Brexiteers and Scottish Nationalists are often perceived to be irreconcilably opposed to each other. It’s true that their respective champions, Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, hold diametrically opposing views, the former pro-Brexit and pro-Union, the latter pro-EU and pro-Independence. Yet the truth is that Brexiteers and Scottish Nationalists have more in common than either side would like to admit. Should Boris deign to grant Nicola her referendum, she will probably campaign for it using language not that dissimilar from his during the Brexit campaign.
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In fact, the parallels in the Brexit and Scottish Independence arguments are striking. Eurosceptics have railed against interfering and overbearing Brussels for decades and cited a number of examples of Brussels overreaching itself and interfering in British affairs. Some were true, others not so much. They have claimed that British politicians are better placed to make decisions for the British people than distant Eurocrats and Presidents with a limited claim to a democratic mandate in Britain.
Likewise, the Scottish Nationalists rage against an overbearing Westminster that has ignored the Scottish people for decades and patronises them with the occasional stage-managed visit (as well as failing them during the Covid crisis). There have been bold claims that the country would be better off if Scots ruled Scotland, with politicians who understood the Scottish people and were elected solely by them. For Scottish Nationalists are explicit in their rejection of the claims of Westminster governments, especially those with a blue hue, of a meaningful democratic mandate in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament (since it fell to the SNP) has been held up as the true receptacle of the Scottish nation, much as Brexiteers describe the British Parliament.
Neither side seems able to recognise the tension between their positions. For the Brexiteers to show so little sympathy to many Scots feeling ignored by a distant and bureaucratic capital based in another country (the very crux of the issue) is rather strange considering their own feelings about Brussels. Conversely, it is odd that Scottish Nationalists so resoundingly reject Brexiteers’ concerns and claims about Brussels considering their own about London. Even more bizarrely, they are themselves pro-EU, even though it’s a political entity that seeks greater powers by stripping them from member state governments, whereas Westminster has been gradually devolving more and more power over the last two decades. Nor does the claim that Westminster’s democratic mandate in Scotland is an illusion, but that of Brussels’ remains legitimate, make much sense.
Nationalists and Brexiteers share another fundamental tenet, absolute faith in themselves and their country. Both groups are utterly confident in their cause and how successful it will be. The more outlandish claims of Brexiteers during the referendum are well known, and some have already proven to be false. Nationalist claims were equally hyperbolic in 2014, with suggestions that Scotland would become one of the world’s richest Nations despite a yawning deficit and massive exposure to oil price fluctuations. Nor does joining the EU offer the economic stability it once did, since the greater access to the EU market would be offset by increased trade friction with the rest of the UK, which is substantially more important to the Scottish economy. Both groups faced considerable hurdles, but their faith was unshakeable. In the case of Brexiteers, they did whatever was necessary to force the early election, which allowed them to gain the power they needed to deliver Brexit. It remains to be seen if the Scottish Nationalists can match this dogged pursuit of their aims. But with Sturgeon’s suggestion that she would pursue a referendum with or without Westminster’s consent, it certainly looks like they can.
The significance of the faith of Brexiteer and Nationalist followers cannot be overstated, as their aims have been overwhelmingly rejected by much of the business, institutional and political elite. Brexit was seen as madness by most MP’s and it’s widely believed David Cameron didn’t even plan to hold the referendum, thinking he would have to barter it away in post-election negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. A victim of his own success, Cameron held the referendum against his Chancellor’s advice and promptly lost the vote and with it his premiership.
Though aggressively opposed to Brexit and confident of victory, the elite consensus still threw everything they had at defeating Brexit. All major parties in the UK were opposed, the CBI, Unions, regional governments and mayors, leading celebrities, the World Bank, the IMF and of course, Obama. It was Obama’s famous ‘back of the queue’ intervention that has come to epitomise the tone of the Remains’ campaign. In the face of all this, combined with a large spending advantage for Remain, Brexiteers had Boris, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage and of course a big red bus. Their victory was in no small part due to them learning the lessons of the 2014 referendum campaign, which Remain failed to do. Though many of them hate Brexit, in truth, Scottish Nationalists should take hope from it. If Boris and his motley crew of oddballs and controversial figures could beat the UK and international elite, surely, they can beat Boris and his Covid-battered Tory government?
The Scottish Nationalists, in truth, face a less fearsome coalition of elite consensus than the Brexiteers did. Though the Greens are the only other major Nationalist party in Scotland and most of the Scottish business community has previously warned of their concern about the impact of Independence, the Nationalists do have one big advantage, it’s called the SNP and it’s been ruling Scotland for 14 years. The SNP has been chipping away at elite institutions for years now, gradually replacing the Unionists with their own advocates.
Whilst the Nationalist cause still faces fierce elite opposition from Scotland’s Unionist parties (Scottish business, the rest of the UK and its political and economic elite), it does not face the overwhelming domestic opposition the Brexiteers did. Being in government has allowed the Nationalists to crack the elite consensus in leading institutions across Scotland and in the media. Here the Scottish Nationalists have the Brexiteers to thank for accelerating this trend. Many of the same elite who rejected Independence the first time and Brexit the second time are now having a second look. They don’t like the UK’s direction and can now sympathise with Scots who want to break free and return to the EU. Should the Scottish Nationalists get their second referendum, they might find more support from the UK elite than the first time, or at the very least greater understanding of their desire to leave the post-Brexit UK.
There is only one source of caution the Scottish Nationalists should note, part of the reason the Brexiteers won was their status as the underdogs, the rebels, the outsiders and that appealed to something in the public psyche. It’s hard to rage against the political machine when you are the unquestioned masters of Scottish politics and when part of the elite is cheering for you this time.
Directly connected with the opposition of the elites is fierce national pride. Years of being told they could not possibly survive outside of the EU or the UK angered both the British and Scottish public alike. The exaggerated claims made by some Remain campaigners and supporting outlets were fuel to the Brexiteer fire and as Cameron himself admitted in his post-premiership book, ‘Remain made big mistakes in the campaign’. Brexiteers felt increasing disbelief about the claims elite figures were making and as a result, they began to ignore them. They had in fact (as one Mr Gove claimed) had enough of experts. Britain’s success with its vaccination programme (in contrast to the EU’s stumbling roll-out) has only cemented Brexiteers confidence in their decision. A similar feeling has taken root amongst Nationalist voters and even ex-unionist voters in Scotland. As they watched the trials and tribulations of Brexit and the repeated failure of the Westminster Parliament to resolve it, only to then see it resolved by a man they despised and with a result Scotland did not vote for, they have begun to ask, surely, we can do better? Or to at least believe they couldn’t do worse.
This feeling has only been compounded by the Covid pandemic and the perceived failure of Boris and his Westminster government, in contrast to Sturgeon’s highly rated performance and successful management of the pandemic. The fact that the death rate in Scotland and England is broadly similar and that both failed badly with care homes is politically irrelevant. These perceptions are now baked in and the Scottish people have never been more confident in their government or their ability to make it independently. The polls reflect this reality. If a referendum were held tomorrow, it is hard to be certain of the outcome.
Division between internationalists and nationalists bedevils the Brexit and Scottish Nationalists movements. Many leading Brexiteers preached about a global Britain of free trade, market forces and liberal immigration. Contrary to popular belief, they meant it, it’s just a lot of those who voted for Brexit didn’t. These people saw Brexit as an opportunity to focus on Britain and its problems by fixing issues at home that international organisations like the EU distracted from. The tensions between these two groups present a massive challenge to the Johnson government. Once the Covid crisis ends, he will have to reveal to which of these groups he belongs, though perhaps we already know the answer.
Happily, for the Scottish Nationalists, the tensions in their coalition should be kept mostly in check until after they achieve victory, as was the case for the Brexiteers. (Though perhaps Alex Salmond and his new Alba party might well bring brewing conflict out into the open). Nonetheless, these tensions do exist. After all, our two groups are one and the same in the case of the third of Scottish Nationalist voters who backed Brexit. This group resolved the tension between being anti-Westminster and pro-Brussels by being opposed to both. Some in the media have speculated about this group seeing them as a bit odd or perhaps confused, but their position makes rather a lot of sense. With none of the blind spots or borderline hypocrisy, it takes to be pro one movement and opposed to the other. This sub-group might be the happiest in the long-term; it looks like they might just win twice!
The parallels between Brexiteers and Scottish Nationalists are broad, deep and undeniable. Both groups should admit they have a lot in common. If they did it might help them understand each other, taking some of the poison out of the debates over Brexit and the looming question of Independence. Both sides have something to learn; the Scottish Nationalists might be able to take lessons from the Brexiteers triumph to achieve their own. Conversely, in understanding their own motivations, Unionist Brexiteers might be able to understand Scottish Nationalist sympathisers and bring them back on side. The fate of the Union might well hinge on the ability of Scottish Nationalist and Unionist Brexiteers to learn from each other. Whoever learns first might well win it all.
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