Lessons from the European parliament election – a Scottish border?


Fig 1 British Results for EP Elections 2019 (source)


The 2019 European Parliament election results for Britain are shown in Fig. 1. As Richard Murphy discusses in The false narrative of Brexit Party success, this superficially looks a spectacular win for the Brexit party, but essentially they have cannabalised the UKIP seats and added five more. All but one of these have been at the expense of the Tories. The exception is Paul Brannen’s Labour seat in the North East, which was caused by a collapse in Labour support from 222k in 2014 to 120k. These votes largely went to the Lib Dems, 36k in 2014 to 104k, but also to the Greens and CHUK (75k) and  were 16k short of winning the seat. The overall pro-EU+Labour vote actually increased from 290k in 2014 to 299k in 2019. More effective tactical voting would have secured the seat for the Lib Dems.

The real winners on the night were the Lib Dems, who went  from one solitary seat to sixteen and the Greens who more than doubled their number of seats from three to seven. The losers were UKIP, essentially wiped out, the Tories beaten into 5th place and the worst result since the early 19th cent. and Labour having a dreadful night, halving its number of seats from twenty down to ten. This is a detailed analysis of voter switching patterns (Fig. 2) from Lord Ashcroft polls:

More than half (53%) of 2017 Conservative voters who took part in the European elections voted for the Brexit Party. Only just over one in five (21%) stayed with the Tories. Around one in eight (12%) switched to the Liberal Democrats. Labour voters from 2017 were more likely to stay with their party, but only a minority (38%) did so. More than one in five (22%) went to the Lib Dems, 17% switched to the Greens, and 13% went to the Brexit Party.

Fig 2. Voting patterns from Lord Ashcroft polls.


The disillusioned Tory vote largely went to the Brexit party, whereas disillusioned Labour voters largely went to the Lib Dems and Greens. The Labour voting pattern was in part been due to a major tactical campaign by Labour supporters to get the leadership off the fence and become a firm Peoples Vote supporting and Remain party (moving to Lib Dems Greens and CHUK and additionally Plaid in Wales and the SNP in Scotland).

In Scotland the SNP had a very good night, picking up a 3rd seat.

There are a number of analyses and I particularly recommend Ian Dunt’s ‘European elections: Remain triumphant’, Hugho Dixon’s ‘People’s will has changed: we don’t want Brexit‘ and Chris Grey’s ‘Interpreting the UK European Election results’. These are all worth reading in full. Even though the country remains very divided, on the basis of these results it is definitely more Remain than Leave.

The Brexit Party, the sycophantic right wing press and increasingly the BBC are desperate to spin this as support for a No-Deal Brexit and the lack-lustre performance of the Brexit party will be endlessly paraded as a triumph. The Tories in particularly are terrified by a large tranche of their supporters moving to the Brexit party. The Brexit Party will certainly move the dial on the Tories leadership election and make the likelihood of a No-Deal supporting candidate far more probable.

Northern Ireland

Fig 3. First Preference Vote by party/candidate designation.


In Northern Ireland there have been two Unionist MEPs and one Nationalist MEP since the first European Parliament election in 1979.This was unlikely to be repeated in 2019, as the Unionist community is in relative decline, through demographic factors (Fig. 4), and younger people are in general less sectarian and more likely to vote for cross-community parties such as Alliance.

Fig. 4 Religious breakdown from 2011 Census (source).


There is the added complication of Brexit with nearly all Nationalists and a substantial minority of Unionists (largely more middle class and better educated) being pro-EU. There is in addition, the Backstop which is strongly supported by Nationalists and Alliance, the main cross-community party in NI. The two main Unionist parties are the DUP and UUP.  The DUP is anti-EU and anti-Backstop. The UUP, pro-EU in 2016, has pivoted towards DUP-lite, is also anti-EU and anti-Backstop. Pro-EU Unionists had no Unionist party they could vote for.

It was widely predicted that the first seat would go to Sinn Féin, the second to the DUP but the third seat would no longer go to a Unionist, rather either to the SDLP or Alliance. Both the SDLP and Alliance had excellent candidates in Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long, but in the end it was Alliance who triumphed. Indeed Sinn Féin who were predicted to get the first seat, in fact got the third. There was clearly considerable tactical voting going on.

This signals emphatically that Northern Ireland is pro-EU, pro-Backstop and also becoming less sectarian. A very good result all around. It also shows that the DUP is ever more out of touch with NI as a whole.

The Future

Fig. 5 Flowchart from Jon Worth (source)


Jon Worth has been producing flow charts on Brexit  for some time and has even featured in the New York Times.  Fig. 5, the latest version is available here. Jon puts the probability of a GE to be the highest, but this assumes no change in the Labour leadership position on a People’s Vote. I sadly agree. I believe Corbyn will sit on the fence as he does not understand that leadership requires him to make a firm decision.

According to all serious analysts there are three possible outcomes:

1. Staying in the EU, either by revoking Article 50 or through a referendum with remain on the ballot. The former would be preferable, but whether HMG and parliament have the honesty, humility and above all courage is doubtful. A second referendum with a remain option has no chance of materialising, unless championed by one of the two remain parties. It is well nigh politically impossible for the Tories to initiate one. It seems increasingly obvious that for Labour to do so would require the removal of Corbyn.

2. Brexit with a deal. The Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened, but there is considerable scope for change in the Political Deceleration. There is a feeling in many of the EU27, e.g. in Germany, that the WA is far too generous towards Britain. In Ireland there is a belief that HMG is not to be trusted, and the Backstop is essential. Opinions in Ireland are hardening on this from an already immovable position.  It is as likely that Corbyn would be elected as leader of the Tory party as Ireland backing down. The EU will support Ireland.

3. No-Deal: terms like Clean-Break or WTO terms are used to make this sound more palatable. This is madness. As Ian Dunt suggests in ‘A few questions we could maybe ask the Tory candidates about no-deal‘, it is a recipe for disaster. It will put the UK in a vastly weakened position, and trust, which is an already limited supply, will have evaporated. If the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is threatened there will be no trade deal with the US. The EU will ask for WA to be signed as the price of a trade agreement. Any bilateral deals will be vastly inferior to the status quo, with the EU protecting itself. On the positive side the EU likes stable prosperous countries on its borders so will not deliberately set out to damage the UK. Even the Brexiters talk about 50 years (Rees-Mogg) or 100 years (Digby Jones) before the UK gets back on its feet.

Are there alternative solutions?  looking at the wider political picture has its merits.

Ireland leaves the EU and joins the UK Economic Area

This has been explored on this blog before and dismissed as being completely implausible. There is now however firm electoral data in that an Irexit candidate, leader of the Irish Freedom Party and close ally of Farage, Hermann Kelly, ran in the Dublin constituency for the EP election. His poll rating is a good indication of the appetite for Irexit.  He gained 0.67% of the votes and was eliminated on the first count. This implausibility has been confirmed.

A Northern Ireland Only Backstop

The granting of a UK wide backstop is seen in Brussels as a major concession.  Indeed Barnier has said that reverting to a NI only backstop was a possibility, but it is not clear whether it is any longer on the table. May was a committed Unionist at heart and reliant on the DUP. Her successor may not be and for many Tories, Brexit is more important than the Union. Many Tories also see the UK-wide Backstop as a trap rather than a concession. Could a new Tory leader move towards  a NI only backstop? This would be popular in NI and almost certain to pass if a NI referendum on the Backstop were called. While the Tory government is reliant on the DUP, this is not an option, but after a GE the arithmetic may be different.

A United Ireland

The GFA has a provision for a border poll when it seems the majority may want a United Ireland. The demographics are moving in this direction. Furthermore Ireland has improved dramatically, both economically and socially, in the past seven years. The same can not be said of the UK. It is  immensely depressing looking at the decline UK from the Summer Olympics in 2012. Lacklustre economic performance but more importantly, a move towards nativism and populism. Brexit has consumed nearly all the bandwidth in Westminster and myriad problems, from housing, health, social provision, poverty, education etc. not only remain unsolved but are getting worse.

Brexit has opened up the conversation as never before. Opinion polls show that in the case of a hard Brexit there would be a majority for a United Ireland in the North.

One major question is whether the Republic is still interested? The North seems increasingly a social and economic liability. This has been answered by a Red C exit poll taken after the Euro Election. This gave a result of 65% in favour of a UI, 19% against and the rest don’t know or refused to answer the question.

Including Scotland in the Backstop.

This has been discussed before in the light of the Dalriada Document, but considered implausible as it was assumed that neither the EU or Westminster would agree to it. Given however, that the EU has agreed to a UK wide backstop, that political hurdle might be overcome.  Westminster may be a different issue. The Dalriada Document is by Prof Brendan O’Leary, a world leading constitutional lawyer. It goes ever further by arguing constitutionally that both NI and Scotland could stay within the EU, whilst England and Wales leave and is based on the premise:

This document explains how Northern Ireland and Scotland should and could stay within the European Union while remaining inside the United Kingdom; why this proposal need not prevent and may in fact facilitate England and Wales in leaving the EU; and why this compromise proposal is in accordance with the respective preferences of the peoples of the two Unions within the UK who voted in the advisory referendum held on June23 2016.

Staying in the EU is of course very popular in Scotland. Including Scotland within the Backstop might be a good compromise.

This would necessitate a harder border between Scotland and England, but logistically this is far easier implement than the Irish equivalent. It is less than 1/3 of the length of the Irish Border and with far fewer crossings. There is also far less difficulty in putting in physical infrastructure as the security aspects far less sensitive. Should Scotland decide to leave the UK completely, some of the infrastructure will already be there.

As the DUP are largely of Scottish ancestry, it is possible that they may see this as less threatening than an Irish Sea border.

It is a possibility which might be worth re-exploring.


The future looks uncertain. A General Election in the Autumn seems the most likely outcome. It seems that some coalition is most likely, possibly a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP Government. If that is indeed the case a backstop including Scotland maybe a possibility. If however the Brexit party can increase its electoral appeal a very different outcome is possible.


  1. Sam Johnson -

    A very lucid analysis that deserves to be widely read. I would only add that the Irexit outfit Hermann Kelly was behind was shown to be largely based on sockpuppetry originating in the UK (see
    https://medium.com/@irexitparody/british-far-right-extremism-manipulating-ireland-1e863cea0267). It turns out a) they aren’t on the electoral roll and b) the Irish are less influenced by social media and more by people they know.

    Recent social changes in Ireland have been a result of first hand experience and connection. The equal marriage referendum, e.g., involved everyone deciding on the right of someone they knew, perhaps a relation, to get married, with only a minority voting against. Irexiters, in contrast, are rarer than hen’s teeth, and those with any public profile are demonstrably unhinged conspiracy theorists and attention seekers looking to prevent Ireland turning Muslim, or black, or both. The most prominent of these is a former investigative journalist who lost both her job and her husband in a short time and looks to have suffered a mental breakdown and who elicits pity and derision in equal measure (not quite a David Icke level crank, but out there). Meanwhile, all Irish people have met and had positive interactions with immigrants that makes the fearmongering of Irexiters risible.

    I felt pride when I saw that Dubliners had gone with flowers to the city’s mosque after the shooting in New Zealand. Truth is there are few parts of the world we do not have a connection with and whose people we have a willingness to embrace if the opportunity or need arises. It’s a daily experience for many, even in rural parts. Yesterday in a hardware store in a town a long way from Dublin I heard an unmistakably Kenyan voice, and was activated the way one is to help someone from a place one has lived, if needed. I turned to see a woman laughing about something with an employee, both with huge smiles, so I just slipped away. Our being friendly and welcoming will not change and those who seek to change Ireland will fail. The sight of someone who is not white playing in a green jersey for Ireland gives most us joy, just as it grieves the handful of racist Irexiters.

    It appears that most of Scotland shares our values. The English tolerate foreigners on their football teams but would otherwise like them to stay out of sight, keep quiet, remember their place, and be grateful for the privilege of living in the UK. Some, like Julia Hartley-Brewer (a woman who is paid £400,000 a year largely to articulate common prejudices on the radio) have been very explicit about this obligation for gratitude and the incumbent duties.

    We are seeing the fag end of empire and entitlement in the UK, and hopefully, when it all plays out, of divide and rule politics that the UK’s ruling class exported around the world. The only question really is whether it will end peacefully or not. As an Irishman I can only say: send us your best people, English, British, European, other; and feel free to help repatriate Arlene Foster and others who would find Irish reunification so intolerable they’d have to leave.

    Certainly, Scotland is key to how things will unfold and prospect adumbrated here of the union being half-in, half-out, has gone from hypothetical and theoretical to sufficiently plausible as to be worth including in scenario planning by businesses able to do so. The stupidity of the Tory leadership candidates in announcing what they will and won’t give the Scots “permission” for must be gladdening the hearts of those intent on independence. At least the Scots don’t have to worry about English soldiers putting down a rebellion on Scottish soil, with Tommy Robinson types fresh out of jail, armed and half-uniformed, drunk on the knowledge they can do their worst with impunity. But, I wonder, if the English and their unionist allies have given sufficient thought to Scottish control of nuclear weapons (or, less embarrassingly, denial of the ability to use them or afford them)? I would be cautious about dictating to Scotland if I were a Tory.

    I felt that much of this was coming in the weeks prior to Cameron’s winning an overall majority. My wife and I attended two weddings in a short period and found the English countryside covered in billboards that were not getting much mainstream publicity showing Alex Salmond picking a wallet from an Englishman’s back pocket. Clearly, the Scots needed to be kept in their place and had no business as equals in the UK. The willingness to go there was as shocking to me, in a way, as Farage’s Breaking Point billboard was later. English prejudice against immigrants is not unexpected, its persistence against natives suggested nothing had been learned from the departure of the Irish and most of Ireland. There’s a good chance his election victory will go down in history as one of the greatest Pyrrhic victories in political history, and, with luck, the beginning of the divestment of assets from a party whose very name means thieves (toraí, in Irish, is the origin of Tory) and its corrupt establishment supporters — whose tax havens and other perquisites will eventually be on the line. It has been sustained mainly by the incompetence and division of its opponents. There is, for some, worse than Suez to come.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Samuel thanks. I’m not sure how things will go in England, I do worry that Brexit is the first salvo of an inter-generational culture war. The ever excellent Chris Grey has another blog post this week exploring the theme: http://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/2019/05/the-brexit-aporia.html

      “For remainers, there is no way to get back to 2016, just as for leavers there is no way forward to get what they were promised in 2016. In that sense, just as Brexit is on hold so too is Britain – suspended between an unrecoverable past and an unattainable future. Brexit has ceased to be, if indeed it ever was, understandable simply as an ‘institutional’ question about Britain’s membership of the EU. Instead it has morphed into a cultural battle about what Britain – England, especially, but not just England – is. So it has ceased to have an institutional answer, deliverable by normal forms of politics and policymaking. It is an aporia, a pathless path, with no way forward and no way back.”

      I was in UCD last week at Physics55 , former students, colleagues and staff who lectured me as a student. Given I graduated 42 years ago it was wonderful to have six of my former lecturers there, including my one surviving PhD supervisor. I met with Gerald Fleming (Former head of forecasting at Met Eireann and was a weather presenter on RTE for many years). I was at his wedding in ’82 and had only seen him once since at a 25th reunion. What I found extraordinary was the similarity in thought processes almost a “hive mind” and the same was true of pretty much everyone in the room. All though Brexit a catastrophic mistake and thought the backstop essential.

      A brief stay sadly and back to Britain to the sight of Tory candidates making ever wilder promises. The only sane one amongst them seems to be Rory Stewart, who has zero chance of being elected in the current climate. The Tories look doomed. I do you are right re Farage and the Dystopian vision painted by Chris Grey too pessimistic.

  2. Sam Johnson -

    Coincidentally I also visited UCD for the first time in many years a few days ago and was a bit envious of the generation enjoying the incredibly improved facilities, which have obviously attracted a very much more diverse community than was the case when I was there in the 70s (among others, I saw a group of Asians getting a tour; possibly Chinese). It would be interesting to see a deal with Scotland to give Scots and Irish a kind of bilateral Erasmus programme. Scotland seems a popular next option for many who do not find a place in college here because of oversubscription and we certainly seem to have quite a few Scottish lecturers in Irish universities, but the former will not survive Brexit by default.

    No doubt you saw Scottish unionists getting very snide on Twitter about Nicola Sturgeon’s recent visit to Dublin, as if she needed permission from Westminster.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Present at Physics55 was Prof Brian McBreen, one of my MSc supervisors, who was in Cornell for a few years around 1968. His big regret was that he didn’t get to Woodstock which was just up the road in American terms. He remarked that he used to envy the facilities in the big American Universities, but no longer as UCD was just as well equipped.

      Physics as doing very well. Two big income streams were a summer school for the Californian Universities mainly UCLA and Berkley where they got around 200 students and a similar number for a separate Mid west summer school mainly from Chicago and Wisconsin.

      The student body was diverse. I chatted to a group of four postgrads – two Italians, one American who came via Cologne and a South African.

      I’m sure Nicola Sturgeon got a very warm welcome in Dublin. I see Scotland as a beacon of hope in Britain, I do worry about England.

      1. Andrew Dickie -

        Sean, I couldn’t agree more about your worries re England.

        It was Dean Acheson wasn’t it, who said words to the effect that Britain/the UK had lost an Empire, and hadn’t yet found a rôle?

        It strikes me that that is no longer true of Britain/the UK, but only of England (its temporary (?) appendage, Northern Ireland), since Ireland (no longer part of the UK, but still part of the wider geographical grouping of the British Isles), Scotland, and I’m sure soon Wales, have a clear vision of being independent nations within the EU – so combining localism with internationalism.

        England, by contrast, used the Empire as a proxy for genuine localism, as well as a proxy for internationalism.

        But both proxies were bastard ones, so that it is now floundering, with no idea how to be either localist, except via a version of incipiently Fascist populism (e.g Farage and the BREXIT Party), or internationalist, except via a fully Fascist populism (e.g Steve Bannon) that is deeply nostalgic for Empire.

        The failure to cultivate, and give expression to, a genuine English nationalism, along the lines of the SNP’s “civic nationalism” (as opposed to Fascist “racial nationalism”, has been the greatest failure of post-WW2 politics, as it has left England “naked to its enemies” in the form of the Siren voices of racist “racial nationalism”

        John Prescott should have persevered with his attempt to set up Regional Parliaments, as they could have filled both the existential, and the funding and financial, voids that produced the majority Leave vote, because of the “left behind” experience of those regions, with the result that those regions would not have felt, or actually been, so “left behind”, so the Leave campaign would have probably lost, and BREXIT would not be the current reality.

  3. Charles Adams -

    Excellent piece Sean.

    I note that Nick Cohen


    writes today:

    “The extremism on the right has produced a reaction among pro-Europeans. Hardly anyone was arguing to overturn the referendum in the summer of 2016. The People’s Vote campaign wasn’t even founded until April 2018. If rightists had moderated their demands, Britain would be out of the EU by now. As it was, they talked as if half the country were traitors and rushed to the fanatical fringe.”

    Which I think is spot on. Back in 2016 many remainers accepted the result and expected a Norway plus type deal (especially because the result was close), basically a very close relationship and an open border, ideally single market membership. But May with slogans like ‘no deal is better than a bad deal” and constantly courting the ERG drove many towards a full remain position. In effect the Conservative party (and to some extent Labour) declared war on Remainers and they would not take it lying down.

    Still no idea what will happen which seems odd given that so many claim to know exactly what they voted for.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I had assumed some Norway-like option would have been the rational result of the Referendum. I too would have accepted the result and moved on. I also have no idea what will happen. I agree with Jon Worth that a GE in the Autumn is the most likely outcome, but that is part of a process, not the final destination.

  4. Sean Danaher -


    thanks. England is a great country with a wonderful cultural and scientific history. It should be able to have a tremendously vibrant and proud civic nationalism, every bit as positive as Ireland or Scotland. I found Anthony Barnett’s Lure of Greatness very good at exploring this theme.

    I voted in the referendum for devolution in the NE but it was sadly heavily defeated. I agree wholeheartedly that outside the major cities there are swathes of England, South Wales and former industrial Scotland and Northern Ireland that have been disgracefully neglected.

  5. Graham -

    I can only reiterate what others have said, great analysis, spot on about England – the good, the bad and the ugly (like most of us) – and although an (independence supporting) Scot living in Scotland many of my friends and relations are English, as is my wife. But as you and others say, there is (has for many years been) a crisis of English National Identity (Acheson, Barnett & O’Toole have nailed it).

    I wish some of these awful politicians we are lumbered with – the compulsive liars like Johnson, the mediocrities promoted way beyond their competence like May and Cameron, the charlatans like Corbyn – (sorry, I’m in a bad mood) would read some of these devastating critiques and learn. But all they are interested in is politics as point scoring and political dogmas on social, economic and foreign affairs, oblivious, indeed contemptuous, of evidence.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Graham, I think we may all be in a bad mood! Does a country get the Government it deserves? – as Joseph de Maistre speculated. I know so many wonderful English people (my wife included) that it is extraordinary the UK has ended up with such as we have.

  6. George S Gordon -

    The Scottish Independence blogger Wings over Scotland has previously suggested that “The need for a hard land border on the island of Ireland could be avoided, replaced with one between Scotland and England which would have no implications for the Good Friday Agreement.”

    In his Panelbase poll, “it turns out that a hard border at Berwick and Gretna is a price that Scottish voters are – by a margin of more than two to one – willing to pay to stay in the EU.”

    See https://wingsoverscotland.com/the-divided-kingdom/#more-104642 for details.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks George. the polling numbers are very interesting as I thought many Unionists would hate a hard border. A 2:1 margin is a pleasant surprise.

      Many of the Tory candidates for Leader are keen to show their Unionist credentials by denying Scotland an Independence Referendum. I presume it is to get Ruth Davidson onside? Likely to go down like a lead balloon in Scotland I would have thought?

      1. George S Gordon -

        Exactly Sean, and I think the Ruth Davidson strategy in the EU election may have confirmed that rather well. Her EU election communication said on the front page – “Your vote for my Scottish Conservative and Unionist Team will tell Nicola Sturgeon No More Referendums” – all in caps and with UNIONIST TEAM and NO MORE REFERENDUMS HIGHLIGHTED IN RED.

        I think it safe to say their “strategy” failed, since they placed 4th with only 11.6% of the vote, and the SNP won in every local authority area except the northern isles where the LibDems held on.

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