Two major opinion polls have been published this week, the Scottish Independence and Brexit chapter from the British Social Attitudes survey (20 June) and Lord Ashcroft’s Poll on Brexit, the Border and the Union (19th June). These give a good insight as to current public opinion, with the usual caveats that no poll should be taken in isolation.
As regular readers of this blog will know I think Brexit is a mistake, a disaster and an obscenity, driven primarily by English nationalism or what Umberto Eco described as ur-fascism. I was deeply disturbed on the morning after the Brexit referendum. I had expected Leave to win till the murder of Jo Cox, given the ineptness and monochromaticity of the Leave campaign, but had hoped the country might draw collective breath.
It is now the second anniversary of the Brexit Referendum, but I remember waking the next morning, feeling as if a tenuous, beautifully painted, theatrical masking screen had been shattered by thugs, revealing the ugliness below. I tried to describe it to my young son as the scene in Lion King when Mufasa is killed and Scar takes over the Kingdom. The country which had shown its best side at its vibrant, multicultural, welcoming and creative best during the London Olympics only four years before seemed to have been brutally butchered. Revealing an ugly, mean-spirited, racist, English supremacist underbelly. I had retired the night before after the Sunderland result believing all was lost, but hoping for at least one good night’s sleep before catastrophe struck.
I had hoped that in the two years since the Brexit Referendum the scars would have healed and I would feel the country was in a better place. Sadly I do not. Partially because a very close 52-48% referendum victory was treated as 100-0% by the leave side. Partially also the sheer incompetence of the Brexit cabinet, with May, Johnson, Davis and Fox all vying for the worst holder of their respective positions in history. Partially the fear of sliding towards fascism, exacerbated every time “the will of the people” is invoked and our supposedly sovereign parliament proves itself spineless once again. Given that my father was in Germany from 1937-39 and instilled in me a fear that fascism could reoccur anywhere given the right conditions, it seems that there are clear indicators of slow burning right wing coup happening in the UK. I do worry that I am over-analyzing the situation.
However it was Rafael Behr on a recent Remaniacs Podcast who possibly hit the nail on the head, by comparing the current atmosphere in London to that of his time in Moscow. It was the fact that the Government could now lie with absolute impunity. There was no longer any such thing as truth and even if there were it would be hidden down such a labyrinth of lies it could never be found. Raf had to leave Moscow after a few years as he felt he was going mad.
I will continue to rage rage against the dying of the light till the 29th March but as David Alan Green puts it, exit from the EU is inevitable, unless something currently unforeseen happens by automatic operation of law, regardless of the state of the domestic statute book.
Whereas England may be a lost cause, there is a possibility that both Scotland and Northern Ireland may be able to escape the psychosis which seems to have enveloped the UK. Indeed Chris Kendal in last week’s Cakewatch, as an Englishman, advised Scotland to abandon the sinking ship and save itself. For Northern Ireland it is easier in that it gets automatic entry to the EU if it joins with the Republic. It was also interesting to hear in the same Cakewatch podcast that Steve Bullock shares my fear of an unelected right-wing coup.
Scotland 2014 and Northern Ireland 1973 Referendums
Northern Ireland last had a unification referendum (Border Poll) in 1973. This was a total farce as the Referendum was boycotted by the Nationalist population and it was estimated that fewer than 1% of Catholics actually voted. At the time there was both a substantial Protestant and Unionist majority, wide-scale gerrymandering against the Catholic community and as the then SDLP leader Gerry Fitt said “I think on the figures I have just seen, which have just arrived from London, there has been massive impersonation of votes by the unionist party.” There was an overwhelming majority to stay in the Union of 98.90%, a figure normally only seen in totalitarian states. It had been the intention to run a Border poll every 10 years but the poll was such a failure that this was dropped. The current state of affairs under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is:
The Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 (call a Border Poll) if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
The NI situation is now very different with distinct possibility that a Border poll would result in a United Ireland. The specific wording of the GFA clause, giving the NI Secretary of State the power to make the decision has been criticized, particularly in the context where the DUP, a passionately pro-Union party, holds the balance of power in Westminster.
In Scotland of course there was an Independence Referendum in 2014 at which Scotland voted to stay in the Union by a 55-45% majority. This was supposedly a once in a generation poll, but one of the strongest arguments for Scotland to remain in the Union was that it automatically guaranteed EU membership. There was a mixture of “love bombing” Scotland by the major political parties with promises of greater devolution and “project fear”. Project fear was a warning of dire economic consequences if Scotland left the UK and supposedly formed the basis of the Cameron strategy in the Brexit Referendum.
If I were a Scot I would be very fed up. It seems that not only will Scotland be dragged out of the UK against its will but the Sewel Convention has been ignored and fewer powers will be devolved to Scotland and not more.
The Strength of the Unions
As seems likely the UK will leave the EU on the 29th March. Should either Scotland or Northern Ireland prevent this happening Leave voters prioritize Brexit over the existence of the UK, as illustrated in Fig. 1. The question includes not only Scotland and Northern Ireland, but Wales also. What is interesting that it is Tory Leave voters which most prioritise Brexit over the survival of the UK by a staggering 73% to 22% margin (more than 3:1).
Looking in more detail at the Scottish results it seems that the Tories again value Scotland least and the Lib Dems most of the major national parties.
The situation regarding Northern Ireland are similar but in general show less affinity towards Northern Ireland than Scotland. The difference however is not that great. I find this surprising. The only area where NI seems to get a higher score than Scotland is that fewer Tories would be sorrier to see Scotland leaving the UK than NI, possibly because the DUP are currently propping up the Tory Government.
What is most striking is that it is the Conservative and Unionist party, to give its full name, which seems to support the Union with Scotland the least. This is a major turn around from a few years ago where the Tories were the most passionate supporters of the Union. There is also in general less support for the Union from the other parties. This should give proponents of an independent Scotland hope as the “love bombing” of the 2014 referendum is unlikely to be repeated and “project fear” may be less effective in the light of its failure in Brexit.
The Northern Ireland figures are less of a surprise. One could almost feel sad for the NI Unionists as their love for the Union is unrequited.
The Effect of Brexit
Whereas Brexit has had an effect on attitudes in both NI and Scotland, the Scottish figures are fairly subtle and the NI figures extraordinarily marked. Looking at the Independence support for Scottish Europhiles and Europhobes shows that the support for Independence for Europhobes has remained fairly constant at around 40% since 2015 but the support for Europhiles has increased considerably from c 40% to 55%. This is important in the context of an Indi Ref as both strands need to be kept on board.
The NI figures are very stark as illustrated in Fig. 5. The Catholic community is nearly unanimous in believing Brexit makes a UI more likely, with a staggering 94% believing this to be the case. The Protestant community believes by a smaller margin that Brexit makes a UI less likely. In the actual Brexit referendum the Remain vote was around 80% in the Catholic community and 40% in the Protestant one. Unsurprisingly Catholics also think Brexit will be a disaster for the UK. Priorities are also very different. From the Ashcroft poll:
We asked people in Northern Ireland how much importance they gave to five potential Brexit outcomes. For Catholic and Nationalists voters, avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was far and away the most important consideration. For Unionists and Protestants, however, the issue mattered much less than ensuring the UK was able to negotiate its own free trade deals with non-EU countries, was no longer bound by EU rules, and had more control over immigration into the UK. Making sure Northern Ireland was treated the same as the rest of the UK was also more important than preventing a hard border.
Would an Ind Ref or Border Poll be successful?
In the case of Scotland there is a recent poll and a pre-existing model. My own view is that Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely. One aspect they have to get right is currency. As a MMT supporter I believe Scotland should go for its own sovereign currency and tying Scotland to sterling is a mistake. However the electorate may be more reassured by a sterling link. I suspect that the SNP may have had focus groups looking at this.
Overall however in terms of Scottish Independence the results are quite tight. It seems that the 45-55% split has tightened to 48-52%. As Prof. John Curtice says (from the British Attitudes Social Survey) says:
Much the same conclusion can be reached if we look at how people say they would vote if another independence referendum were to be held now. Leaving aside those who felt unable to say how they would vote, in 2016 45% said that they would vote Yes to independence, 55% No – the same result as in the September 2014 referendum. In our most recent survey the proportion saying Yes was, at 48%, a little higher (with No at 52%), but this slight departure from the result of the first independence referendum could clearly be a consequence of no more than the random sampling variation to which all surveys are subject.
So it is difficult to tell as Prof. John Curtice is famously very cautious. However if 48-52% result is true, all is to play for.
In NI Brexit sadly has caused near complete polatisation of both communities as Fig. 6 illustrates. The overall figures show a 44% to 49% split in favour of a UI. Catholics are massively in favour and Protestants massively against. Party allegiance is also what one might expect. The most interesting thing perhaps is that Alliance and non religious voters both lean towards a UI and they hold the key.
There is no chance of a Border poll however while the DUP are supporting the Government. This could change as many predict a GE in the autumn. The demographics in NI are such that Catholics will be (possibly already are and almost certainly by 2021 at the next census) in a majority in NI and this majority is set to increase with every passing year. Of course it will take some years for this to propagate through to the voting age population.
The other problem is that NI is expensive. It is supported by the British exchequer to the tune of c 10bn net per year, greater that the net 8bn EU contribution. It is true that the Republic of Ireland’s economy is very strong but it is only about 1/10 the size of that of the UK, so in Irish terms the 10bn figure is more like 100bn, from a UK perspective. Whereas the vast majority of people in the South would like a UI, many feel that that the effects of the 2008 financial crisis need to be put more firmly in the past. They would also like Brexit to play out. The Irish Government position is that now is not the time. Nevertheless a Border poll in say 2022 or 2023 is a possibility and by 2030 a virtual certainty. Time is on the Nationalists side. Unionists need to both pray that Brexit is a tremendous success and “love bomb” the Catholic community. The sight of the DUP doing this will be a wonder to behold!