Are Scots European? Indubitably, you might reply. After all, 62% voted to Remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum, and there was a majority in all the Scottish local authorities, nem. con. Only London came anywhere near that figure (56%), and there was a majority for Leave in all other eight English regions.
There is, however, a puzzle. We had grown used to the conventional wisdom that there was little difference north and south of the border as regards attitudes to ‘Europe’. Here is Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (26th June 2015): “Sorry, SNP, but Scotland’s social attitudes are just the same as England’s”.
More circumspectly, ScotCen’s Rachel Ormston explained to the Guardian: ‘It’s not a great surprise that Scots are a little more in favour of the EU [than rest of Britain], but not quite as dramatic a difference as the political narrative around the issue would suggest.’ (The Guardian 26th March 2015).
Her colleague Ian Montague agrees: ‘Scottish attitudes towards Europe may actually be not so dissimilar from those across the rest of Britain after all’ (Ian Montague ‘Is Scotland Really Keen on the EU?’, 26th February 2016).
The 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes data put the level of Euroscepticism in Scotland at 60%, just 5 percentage points below the British figure, and substantially more than it was in 2013 (48%). The difference between Scotland on the one hand, and England and Wales on the other, was that 25.4% in England wanted the UK to Leave the EU, compared with 16.5% in Scotland (2015 figures).
So what’s going on? Why the apparent turnabout? The first thing to say is that people in Scotland have not changed their minds. The ‘What Scotland Thinks’ website confirms that opinion polls show very little variation in the twelve months running up to the EU referendum: support for Remain is comfortably above 50%.
The point, however, is that Remain and Leave are treated as a binary divide. Just as in the Scottish IndyRef in 2014, binary divides hide a multitude of variation. The interesting questions in 2014 focused on how ‘devolution-max’ supporters would reconcile their desire of a more powerful parliament with a desire to remain in the UK (broadly, they voted 2:1 No). The EU question was similarly complex, resembling a five-point scale, ranging from ‘Leave’, through ‘stay and reduce EU powers’, ‘leave as is’, ‘stay and increase EU powers’, and ‘form a single EU government’. People in both Scotland and England opted for ‘stay and reduce EU powers’ (around 40% in each case).
Forcing people to choose Remain or Leave (just as Yes/No in 2014) did not do justice to nuanced choices, but that’s the nature of referendums and binary divides. More to the point, referendums get hijacked by all sorts of extraneous issues. The comment that one should never have a referendum unless and until you are pretty certain of the outcome was attributed, apocryphally, to Harold Wilson.
Furthermore, results take on a life of their own, just as they did after IndyRef 2014. In Scotland, this is taken to mean that Scots are significantly more Europhilic than the English. We know that; the June 2016 referendum told us so (except that we are locked into binary crudities). Nevertheless, facts are chiels that winna ding.
So what is going on? First of all, let us treat attitudes to ‘Europe’ as a black box category. Less than 5% of people in Scotland opt for ‘European’ as their political identity if forced to choose. So ‘Europe’ means ‘just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’, in the words of Humpty Dumpty. Like Alice, we may be puzzled that words can mean so many different things, but the question is who is to be master – that’s all.
In short, in Scotland ‘Europe’ comes to signify belonging to a European nation, a feature of the nationalist (small-n) political narrative. In England, it takes on the role of ‘the other’, – ‘not English’. Those who thought of themselves as ‘English not British’ voted 4 to 1 in favour of Leave, in contrast to ‘British not English’ who voted 60/40 to Remain (Ashcroft).
We are in the realm of ‘myth’, in the anthropological sense, truths held to be self-evident, which are stimuli for social and political action, regardless almost of their truth-status. Scots are ‘European’ after the events of 23rd June 2016 because they voted to Remain in the EU. Clocks are not in the habit of being turned back in the world of politics. This ‘fact’ is another brick in the wall of Scottish identity, whether we like it or not.
This post was first published by the Centre on Constitutional Change and is reproduced with permission