The EU Referendum race is hotting up. Last Friday evening, over an ‘English dinner’ in Brussels, David Cameron secured what he considered to be a successful renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union. But subsequently there has been considerable political division on the issue within Tory ranks, with a number of senior members nailing their colours to the Leave mast.
Opinion polls suggest that the public are also split on the issue. Our latest poll of polls says that, across Britain as a whole, 53% of voters wish to remain in the EU, whilst 47% support a Brexit. But what do we know about Scottish attitudes towards the UK’s membership of the EU? How do they compare with attitudes south of the border?
Four polling companies (Panelbase, Survation, YouGov and Ipsos MORI) have both conducted polls of referendum voting intentions in Scotland and undertaken equivalent polling across Britain as a whole. On average these companies’ four most recent Scottish polls have put support for Remain at 68%, with only 32% backing the Leave campaign. But when at the same points in time these four companies polled across Britain as a whole, on average they put Remain on 50%, Leave on 50%.
This contrast supports the accepted wisdom that a majority of Scots are likely to vote for Remain on 23 June, whereas the result across the rest of Britain remains in doubt. But does this mean that Scotland is, on the whole, markedly more Europhile than the rest of Britain? Not necessarily so. In our most recent analysis paper on the depth of Euroscepticism in Britain, based on NatCen’s 2015 British (BSA) and Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) surveys, we report that, despite the large difference in referendum voting intention, Scottish attitudes towards Europe may actually be not so dissimilar from those across the rest of Britain after all.
Since the early 1990s BSA has regularly asked people what they think Britain’s long-term policy towards the EU should be by presenting respondents with five options ranging from leaving the EU altogether all the way to forming a single European government. While in the most recent survey only 22% say Britain’s long-term policy should be to leave the EU, as many as 43% say that Britain should remain in the EU but reduce the EU’s powers. Taken together these figures suggest that nearly two-thirds (65%) of British voters would like the UK to be less intertwined with the EU than it currently is. In other words, Euroscepticism across Britain is widespread, as indeed BSA has consistently found to be the case in recent years.
But what about Scotland? SSA has asked exactly the same question of its respondents since 1999. It has consistently recorded lower levels of Euroscepticism than its sister British survey. However, the most recent (2015) survey puts the level of Euroscepticism in Scotland at 60%. This is the highest level ever recorded by SSA (as recently as 2013, only 48% fell into the sceptical category) and is just five percentage points behind the level recorded across Britain as a whole.
How can we explain the big difference in referendum voting intentions on the two sides of the border when the level of Euroscepticism is apparently much the same? The answer may lie with the relative strength of party cues being given north and south of the border. South of the border voters are faced with a Conservative government and party that is clearly split on the issue. In Scotland, in contrast, the now dominant and largely united SNP have made membership of the EU a central feature of their vision for an independent Scotland – albeit while wishing to retain the UK’s existing opt-outs on such issues as the single currency and border controls. So even though voters in Scotland may not necessarily be especially ardent fans of Brussels after all, the vision of ‘independence in Europe’ promoted by the SNP seems to be shepherding them towards the Remain camp.
A version of this blog was first published by The Scotsman.