusal to engage with the popular mandate reflected their inability to grasp the role the EU referendum played in re-energising Scottish political life. Viewing any public endorsement of a pro-Brexit, anti-EU stance as electoral suicide, they refused to make it a campaigning issue in the 2017 general election and generally avoided talking about it in public. However, as the 2017 general election clearly illustrated, important sections of the Scottish electorate were heavily invested in defending the Brexit mandate. In Scotland, the Conservatives doubled their share of the vote to 29 per cent, their best result since 1983. This success was also reflected in the 13 seats won – twelve of them from the SNP – their best result seat-wise since 1979. On the other hand, the SNP lost a third of their seats, including the scalps of big hitters like Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster; and former Scottish first minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond.

Scottish Tory gains in the 2017 general election, and the strong showing in Scotland of the Brexit Party in the 2019 elections to the European parliament, clearly illustrate the populist appeal of Brexit. More revealing still is the fact that these results were driven, as with the rest of the UK, by sections of the Scottish electorate who up until then had been largely ignored by the political and cultural elites. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation observed in 2018:

Before the 2014 independence referendum low-income voters were more likely to support the SNP. After the 2014 referendum, support for the SNP among low income then surged reaching over 50%. After the Brexit Referendum, however, there was a notable increase in support for the Conservatives among low-income voters, and a notable decline in support among this group for the SNP.

Since its establishment in 1999, Scotland’s devolved parliament has largely proved to be a one-party oligarchy – first under the Labour Party, and since 2007, the SNP. However, because of Brexit, it did, for a moment, begin to look and feel a little more like a democracy.

But the failure of Scotland’s unionist parties to build on the populist uprising confirms that they, like Remainers, and the SNP do not really believe that constitutional issues should be settled by the people. This betrayal of Scotland’s Brexit vote has allowed a ruling establishment to realign itself along the faux politics of independence.


The independence narrative has been able to maintain a stranglehold on debates on constitutional change because it serves the mutual interests of Scotland’s political classes. Its success lies in the fact that it gives voice to the elite’s anti-populist backlash that followed the 2016 Brexit vote, and their shared distrust for the electorate.

However, despite this, the referendum of 2016 has proven to be the single most dynamic politicising force in Scottish politics. As in the rest of the UK, it was driven by those sections of Scottish society left behind and ignored by both the Unionist and Nationalist establishments – ordinary, low-income voters. The populism that shaped Brexit provides the foundation for real, meaningful democratic renewal in Scotland and is a cause for optimism to Scottish democrats willing to cut themselves loose from the elite tethers of the independence cause.

Carlton Brick is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of Scotland.

Picture: 10 Downing Street, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons