Since clearly no one cared about the EU until this ‘will we, won’t we’ Brexit charade started, the European elections were formerly marked by painfully low voter turnout—the last time they rolled around in 2014, the voter turnout stalled at 35.6 percent, compared to a turnout of 66.1 percent in the following year’s general election. However, with Nigel Farage rubbing his hands in glee as his Brexit Party dominated, without even having a manifesto, all eyes were focussed on this year’s European elections.
There’s a sense that the elections are a crucial turning point in British politics—a moment where voters either give in to populism or reaffirm what has become an inefficient two-party system. In Scotland, the winds of change are particularly strong. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) has dominated politics up north since 2014’s failed independence referendum, jumping from 6 seats in the 2010 general election to 56 in 2015. Presumably, this is because Scottish voters felt that, once the independence agenda was off the table, they would be safe to vote for a party that truly did represent their best interests. Yet Brexit has emphasised that, despite devolution and SNP rule, the wishes of the Scottish populace are being blocked by Westminster.
62 percent of Scots voted to remain in the U.K.—well above the 48 percent U.K. average—but Scotland is being dragged out of the EU alongside the rest of Britain. Understandably then, simmering resentment towards the British government is about ready to hit boiling point. SNP is keen to capitalise on this: their slogan for the European elections was the pointed ‘Stop Brexit’ and their incendiary campaign material urged the Scottish people to send a ‘clear message’ to Westminster, declaring that a vote for SNP is a vote for a People’s Vote.
Yet it doesn’t stop there, SNP is capitalising on Scottish Brexit disillusionment to resuscitate its independence agenda. Speaking in Holyrood in April, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon explicitly said that, should Brexit actually happen, she would begin pushing through legislation for a second referendum in 2021 and has expressed ambitions for placing an independent Scotland within the EU. Yet this seems a rather ambitious plan—the U.K. government would need to grant a Section 30 order to make this happen and, in light of the prolonged Brexit mess, all efforts are going to be made to avoid similar upheaval by shutting down any mention of a second independence referendum.
Regardless of whether she can obtain the result she wants, Sturgeon’s efforts to stir up Scottish nationalist feelings are interesting—seemingly mirroring tendencies elsewhere in Europe, yet with some crucial differences. Parties like Germany’s AfD, the country’s third biggest party and a harbourer of Nazi sympathisers, or Italy’s Lega, which has taken particularly vindictive and dehumanising actions against refugees, have become the representatives of a nationalism swept Europe. Scotland has been at pains to distance itself from this racism and xenophobia, not just in words but in actions. Under SNP rule, Scotland welcomed around 20 percent of the Syrian refugees granted asylum in the U.K. This is notable against the backdrop of the U.K.’s state-sanctioned hostility towards refugees, and is particularly striking when you consider that Scotland only comprises around 8 percent of the British population.
Yet this more humanitarian response to the refugee crisis is characteristic of SNP’s broader nationalist strategy. Concretely, it seems that Scotland is trying hard to present itself as some kind of liberal haven, distanced from toxic nationalist discourses across Europe and the U.K.’s Conservative government’s punishing austerity measures. Increasingly, it seems like Scotland is styling itself on its Scandinavian neighbours over the North Sea—an aspiration that becomes much more visible when you consider that Scottish law-makers are (rather inadvisably) considering the implementation of a Nordic model for sex work legislation.
Scotland has always had socialist leanings, traditionally being a Labour stronghold, and SNP has confidently played into these allegiances. Sturgeon’s party has revolutionised the experience of living in Scotland, as well as the way Scotland is viewed at an international level, introducing measures like free sanitary product initiatives to tackle period poverty, LGBTIQ+ teaching in schools (before England’s botched attempt) and basic income pilot schemes. Whilst Scotland had been written off for years as a ‘problem’ for the rest of the U.K. to deal with—a hub of addiction, crime and poverty—SNP governance has allowed Scots to take a sense of pride in the knowledge that their country leads the way in terms of liberal legislation.
While the government is making strides to transform social policy and improve its standing on the international stage, SNP’s ambitions for an independent Scotland within the EU seem a long way off. Not only will Westminster do everything in its power to block a second referendum, but the EU is also not going to welcome an independent Scotland with open arms. As leaders in Balkans can confirm, EU accession talks generally drag on for years, and attaining Scottish membership would not be as easy as Sturgeon likes to make out. Moreover, Spain is sure to be hostile towards any attempts by Scotland to enter the European bloc—with Catalonia’s botched independence bid, Prime Minister Sánchez will undoubtedly use his EU Council veto to fend off Scottish membership and send a warning shot to Spain’s separatist factions.
With resistance from Westminster and the EU, Sturgeon’s plans for Scotland are most likely logistically impossible. However, that won’t keep the SNP or Scottish nationalists from trying, even if they know their efforts are futile. Perhaps it’s better that this political goal is always just out of reach, encouraging the SNP to challenge the U.K.’s political hegemony and fight for the Scottish people yet avoiding the turmoil that secession would undoubtedly unleash. As with all dreams, the fantasy of Scottish independence would be tarnished by the messy reality of trying to put it into practice.