How Scotland’s referendum will influence Brexit vote


Everyone knows that Scotland narrowly voted against independence in September 2014.scotlandEuropean_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

The ‘Yes’ campaign  waged that fight fully knowing that, by 2017, there would be a broader UK-wide vote on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. Given that Scots are relatively (though not universally) more pro-European than English voters, growing British euroscepticism may have played an important role to nudge some Scots toward the ‘Yes’ camp.

With that Brexit referendum now set for June 23, it’s the Scottish referendum that looms over the coming vote in at least two ways that could make Brexit more likely.

The first amounts to pure game theory on the part of Scotland’s voters, who comprise around 8.4% of the total UK population.

In the chaos of a post-Brexit world, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) would have the clearest moral argument for a second referendum this decade. After all, Scots voted to stay inside a country that’s part of the European Union, not outside it. Arguably, Brexit would constitute such a constitutional shift that the SNP could procure a new vote on independence. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon is already making that argument, though she is firmly opposed to Brexit.

But it means that hardcore Scottish nationalists will be voting in June not just on the merits of Brexit itself, but with the knowledge that Brexit could lead to Scotland’s independence much sooner. In that regard, more than a few staunchly pro-EU Scots might use Brexit as a wedge to force a fresh Scottish vote.

But the 2014 referendum will also influence the Brexit vote in a far broader, if subtler, way.

In the final days of the Scottish referendum campaign, a cacophony of voices from British industry, commerce and finance warned in no uncertain terms that independence would be a disaster for both Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

It was a shock-and-awe campaign. And it worked! But the Brexit vote could easily be as close as the Scottish vote, and the problem with shock-and-awe campaigns is that they lose their effectiveness if you have to deploy them too often. Just how much potency will another Cassandra-style warning from business and political elites have for the second time in a 24-month period?

British voters will have watched the fight last summer over Greece’s economic crisis and the showdown between Brussels and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. His brinksmanship, along with a resounding ‘oxi’ vote, arguably won Greece a new bailout program and almost certainly more lenient long-run terms.

Moreover, Scottish voters are still waiting for the package of reforms that the cross-party ‘Better Together’ campaign promised in the waning days of the campaign. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, Conservative prime minister David Cameron and then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, all guaranteed Scottish voters legislating granting ‘devolution max’ powers to the region. Cameron, too, promised a new constitutional settlement for England as well (presumably by restricting votes on English-only matters to English MPs alone or, perhaps, even regional English parliaments).

Even after the 2015 general election came and went, and Cameron won an absolute Tory majority in parliament, Scottish voters are still waiting for devolution max. English voters aren’t dumb. They know that Westminster has been slow to follow-up on the frantic promises from a panicked ‘Better Together’ campaign. They know that Cameron hasn’t prioritized any political or regional reforms for England, either. That dilutes Cameron’s credibility on the ‘deal’ he won from the other EU member-states, and it dilutes any promises that Cameron might make as the Brexit vote nears.

So if (or more likely, when) the shock-and-awe campaign comes in June, it could easily be far less effective against Brexit than it was against Scottish independence in 2014.

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