Scottish Voters Could Sway Britain's EU Future

The 1.6 million voters who backed Scottish independence could sway the June referendum.

Will he vote for Brexit?

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Question: What do you call a British europhile who needs the U.K. to vote to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum? Answer: A Scot.

It's a seeming contradiction that makes sense if you are in Scotland, where nationalists' hopes for independence remain undimmed by the referendum they lost less than two years ago, when Scots voted 55 to 45 in favor of remaining part of the United Kingdom. The pro-independence Scottish National Party has enjoyed a surge in support since that failed plebiscite and is set to trounce political opponents in Thursday's elections for the Scottish Parliament. That may pave the way for some tactical voting in June.

QuickTake Scottish Independence

Scottish independence is still very much on the political agenda; polls taken this year asking how people would currently vote still show the separatists lagging, though their shortfall is now consistently about half what it was at the actual vote.

The SNP's membership has quadrupled since the independence vote, and it won all but three of the 59 Scottish seats in the U.K. parliament in last year's national elections. Understandably, the separatists have no intention of holding a second referendum on independence unless they think they can win it. Their best chance would be for the U.K. to shun the EU, allowing Scotland's nationalists to argue that the only way for pro-EU Scotland to retain its EU membership is to split from the rest of the U.K.

Capitalizing on a Brexit is one thing; helping to bring one about is quite another for proud Scots, as I learned during a visit to Plockton, a fishing village in the Scottish Highlands 460 miles (740 kilometres) from London. Plockton's electoral region voted 53 to 47 percent against independence. But in last year's national election, a 33 percent swing to the SNP saw the former Liberal Democrat leader, the late Charles Kennedy, ousted from the seat he'd held since 1983. Ian Begg, a retired Edinburgh architect who now lives in a traditional Scottish tower house he built for himself overlooking Loch Carron, says that while the June vote offers an opportunity to hasten a second plebiscite on independence, such devious thinking doesn't sit well with him or his fellow SNP members.

"That kind of tactical voting is not part of our culture," says Begg, seated at a corner table in the bustling Plockton Inn pub. A sticker on the 90-year old's car proclaims him to be a Pict, the name the Romans bestowed on Scotland's indigenous population as early as AD 297 -- the Gaelic equivalent of a confederate flag sticker on a Texan bumper, though signaling tribalism rather than anything racist.

Begg, like many Scots, combines a fierce national pride that demands freedom from decision-making in London with a desire to remain part of the European project which, as he passionately argues, was kindled in the flames of war and remains the best bulwark against future military conflagrations.

Polls suggest that only about 20 percent of Scots are in favor of abandoning the EU, compared with about 40 percent for the U.K. as a whole. Almost half of Scotland's exports go to the EU, worth about 13 billion pounds ($19 billion), with less than a fifth heading to North America, the second-biggest single destination. The U.K. as a whole ships a bit less than 45 percent of its exports to the European bloc.

Perversely, Scottish exports would almost definitely enjoy a one-time boost if the U.K. votes to leave; a weakening pound would make the 38 bottles of whisky that Scotland says it exports every second of every day cheaper in the 200 overseas markets that are partial to a wee dram. Longer term, though, nationalists have a strong post-Brexit case that Scotland would be better off using the euro as its currency, given the increased volatility the pound is likely to suffer as the U.K. spends years untangling itself from the bloc and trying to negotiate new trading agreements.

The official SNP position is to support the campaign to remain in the EU. In October, though, party leader Nicola Sturgeon said a U.K. vote to quit would inspire demands for a second Scottish referendum that would be "probably unstoppable." And Gordon Wilson, a former SNP leader, said in January that he was considering voting "strategically" in June based on "how Scotland can better achieve independence."

Begg reckons that once this week's elections are out of the way, the SNP may consider nudging its members toward tactical voting in June to end up with the best of both worlds: independence from England and its own seat at the EU table. "I hate the bureaucracy of the EU," he says. "But we should fight it from within, not by leaving." With polls suggesting the referendum outcome is far from clear, the 1.6 million Scots who backed independence could swing the balance in favor of Brexit if they decide to embrace their inner Machiavelli.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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