Braveheart Favors the EU

Scottish support for the EU has surged during its independence referendum campaign: Could this be replicated in England?
that's easy -- Europe.

Chatham House, the London-based think tank, has uncovered a fascinating and important change in Scottish attitudes that just thinking about independence appears to have produced -- suddenly, they like and value the European Union a lot more.

According to a series of surveys conducted by the polling agency YouGov and analyzed by Chatham House, net support among Scots for EU membership almost tripled, to 35 percent from 13 percent, between February and August of this year. That roughly coincides with the period of active campaigning for Scotland's independence referendum, which takes place on Thursday.

The chart below shows how opinions on Europe have changed in five U.K. regions -- Scotland, London, the rest of the South, the Midlands and Wales, and the North. In general, London and Scotland have been significantly more positive about the EU than the other three. Yet, after tracking London almost exactly until February, Scottish enthusiasm has surged, climbing to 59 percent in favor of staying in the EU, against 24 percent for leaving. Six months ago, those figures were 44 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

Chart showing UK support for EU membership by region.

This data comes with a health warning: the survey sample across the U.K. was of 2,059 people, meaning that the sample for Scotland on its own is small (about 200 people) and therefore subject to a large margin of error. Even that doesn't explain such a huge change.

I deduce two things from this. The first is that if you are a small nation of bit more than 5 million people, about to take a very large risk by heading out alone with uncertain currency, fiscal, resource and debt positions, EU membership offers continuity, reassurance and security. Scots who plan to vote for independence would naturally rethink the benefits of the EU and want to stay in it.

YouGov asked respondents to say which of 14 attributes, some positive and some negative, they associated with the EU. For the South of England (excluding pro-Europe London), the responses were all negative: Bureaucracy, loss of national power, lack of border security, wasting money and undermining national culture. For Scots, the responses were positive, by three out of five: Freedom to live anywhere in Europe, protection of citizens' rights, and peace and security, versus bureaucracy and loss of national power.

My second conclusion is that attitudes towards the EU are mostly to do with how people feel about their own, national situations, which are then projected onto the EU -- and these sentiments can change quickly. Having promised Britons a referendum on staying in the EU by 2017, Prime Minister David Cameron has to hope for two things if he really does -- as he says -- want the U.K. to continue in the bloc.

One is that Scotland votes to remain part of the U.K. on Thursday. The YouGov surveys suggest the Scottish referendum has created a much bigger pro-EU margin among voters, by forcing them to think seriously about the alliance's pros, as well as cons. As of August, according to the YouGov survey, 40 percent of Britons would vote to stay in the EU and 39 percent to leave, with the rest undecided. Strip the 59 percent of pro-EU Scots out of those figures and the knife-edge margin in favor of membership turns negative. Of course, whether Scotland's newfound love for the EU would survive a "No" vote on independence is unknown, but I suspect at least some of it would.

Cameron's other hope is to find a shock, akin to the prospect of independence for Scots, which would force English and Welsh voters to also reconsider the benefits as well as the drawbacks of being part of a regional union with 27 other countries. It's possible that a Scottish secession could produce just such a humbling jolt; I suspect, though, it would instead force the English into an angry, isolationist funk.

So, assuming there are still some proponents of the EU out there -- ideas? Anyone?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Marc Champion at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.