Scotland might keep the UK in Europe

Saltire_Union JackKirsty Hughes, writer and commentator on European and international politics, asks whether Scottish ‘yes’ voters could deprive the eurosceptics of victory in the EU referendum.

Much of the debate on how Scotland will vote in the EU referendum has focused on whether a Scottish ‘yes’ and an English ‘no’ might trigger a second independence referendum – with England leaving the EU and Scotland staying in as a new member state.

But there is another possibility – which could create its own constitutional outcry amongst the sceptics. And that is that a Scottish ‘yes’ could turn an English ‘no’ into a UK ‘yes’. This is not as unlikely as it may seem – a strong Scottish ‘yes’ and a narrow English ‘no’ would see Scottish voters saving the UK’s four decade long participation in the EU.

Indeed a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times this summer gave results – a 51% English ‘no’ and a 66% Scottish ‘yes’ – which, when you look at how that translates into actual voting numbers, could in fact result in Scotland’s vote keeping Britain in Europe, tipping the UK as a whole into a ‘yes’ to the EU.

How that would go down with the Tory shires, and English Votes for English Laws constituency is a very interesting question.

There would be multiple ironies here too. David Cameron would have Scotland to thank for saving his bacon.

And any Scottish voters choosing ‘yes’ in the hope of provoking an indyref2 might find instead they had, on the contrary, saved the UK’s membership in the European Union, and so removed that potential trigger for a new independence referendum.

Meanwhile, reports that the ‘Brexit’ side are aiming to develop a Scottish-specific ‘no’ campaign start to make sense – Scotland could well lose the referendum for the various ‘leave’ campaigns.

Of course, it will all depend – as in elections and other referenda – on turnout as well as the percentages choosing ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

But if we do a calculation based on the UK general election turnouts for May 2015 – higher in Scotland (at 71.1%) than in the rest of the UK (65.8% for England, 65.7% for Wales and 58.1% for Northern Ireland) – then we can see what sort of levels the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides might have to reach, for the Scottish vote to determine the overall result or not.

If turnout, and electorate size, were the same as in the general election this May, and if – following  the Panelbase/Sunday Times poll –  England (and for our first calculations Wales and Northern Ireland too) voted 51% ‘no’ to the EU, 49% ‘yes’, while Scotland voted very strongly 66% ‘yes’ and only 34% ‘no’, then Scotland tips the UK into an overall ‘yes’ to staying in Europe.

The total UK ‘yes’ vote would be 15.50 million and the total ‘no’ vote would be 15.13 million – a majority of 378,218 votes for ‘yes’.

This is reversed if the rest of the UK gets its ‘no’ vote up to 52%. Then the 66% voting ‘yes’ in Scotland, don’t quite swing it, and the whole of the UK votes ‘no’ to staying in Europe by a very narrow 176,288 votes for Brexit. Calls for an indyref2 at that point probably become unstoppable.

If this calculation is repeated just for England and Scotland, then the results are overall the same ie a 51% English ‘no’ is outdone by a Scottish 66% ‘yes’ with a lead, in this case, of over 400,000 votes. A 52% English ‘no’ still wins the day for ‘Brexit’, albeit with a very slender 86,809.

Even if the Scottish ‘yes’ vote is less strong than 66% in favour, it still defeats an English 51% ‘no’ vote – down to a level of Scotland voting 59% in favour (with a tiny Scotland and England ‘yes’ majority of just under 15,000 votes). At a Scottish 58% ‘yes’ vote, an English ‘no’ tips the  overall result into a Brexit (with a 43,405 majority). This means the Wales and Northern Ireland votes will also potentially be critical too.

If Wales and Northern Ireland come out as at least moderately pro-EU, as is likely, then an English ‘no’ cannot win the day unless it gets to at least 53%. Polling for Wales and Northern Ireland shows that their electorates are less sceptical than the English, especially in Northern Ireland (doubtless influenced by the understanding that ‘Brexit’ could make the Ireland/Northern Ireland border very problematic – it would become one of the EU’s external borders). In Wales, opinion is more sympathetic to the EU than in England but not by as much as in Scotland.

If Northern Ireland votes in favour of the EU – at least at the level of 58% ‘yes’ (as in a recent poll, though the definite ‘nos’ were in fact only 16%) – and if  Wales votes at least narrowly in favour too (say at 52.5% ‘yes’), then a 51% ‘no’ vote in England loses to the ‘yes’ side by over half a million votes. Even a 52% ‘no’ vote in England is still not enough to win it for the sceptics – the ‘yes’ side could inch ahead by just over 100,000 votes.

At 53%, an English ‘no’ finally wins it by a majority of about 400,000 votes – in the face of positive support for staying in the EU in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (something that could be reversed by stronger ‘yes’ votes in Wales and Northern Ireland than used in the calculations for this blog).

Of course, it may not be this close. David Cameron will bring home his reform package from Brussels – and however weak it is likely to be, the polls could widen out again giving the ‘yes’ side a comfortable lead. But the closer it gets, the bigger an impact Scotland, and too (though to a lesser extent) Wales and Northern Ireland may have.

And those trying to vote tactically – to ensure there is a Scottish ‘yes’ in the face of an English ‘no’ as a route to indyref2 – will have to ponder hard as to the point at which too many Scottish ‘yes’ votes ensure the UK as whole also says ‘yes’ not ‘no’ to a European future.


Kirsty Hughes is a writer and commentator on European and international politics. She has worked at a number of leading European thinktanks and has also worked as a senior political adviser in the European Commission, for Oxfam as head of advocacy, and was CEO at Index on Censorship.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


This article first appeared on Open Democracy. Featured image credit: The Laird of Oldham (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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