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2. Living together in a Union of four nations

The Impact of Brexit on the SNP’s narrative of independence

Annie Thiec
p. 103-126

Résumé

In the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the SNP Government’s narrative of independence was based on the assumption that both an independent Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would remain members of the European Union. In this context, Scotland’s independence was presented as the opportunity to ‘create a new partnership of equals – a social union to replace the current political union’.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, with the prospect of Scotland being taken out of the EU against her will, the Scottish Government’s narrative of independence, while still pledging to maintain close links with the other nations of the UK, has been reframed in terms of Scotland’s future relationship with Europe and puts forward Scotland’s ambition to join the ‘top tier of independent nations.’

This paper will analyse the SNP’s narrative of independence prior to the independence referendum. It will then explore how the prospect of Brexit has led the Scottish Government to make of Europe its new frame of reference, before finally discussing what this shift reveals about the party’s vision of Scotland’s place in Europe and in the world in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

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Introduction

  • 1 Winnie Ewing first became an MEP in 1975, when she was appointed to be part of the delegation of MP (...)

1Membership of the European Union, or the ‘European Economic Community’, as it was called prior to 1993, has been an integral part of the SNP’s narrative of independence since 1988 when ‘Independence in Europe’ became official party policy. At the time of the first referendum on continued British membership of the EEC, in June 1975, however, the SNP had campaigned in favour of Britain’s withdrawal, though on the fairly ambivalent slogan ‘No voice, no entry’ which had the merit of reconciling the pro- and anti-EEC membership within the party, while also being flexible enough to allow for the party’s position on Europe to be re-examined in future on the condition that Scotland’s voice be heard in Brussels. In the end, while two regions in Scotland voted to leave, namely Shetland and the Western Isles, continued membership was approved by a majority of voters north of the border, though with a lower percentage than in the UK as a whole – 58.4% and 67.2% respectively. The outcome of the referendum led the SNP to adopt a more positive approach to EEC membership, a move confirmed after Winnie Ewing became the party’s first elected MEP in the 1979 European Parliament elections.1

  • 2 The text of the resolution was printed on page 1 of the SNP’s manifesto for the 1984 European elect (...)

2Fears that the European Community would become a superstate were still shared by many within the SNP, however, and a resolution adopted at its annual conference of 1983 moved the party’s position on Europe towards a cautious support for EEC membership for an independent Scotland, on the condition that the terms negotiated were satisfactory and membership was approved by the people of Scotland in a referendum. The resolution, which stated that ‘an SNP Government would approach negotiations with the Common Market in a positive manner, willing to recommend membership unless our negotiating team were unable to secure from the EEC guarantees of protection of vital Scottish interests, particularly in relation to fishing, oil and steel’, allowed the party to campaign on a more positive message in the 1984 European elections.2 As a matter of fact, by the mid-1980s, the prospect of an independent Scotland being a member of the EEC came to be seen as a way to free Scotland from the economic policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s governments and their devastating effects on Scotland’s economy and society.

  • 3 Sillars, J., 1985, Introduction.

3The shift in the party’s position on Europe was shaped to a large degree by former Labour politician and co-founder in 1976 of the short-lived breakaway Scottish Labour Party, Jim Sillars, who joined the SNP in 1980. Indeed, in a pamphlet published in June 1985, entitled Scotland: Moving on and up in Europe, Jim Sillars set out the benefits of an independent Scotland becoming a full member state of the EEC, which he saw as a way of addressing one of the main arguments of the opponents of independence, namely the risk of isolation. Besides, independence in Europe also offered the opportunity to promote the concept of ‘Euro-nationalism’ which, he argued, meant ‘a recognition of the legitimacy of diversity through nations and their rights, coupled with a willingness for all to participate on a wider stage than the home unit, sinking differences and sharing sovereignty in seeking common European objectives of peace, harmony, development, prosperity, civilized conduct, and concern for the third world’.3

  • 4 ‘Independence in Europe’ featured officially in the title of the SNP manifesto for the European ele (...)

4The objective of independence in Europe was officially adopted as party policy at the SNP conference of 1988, and ever since then independence for Scotland and EC/EU membership have been linked in the party’s political project.4 In promoting the idea of the sharing of sovereignty, Jim Sillars’ ‘Euro-nationalist’ view, which he further developed in a book entitled Scotland: The Case for Optimism, in 1986, was indeed a precursor of the concepts of participative sovereignty and of the interdependence of independent nations within the EU, which have been at the core of the Scottish Government’s discourse on independence in Europe since the 2010s.

5In the campaign for the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014, the defenders of the Union argued that the only way for Scotland to secure its continued membership of the EU was to say ‘No’ to independence, and therefore remain in the EU as a component nation of the United Kingdom. Two years later, however, the outcome of the EU referendum overturned that argument, since at the UK level 51.9% of the people who cast a vote voted to leave the EU, which implied that Scotland, where 62% voted to remain, was to be taken out of the EU against her will. It is no surprise, therefore, that in the aftermath of the EU referendum, the Scottish Government’s narrative of independence should have been reframed.

6This article will first analyse the SNP’s narrative of independence in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, which was based on the premise that, upon becoming independent from the United Kingdom, Scotland would still be part of the EU, while the rest of the United Kingdom also remained in the EU. It will then explore how the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum, together with the 2015 general election and the prospect of a second referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, led the SNP Government to make of Europe the new frame of reference for its project of independence. This will lead us finally to discuss what this shift reveals about the party’s vision of Scotland’s place in Europe and in the world in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

The narrative of independence prior to the independence referendum of 2014 : creating a new partnership of equals with the other nations of the UK

  • 5 Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, November 2013, pp. (...)
  • 6 Scottish Government, op.cit., p. 456.

7In the months leading up to the referendum on Scotland’s independence, and especially after the publication of its White Paper on independence, in November 2013, the Scottish Government was accused by the pro-Union parties of inconsistency, on the ground that, while advocating independence, and therefore the end of the Union, it was also arguing that independence would create a new partnership of equals within the British Isles which would benefit Scotland as well as the other nations of the UK. Such accusations were based on the ambivalence in the description given of the relationship between an independent Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom: thus, while it was explained in the White Paper that, after independence, Scotland would no longer be part of the parliamentary union with the other nations of the UK, and that the Acts of Union would be repealed, it was also argued that ‘this change in the political and governmental arrangements for Scotland will not affect the many other ties that bind Scotland to the other nations of the UK’.5 Indeed, independence would ‘enable Scotland to create a new and equal relationship with the other nations’ of the UK, it was claimed, and under the SNP’s proposals, Scotland would keep its ‘close links of family and friendship through an ongoing social union’.6

  • 7 Scottish National Party, Elect a Local Champion, 2010, SNP manifesto 2010, pp. 17-22. This presenta (...)

8In fact, the narrative of a ‘renewed partnership’ between Scotland and the other nations of the United Kingdom became a leitmotiv in the nationalist discourse after the SNP won the Scottish Parliament election for the first time, in 2007, as the prospect of holding a referendum on independence came more and more within their grasp. Thus, the party manifesto published for the General Election of 2010 contained, out of a total of 25 pages, a six-page section entitled “Building a new partnership”, which presented the case for ‘independence in an interdependent world’. The 300-year-old political union was described as ‘no longer fit for purpose’ and not designed for the 21st century; yet, far from independence meaning separation pure and simple, what it meant, rather, was ‘updating the relationship between Scotland and England’ and ‘creating a new partnership of equals – a social union to replace the current political union. Scotland’s independence therefore would result in what was presented as a more appropriate relationship, allowing Scotland and England to share the same Queen, the same currency and, as members of the European Union, to continue to enjoy the benefits of free trade and extensive co-operation.7 The party’s second election victory in 2011, this time with an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, paved the way for the referendum on Scotland’s independence.

9After the Edinburgh Agreement was signed between the British Government and the Scottish Government on 15 October 2012, settling the question of the legality of the referendum, the key issues which dominated the public debate were the question of the currency in use in an independent Scotland, that of EU membership, but also defence issues, as well as the issue of oil and gas revenues. In this context, arguing the case for independence as creating a ‘partnership of equals’, while preserving open borders as well as free trade between Scotland and the other nations of the UK, allowed the Scottish Government to respond to accusations of separatism, and counter attacks from the pro-Union parties gathered in the ‘Better Together’ campaign, which centred on the economic and social risks independence entailed. The opponents of independence predicted indeed that Scotland would be hit by an economic recession due to the fact that the Scottish economy was tied to the UK economy, and that, as a result of independence, Scotland’s biggest market, namely the other nations of the UK, would become its first competitor. On the issue of EU membership, the pro-Union parties argued that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for membership of the EU and sign a new accession treaty; therefore the best way for Scots to avoid the risk of isolation and the uncertainties regarding Scotland’s future in Europe, was to vote against independence for Scotland. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government argued that it would only need to negotiate transitional arrangements with its European partners to remain in the EU as an independent member-state.

  • 8 Sturgeon, N., 6 June 2013.

10The idea that independence would bring about a renewed partnership between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom was indeed the main focus of a speech delivered on 6 June 2013 in Edinburgh by Nicola Sturgeon, then Deputy First Minister, and entitled “A Renewed Partnership of the Isles”. On that occasion, she explained that ‘far from marking a separation from our friends and relations across these islands, independence opens the door to a renewed partnership between us’, a ‘partnership of equals’, where Scotland, while taking its own decisions and implementing its own policies independently from the rest of the United Kingdom, would continue to work with its partners in the British Isles ‘on issues of common interest’.8

  • 9 His second speech, on the currency union, was indeed delivered on the Isle of Man on 16 July 2013.
  • 10 Salmond, A., 12 July 2013.
  • 11 Salmond, A., 28 August 2013.

11In a similar vein, over the summer of 2013, Alex Salmond, then First Minister, delivered six speeches across Scotland and beyond,9 aimed at explaining what independence really meant in the 21st century and presenting the place of an independent Scotland in an interdependent world, thereby preparing the ground for the White Paper on independence and the referendum campaign. The series of six speeches was intended to be symbolic of the six unions which Scotland was a member of, namely the currency union, the defence union, the European Union, the social union, the union of the Crowns, and the political and economic union. In his first speech, Alex Salmond explained that his government would choose to maintain the first five unions after independence, because “they made sense for both Scotland and the rest of the UK”, and could actually ‘be strengthened and improved by independence’ while using the powers of independence to ‘renew and improve them’.10 Regarding the social union, Alex Salmond argued that it would remain because it rested on ‘ties of history, culture, family and friendship which are not dependent on Governments’,11 while the union of the Crowns, the currency union, the European union and the defence union through NATO would be maintained as of choice, as a matter of policy. In other words, Scotland’s independence would bring about the end of one union only, namely the political union.

  • 12 Scottish National Party, September 2002.
  • 13 Scottish National Party, 30 November 2005.

12The idea that the union of the Crowns would be preserved post independence, for instance, was not new: in September 2002, an SNP policy document provided for ‘a continuing monarchy, with the headship of state vested in Queen Elizabeth and her successors’12, while more recent documents have established parallels between an independent Scotland and the Commonwealth states which recognised the Queen as their head of state. On the currency issue, keeping the pound in a currency union with the rest of the UK was also a longstanding SNP policy, set out in a consultation paper on independence13 unveiled in 2005, on which the SNP Government’s first White Paper on independence in 2007 was based. The consultation paper also suggested that an independent Scotland could come to arrangements with the British Government for a continuation of public cross-border services such as the BBC, the Post Office and the licensing of drivers and vehicles. Finally, regarding the question of Scotland’s membership of the European Union, ‘Independence in Europe’ had been party policy since 1988.

  • 14 Scottish Government, 2007, p. 24.

13On the whole, therefore, the claim made by the pro-Union parties that the SNP had changed tack on their independence plans for Scotland, delivering a reassuring message by underlining what would not change after independence in the hope that they could persuade undecided voters to vote ‘Yes’ on referendum day, ignored what had been SNP policy for a number of years, as stated in the first White Paper published by the SNP on coming into office in 2007: ‘Independence for Scotland in the 21st century would reflect the reality of existing and growing interdependence: partnership in these islands and more widely across Europe’.14

14By the time the referendum on independence had become a reality, the Scottish Government was able to elaborate its argument on what form a partnership between an independent Scotland and the other nations of the UK could take by drawing on the reality of the British-Irish relations which, the Scottish Government claimed, could be transposed to the future relation between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. Thus, the White Paper on independence, published in November 2013, quoted the opening lines of the joint statement of cooperation agreed on by David Cameron and his Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, on 12 March 2012, in London:

  • 15 Scottish Government, November 2013, p. 215. Reference to the joint statement had already been made (...)

The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important as it is today. Our citizens, uniquely linked by geography and history, are connected today as never before through business, politics, culture and sport, travel and technology and, of course, family ties. Our two economies benefit from a flow of people, goods, investment, capital and ideas on a scale that is rare in this era of global economic integration.15

15The example of the British-Irish relations was again brought to the fore by Alex Salmond in early 2014, at the height of the controversy over the feasibility of a currency union between Scotland and the other nations of the UK after independence, after the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in a speech in Edinburgh in February 2014, had ruled out the likelihood of a currency union, and described an independent Scotland as a ‘foreign country’. In his New Statesman lecture in London, on 4 March 2014, and again in a speech delivered in Carlisle on 23 April, i.e. St George’s Day, the Scottish First Minister referred to the Ireland Act 1949 which, he reminded the Chancellor, stated that the newly-established republic of Ireland would not be regarded as a ‘foreign country’. In a scathing attack on the Chancellor for what he claimed was evidence of the willingness of the British Government to hold an independent Scotland in isolation, Alex Salmond then made a point of contrasting the Scottish Government’s vision of the British-Scottish relations after independence with that of the British Government:

  • 16 Salmond, A., 4 March 2014.

Scotland will not be a foreign country after independence, any more than Ireland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales could ever be ‘foreign countries’ to Scotland. We share ties of family and friendship, trade and commerce, history and culture, which have never depended on a parliament here at Westminster, and will endure and flourish long after independence.16

  • 17 See for example Salmond, A., 23 April 2014.
  • 18 Scottish Government, November 2013, op. cit., p. 214.

16While the British Isles were central to the frame of reference in which the independence project was presented, the Scottish Government, however, highlighted divergent views which had emerged between the Scottish Government and the UK Government on several issues, notably on their visions of the future of the UK and that of Scotland in Europe, but also on social policy.17 Thus, in the context of the austerity measures implemented by the Lib-Con Coalition Government in London, the Scottish Government insisted on the fact that only independence could protect Scotland from being hit by policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ for example, as only independence guaranteed that all decisions affecting the people of Scotland on welfare and social justice were made in Scotland. On the issue of social policy, the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence stated that ‘an independent Scotland, with a commitment to social justice, can be a beacon for progress elsewhere on these isles’.18

17As for divergences on Europe, they became particularly obvious after David Cameron delivered his speech on the future of the European Union at Bloomberg on 23 January 2013, in which he outlined his vision for a new European Union and announced that provided his party won the general election of 2015, he would hold an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017. Thus, in a speech delivered at the European Policy Centre in Brussels on 26 February 2013, that is to say one month after David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, Nicola Sturgeon, then Deputy First Minister, insisted on the dual dimension of independence, which would first renew the partnership between Scotland and the other nations of the UK while also putting an end to the uncertainty about Scotland’s future inside the European Union with the prospect of the Conservative Party winning the general election of 2015.

  • 19 Scottish Government, October 2013; Scottish Government, Scotland in the EU, November 2013; Scottish (...)
  • 20 Scottish Government, Scotland in the EU, November 2013, iii.
  • 21 Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, op.cit., p. 217.

18In the aftermath of the Bloomberg Speech, the Scottish Government published a series of policy documents on Scotland’s place and future in Europe,19 in which it made a point of distancing itself from the British Government’s negative approach with its ‘ultimatums or threats to leave the European Union’.20 By contrast, the Scottish Government pledged to adopt a more constructive approach, while putting forward its own proposals aimed at reforming the EU. Besides, while the Scottish Government was in favour of a reform of the governance of the EU, unlike the British Government, it did not consider a new treaty necessary and was opposed to a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence warned against the danger for Scotland of being taken out of the EU against her own wishes, and highlighted the fact that only independence would give the people of Scotland the final say on the future of their country in Europe.21

  • 22 By December 2014, the SNP had over 93,000 members, while the Scottish Green Party had 7,500.
  • 23 Scottish National Party, 2015.

19In the weeks following the referendum of 18 September 2014, in which 55.3% of the people who voted said ‘No’ to independence, the pro-Union parties argued that the question of Scotland’s independence had been settled once and for all. Meanwhile, the membership of two main pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Scottish Green Party, tripled to reach 75,000 and 6,000 respectively22, which confirmed that the independence movement had not lost momentum in the wake of the referendum. Yet, as political parties across the UK were preparing for the 2015 general election, and opinion polls predicted a ‘hung’ parliament, the SNP centred its campaign on its anti-austerity message and on the potential of becoming ‘a voice for a new, better and more progressive politics at Westminster’.23

The shift towards Europe in the frame of reference for independence after the EU referendum

20In the aftermath of the independence referendum, while looking ahead to the 2015 general election, the divergences between Scotland and the rest of the UK became exacerbated. The Scottish Government made clear its disagreement with the orientations of the UK Government on the economy, and set out the actions it intended to take to counter the detrimental effects of the UK Government’s austerity measures. Meanwhile it also argued that only full independence from the UK would enable a Scottish government to implement policies that met the expectations of the people of Scotland. Stress was laid, however, on the necessity to implement policies which would benefit Scotland as well as the other nations of the UK, which confirmed the ambition on the part of the Scottish Government to emulate the other nations of the UK.

  • 24 Sturgeon, N., 28 March 2015.

21The SNP presented itself as a party ‘working for progressive change’ not just in Scotland but across the UK. With the prospect of the general election resulting in a ‘hung’ parliament again, as in 2010, the SNP, which was credited in the polls with winning all but one of the 59 Scottish seats, had the potential of playing a key part in the future governance of the UK. Consequently, the message put forward at the SNP’s spring conference of 2015 by Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded Alex Salmond as party leader and First Minister of Scotland in November 2014, was addressed to the ‘people of progressive opinion all across the UK’.24 A few weeks later, at the launch of her party manifesto for the general election, the SNP’s commitment to social justice was set in the context of British politics:

  • 25 Sturgeon, N., 20 April 2015.

Our job is to serve you and we will do it at Westminster – just as we do it in the Scottish Parliament – to the very best of our ability. That is my promise to Scotland. But I also want to make a pledge today to people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Even though you can’t vote SNP, your views do matter to me. And you have a right to know what to expect of my party if the votes of the Scottish people give us influence in a hung parliament. […] If the SNP emerges from this election in a position of influence, we will exercise that influence responsibly and constructively. And we will exercise it in the interests of people, not just in Scotland but across the UK.25

  • 26 Ibid.

22The party’s commitment to independence was still as strong, but less than a year after the failure of the 2014 referendum to deliver independence, in spite of the fact that the independence movement was not losing momentum, the reference to the prospect of an independent Scotland was phrased in a more implicit manner: ‘For as long as Scotland remains part of the Westminster system, we have a shared interest with you in making that system work better for all of us – for the many, not the few’.26

23However, the outcome of the general election, which delivered a Conservative government in London with an overall majority in the House of Commons, but four different sets of results in the 4 nations of the UK, exacerbated the democratic deficit in Scotland where the SNP won the election with 56 of the 59 seats, while the party in government in London only secured one seat north of the border. Consequently, the focus of the SNP’s discourse moved from the promotion of progressive politics aimed at benefiting not just Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom to the lack of legitimacy of the British Government to rule over Scotland. Besides, the Conservative Party victory at the general election also implied that the EU referendum had become a reality. Given the landslide victory of the SNP at the general election, Nicola Sturgeon was keen to build on her party’s new status as the third party in the House of Commons, to advance the cause of Scotland’s independence ahead of the EU referendum.

24Within less than a month after the general election, Nicola Sturgeon was arguing the case for an independent Scotland in the EU at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, making clear to Scotland’s European partners from the outset that the Scottish Government did not support the idea of holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Contrasting her party’s consistency with the ambivalence of the Conservative Government in London on their respective positions on Europe, she declared:

  • 27 Sturgeon, N., 2 June 2015.

I believe unequivocally that membership of Europe is in Scotland’s best interests. That’s a belief I’ve held all of my adult life. It is shared by my party. And in fact it is a very widely held view across the entire spectrum of the Scottish Parliament.27

  • 28 Ibid.

25Indeed the message addressed from Brussels to the British Prime Minister at the end of her speech took the form of a warning, as Nicola Sturgeon argued that the prospect of Scotland being taken out of the EU against her will would ‘provoke a strong backlash among many ordinary voters in Scotland’ before announcing that a second referendum on Scotland’s independence could no longer be ruled out: ‘Bluntly, I believe the groundswell of anger among ordinary people in Scotland in these circumstances could produce a clamour for another independence referendum which may well be unstoppable’28. Taking her European audience as a witness, she called for a ‘double majority’ provision to be added to the EU referendum legislation for Britain’s exit of the EU to take place; the principle of a ‘double majority’ required not only a majority of votes in favour of leaving the EU at the UK level, but also a majority of votes in each of the four nations of the UK.

26Without any doubt, the Scottish Government intended, from then on, to demonstrate that Scotland was a reliable partner and had the potential to become a full member-state of the EU, arguing Scotland’s case for independence before its European partners, but also more widely on the international stage, as shown by the speeches the First Minister delivered to an American audience in New York on 8 June, and to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, on 31 July. In New York, Nicola Sturgeon challenged the British Government to demonstrate, by adopting the ‘double majority’ rule that the UK was the ‘family of nations’ the Prime Minister had repeatedly praised ahead of the Scottish independence referendum:

  • 29 Sturgeon, N., 8 June 2015.

And so as I discussed with the Prime Minister when we met after the election, what happens to the future of the United Kingdom now in the years ahead will at least in part depend upon how responsively Westminster deals with the reality that in political as well as in constitutional terms the UK is not a unitary state. There is no second Scottish independence referendum on the immediate horizon, of course, but I do think that it is a reasonable point to make that if the United Kingdom is to remain intact in the years to come it must demonstrate and it must demonstrate very clearly that it can adapt to multinational and multiparty politics in a far more substantial manner than it has often done in the past.29

  • 30 Salmond, A., 28 April 2014.

27The Scottish Government was also keen to point out that Scotland was well aware that being inside the EU was in its best interests, while highlighting the benefits of Scotland’s membership for its European partners, notably in providing energy security and experience in addressing the challenge of climate change. In this regard, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech in Brussels in early June echoed in many ways the case made by her predecessor in Bruges just over a year before, when Alex Salmond had presented its natural and human resources as making Scotland ‘one of the lynchpins of the European Union’.30 Above all, in both instances, the emphasis was on the idea that the SNP’s vision of independence for Scotland was based on pragmatism, and that it was comfortable therefore with the idea of interdependence and the principle of sharing sovereignty, as Nicola Sturgeon made it clear in Brussels in 2015:

  • 31 Sturgeon, N., 2 June 2015.

As a country of 5 million people, we understand that we can’t act in isolation. Whether as part of the UK or as an independent country, we know that partnership is essential for progress. And so the fundamental vision of the EU – of independent nations working together for a common good – appeals to us. And some of the concerns which often get raised about Europe in the UK media – especially about sovereignty – possibly carry less weight in Scotland. After all, Scotland has been pooling sovereignty, in one form or another, for many years. […] There is nothing contradictory about independent countries recognising their interdependence and choosing to pool some sovereignty for mutual advantage – on the contrary, it is the way of the modern world.31

  • 32 Hyslop, F., 9 November 2015.

28Therefore, with the prospect of the EU referendum looming, the frame of reference for the SNP’s independence project shifted towards Europe, as the Scottish Government looked mostly beyond the frontiers of the UK, and first to Ireland, which interestingly was presented as Scotland’s ‘closest European neighbour’ in a speech by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Relations, in Dublin on 9 November 2015. On that occasion, the Scottish Cabinet Minister started by praising the relationship between Scotland and Ireland, which she argued was ‘a clear demonstration of nations working together which symbolizes exactly what the EU is all about’.32 Thereafter, she celebrated the four unions embodied by the EU, just as Alex Salmond, then First Minister of Scotland, had highlighted the benefits for Scotland of being part of five unions with the other nations of the UK in his Union speeches in 2013. Insisting on the fact that the EU was not simply an economic union, essential though that union was, Fiona Hyslop went on to underline in particular the importance to countries like Scotland of the union of solidarity – whether on tackling youth unemployment or climate change, or on welcoming refugees and migrants – but also of the social union, especially regarding workers’ protection, and lastly, of the union of support, as the EU supported ‘the ambitions of its peoples to improve their lives; the ambitions of its businesses to innovate and grow; and the ambitions of governments for economic prosperity’.

29Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Scottish Government has been putting forward a double democratic argument in the case for independence: firstly, the people of Scotland did not vote for a Conservative Government in the general election of 2015, and secondly the prospect of Scotland being taken out of the EU while 62% of the people who took part in the referendum voted for the UK to remain in the EU is democratically unacceptable. In other words, the question of Britain’s exit of the EU and that of the prospect of a second referendum on independence in Scotland have become inextricably linked in the public debate in Scotland.

  • 33 In this regard, the ruling of the UK Supreme Court, on 24 January 2017, was a turning point, as the (...)

30In this context, as the Scottish Government’s demand to be invited to take part in the negotiations with the UK’s European partners on the terms of Britain’s exit was rejected early on by the British Government, and it became clear that the voice of the Scottish Parliament would not be heard either,33 the SNP’s ambition for an independent Scotland has shifted from being an equal partner in a ‘UK family of nations’ to becoming an equal, independent nation in the EU.

The SNP’s vision of Scotland’s place in Europe and in the world : a ‘beacon’ in the global community of nations

  • 34 Allan, A., February 2002.

31The SNP, in its call for independence for Scotland, has, for many years now, moved away from the paradigm of the sovereign nation-state, and reframed its claim for sovereignty taking into account both the advanced degree of decision-making provided by the devolved institutional arrangements and the emerging framework of transnational orders such as the European Union. An independent Scotland sharing and pooling sovereignty with its European partners was the vision presented by Alasdair Allan in a paper entitled Talking Independence, and published at a time when the SNP was not yet in government: ‘Independence in Europe means accepting the role and responsibilities of a Member state of the European Union in which independent states have pooled certain of their sovereign rights for the common advantage. Sharing sovereignty in Europe in this way enhances Scotland’s sovereignty because it increases our influence’.34

  • 35 Keating, M., 2001, x.
  • 36 Keating, M., October 2012, pp.11-12.

32This vision concurs with the concept of a ‘post-sovereignty’ era developed by Michael Keating in his analysis of the claims for sovereignty made by the nationalist parties in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland in the context of globalisation and of continental integration. Keating uses the term to designate ‘an era in which sovereignty has not disappeared but rather has been transmuted into other forms and is shared, divided, and contested’.35 More recently, Keating explains that sovereignty is seen ‘not as a ‘thing’ that a people has, but a relationship, which means that it always has to be negotiated with other sovereignty-holders, and is usually embedded in wider transnational structures’. He then goes on to argue that while globalisation and interdependence between states have transformed the states by reducing their sovereignty, ‘small states can best protect their remaining sovereignty and exercise real power through integration into larger transnational structures’.36

  • 37 See for example the speeches made by Nicola Sturgeon on 27 September 2016, 4 April 2017, 18 March 2 (...)
  • 38 Sturgeon, N., 2 June 2015.

33In this regard, it is interesting to note that in recent years, the SNP’s political objective of independence has been more and more framed in terms of being part of ‘the family of independent nations’,37 rather than in terms of the family of ‘nation-states’, while the EU has been portrayed repeatedly by Nicola Sturgeon, especially, though not exclusively when addressing international audiences, as ‘independent nations working together for a common good’38. Likewise, in his address to the latest SNP autumn conference, Ian Blackford, the leader of the SNP parliamentary group at Westminster, said:

  • 39 Blackford, I., 13 October 2019.

The choice facing the people of Scotland is now abundantly clear. Scotland can be part of a broken Brexit Britain or choose to take our place as an equal, independent European nation, determined to deliver a fairer, greener, and more just society.39

  • 40 Sturgeon, N., October 2018.
  • 41 Sturgeon, N., 11 February 2015.

34Since the prospect of the UK leaving the EU became a reality, the Scottish Government has consistently contrasted the SNP’s independence project, presented as being emblematic of an open, outward-looking nation, with the British Government’s Brexit plans, deemed to reflect an inward-looking attitude bearing the risk of becoming isolated on the international stage. An independent Scotland would on the contrary be ‘a beacon for progressive values, equality, opportunity, diversity and fairness’,40 emulating other nations not just across the British Isles but indeed in Europe and the world. In fact, in the months that followed the referendum on independence in Scotland, the Scottish Government was keen to build on the debate which the referendum had fostered, on the sort of country people in Scotland wanted to live in, to advance the cause of independence. Thus, in a speech at University College London, on 11 February 2015, Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that what had come out of the debate on what kind of society people wanted Scotland to be in future, regardless of whether they were in favour or opposed to independence, was ‘an overwhelming desire to create a fairer society, as well as a more prosperous one’.41

35Consequently, as part of its commitment to offer an alternative to the austerity agenda of the UK Government, the SNP has defended the idea that economic prosperity and social justice are not mutually exclusive, but rather that they can be combined. In her speech at UCL Nicola Sturgeon presented the vision of the economy put forward by her government in the following terms:

  • 42 Ibid.

So, by taking a different approach – by offering an alternative to the austerity agenda of both Labour and the Tories – we would ensure that fiscal consolidation is consistent with a wider vision of society. A society which strives to become more equal, as part of becoming more prosperous. We simply don’t accept that there’s a trade-off between balancing the books and having a balanced society; fairness and prosperity can go hand in hand. Indeed, I’d put it more strongly – they must go hand in hand.42

  • 43 Sturgeon, N., 11 April 2018.

36Thus the idea of ‘inclusive growth’ has become a leitmotiv in the SNP’s narrative of independence,43 as the party has consistently highlighted the divergences between the UK Government and the Scottish Government on their respective visions of the economy. Besides, the First Minister has been keen to present her Government’s approach as being part of a growing international consensus, thereby underlining its credentials as a small ‘global’ nation, while the UK Government is becoming isolated from the rest of the world with its vision of the economy:

  • 44 Sturgeon, N., 11 February 2015.

The Scottish Government’s approach is part of a growing international consensus. IMF research – examining 173 countries over 50 years – has shown that more unequal countries tend to have lower and less durable growth. It’s an argument that Mark Carney has endorsed; Christine Lagarde at the IMF has made it very strongly; its principles underpin much of President Obama’s economic policy in the USA.44

37In the aftermath of the EU referendum, one other issue has become emblematic of the growing divergences between the Scottish and the British Governments, namely immigration. Since the early 2000s, therefore from the early years of devolution, immigration has been seen by Scottish Governments as a way of partially addressing the demographic decline facing Scotland, so that regardless of its political composition the Scottish administration has been willing to encourage migrants to come to Scotland and settle there permanently. By contrast, the UK Governments have seen immigration as a means to address specific shortages of skills in specific sectors of the economy, and as based on the principle that after a while migrants went back to their country of origin.

38Ever since the SNP came into office, in-migration has been part of the nation-building project of an independent Scotland, and emphasis has been laid on the positive contribution of migrants to Scotland’s economy, but also to the cultural diversity of the population of Scotland. With the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, the Scottish Government has seized every opportunity to present itself as a reliable partner in the EU. Therefore, when doubts were raised as to whether EU citizens who lived in the UK could stay after the UK had left the EU, the Scottish Government immediately condemned the attitude of the UK Government and made it clear that EU citizens were welcome to stay in Scotland, thereby confirming the position already set out at the time of the independence referendum, which was that on the day Scotland became a full member of the EU, Scottish borders would remain open to EU nationals exercising their treaty rights, just as Scots were free now to move throughout the EU.

39In its submission to the Smith Commission on further devolution to Scotland, set up by David Cameron after the Scottish independence referendum, the SNP Government’s position on the issue of migration was presented in the following terms:

  • 45 Scottish Government, 10 October 2014, p. 31.

Scotland has always welcomed migrants. Scotland’s economy needs a healthy growth in the working population and migrants boost our economic base and enrich our culture. Our welcome for migrants and asylum seekers is also an important part of our international reputation.45

  • 46 Sturgeon, N., 15 October 2016.

40The Scottish Government has thus made it clear that unlike the British Government, which was ‘retreating to the fringes of Europe’, the Scottish Government, in the words of Nicola Sturgeon in her 2016 Conference speech, had every intention ‘to stay at its very heart – where Scotland belongs’,46 which implied moving away from the margins of the UK to the centre of the European Union. More recently, the Government in Edinburgh has showed its determination to distance itself from the UK on the issue of the refugee crisis facing the European Union, reaffirming Scotland’s engagement to welcome refugees as part of the role played by EU countries in helping people who have fled conflict and persecution.

41It is interesting to note, in this regard, that in his speech at the Institute for Government in London, on 26 March 2019, Michael Russell, the Minister for UK negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe in Nicola Sturgeon’s Government, when referring to immigration used the term ‘freedom of movement’. In other words, a longstanding claim on the part of the Scottish Government, for the transfer of powers from Westminster to Holyrood over immigration, has been redefined in the frame of reference of the EU, and is assimilated to the freedom of movement which is a cornerstone of the EU single market.

Conclusion

42The prospect of Scotland being taken out of the European Union against her will has indeed led the Scottish Government to reframe its narrative of independence in terms of Scotland’s future relationship with Europe. Thus, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the divergences in the respective positions of the UK Government and the Scottish Government on the issue of immigration – especially immigration from the European Union – which was at the centre of the political debate in the EU referendum campaign, have helped the Scottish Government renew the case for Scotland’s independence on the European stage. In this regard, the message of the Scottish Government to its European partners leaves no doubts as to the place Scotland sees for herself in Europe: not only is Scotland welcoming EU citizens to stay, as well as encouraging migrants to settle in Scotland, as part of the government’s strategy to ensure sustainable growth, but Scotland as a nation is willing to assume its responsibilities in the world and present itself as a reliable partner internationally.

  • 47 Sturgeon, N., 4 February 2019; 17 February 2019; 28 April 2019.

43The Scottish Government has insisted that, regardless of Scotland’s future constitutional status, the other nations of the UK will always be Scotland’s closest friends and neighbours. Yet, by arguing that membership of the EU, far from representing a threat to sovereignty, is a way –especially for small member states – of amplifying their national sovereignty by embracing their interdependence with other nations,47 the First Minister of Scotland has clearly underlined the European dimension of her party’s narrative of independence, and dissociated her government’s position on Europe from that of the UK Government.

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Notes

1 Winnie Ewing first became an MEP in 1975, when she was appointed to be part of the delegation of MPs representing the United Kingdom in the European Parliament. She then won a seat in the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, and was re-elected at every European Parliament election until she stepped down in 1999.

2 The text of the resolution was printed on page 1 of the SNP’s manifesto for the 1984 European elections, Scotland’s Voice in Europe.

3 Sillars, J., 1985, Introduction.

4 ‘Independence in Europe’ featured officially in the title of the SNP manifesto for the European elections of 1989, Scotland’s Future Independence in Europe.

5 Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, November 2013, pp. 214-215.

6 Scottish Government, op.cit., p. 456.

7 Scottish National Party, Elect a Local Champion, 2010, SNP manifesto 2010, pp. 17-22. This presentation of independence as creating a partnership of equals and preserving the social union between Scotland and the four nations of the UK was reiterated in the SNP manifesto for the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.

8 Sturgeon, N., 6 June 2013.

9 His second speech, on the currency union, was indeed delivered on the Isle of Man on 16 July 2013.

10 Salmond, A., 12 July 2013.

11 Salmond, A., 28 August 2013.

12 Scottish National Party, September 2002.

13 Scottish National Party, 30 November 2005.

14 Scottish Government, 2007, p. 24.

15 Scottish Government, November 2013, p. 215. Reference to the joint statement had already been made by Nicola Sturgeon, then Deputy First Minister, in the speech she delivered at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow on 3 December 2012, entitled “Bringing the powers home to build a better nation” and in the speech she made at the University of Edinburgh on 6 June 2013 entitled “A renewed partnership of the isles”.

16 Salmond, A., 4 March 2014.

17 See for example Salmond, A., 23 April 2014.

18 Scottish Government, November 2013, op. cit., p. 214.

19 Scottish Government, October 2013; Scottish Government, Scotland in the EU, November 2013; Scottish Government, 18 February 2014; Scottish Government, August 2014.

20 Scottish Government, Scotland in the EU, November 2013, iii.

21 Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, op.cit., p. 217.

22 By December 2014, the SNP had over 93,000 members, while the Scottish Green Party had 7,500.

23 Scottish National Party, 2015.

24 Sturgeon, N., 28 March 2015.

25 Sturgeon, N., 20 April 2015.

26 Ibid.

27 Sturgeon, N., 2 June 2015.

28 Ibid.

29 Sturgeon, N., 8 June 2015.

30 Salmond, A., 28 April 2014.

31 Sturgeon, N., 2 June 2015.

32 Hyslop, F., 9 November 2015.

33 In this regard, the ruling of the UK Supreme Court, on 24 January 2017, was a turning point, as the Supreme Court judges unanimously decided that the UK Government was under no obligation to consult the devolved legislatures, in other words, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This decision demonstrated, in the eyes of the Scottish Government, that the idea that Scotland was a ‘valued and equal partner in a UK family of nations’ were just empty words.

34 Allan, A., February 2002.

35 Keating, M., 2001, x.

36 Keating, M., October 2012, pp.11-12.

37 See for example the speeches made by Nicola Sturgeon on 27 September 2016, 4 April 2017, 18 March 2017, 4 February 2019, 28 April 2019, and 15 October 2019.

38 Sturgeon, N., 2 June 2015.

39 Blackford, I., 13 October 2019.

40 Sturgeon, N., October 2018.

41 Sturgeon, N., 11 February 2015.

42 Ibid.

43 Sturgeon, N., 11 April 2018.

44 Sturgeon, N., 11 February 2015.

45 Scottish Government, 10 October 2014, p. 31.

46 Sturgeon, N., 15 October 2016.

47 Sturgeon, N., 4 February 2019; 17 February 2019; 28 April 2019.

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Référence papier

Annie Thiec, « The Impact of Brexit on the SNP’s narrative of independence », Observatoire de la société britannique, 26 | 2021, 103-126.

Référence électronique

Annie Thiec, « The Impact of Brexit on the SNP’s narrative of independence », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 26 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5057 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5057

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Auteur

Annie Thiec

Maîtresse de Conférences en civilisation britannique à l'Université de Nantes

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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