IT’s the first Scottish Parliament election since the Leave vote – so what impact is Brexit having on the contest?
The race to form the next Scottish Government is playing out just four months since the transition period took force on January 1.
The shift led to a period of serious turmoil for Scottish business, with UK exports to the bloc down year-on-year in the first two months of the year.
It also led to the shortage of goods in Northern Ireland, where this week DUP leader Arlene Foster announced her resignation. While the DUP backed Brexit, many members now blame Foster and her senior team for the Irish Sea trade barrier that’s now in force, fearing this threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the union.
Scotland, like Northern Ireland, voted to remain in the EU and the SNP – which is fighting for an historic fourth term at Holyrood – aims to take an independent Scotland back into the bloc. The Scottish Greens also seek reentry, while new Yes parties – Alba, Restore Scotland and Scotia Future – advocate a new relationship with the EU, with some backing Efta membership and others against.
The Tories, Reform Scotland and All for Unity all oppose rejoining.
Meanwhile, LibDem leader Ed Davey says that party, once firmly anti-Brexit, is “not a rejoin party” and in his recent conference speech, Willie Rennie didn’t mention rejoining at all.
And while Scottish Labour Anas Sarwar has signalled he’d like the UK to have “greater alignment around the single market and customs union”, that’s in contrast with Keir Starmer’s position.
According to recent polling by Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman, almost half of Scots think Brexit has “gone badly” and only 16% believe it’s been positive. Around a third said the shift had made them more likely to vote Yes in a future independence referendum, while 21% said they would vote no as a result of it.
Around 250,000 EU nationals live in Scotland and must apply for settled status by the end of June.
Despite all this, the loss of the Erasmus student exchange scheme and more, Dr Kirsty Hughes, founder and director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, says the “negative and damaging” impact of Brexit “has not figured that much in the main political debates of the election”.
However, she said: “A whole range of businesses, organisations and people have experienced the sharp effects of Brexit since January so it is quite likely to be a significant influence in how many people vote.
“The Brexit debate was overshadowed last year by the Covid crisis –and as the UK had formally left the EU at the end of January 2020. But in the autumn the debate was whether there would be a deal or no deal – and earlier in the year there was some sharp debate around the fact the Conservative government did not even extend the Brexit transition period in the midst of the pandemic. And there was debate and controversy over the Internal Market Act which undermines the devolution settlement.
“The independence debate has tended to focus rather narrowly, at least in the campaign, on whether and how there can be another independence referendum. But borders have come up as an issue – and while the pro-Union parties see this as a plus, since the England-Scotland border would be a hard border for goods, it also rather makes the point that an independent Scotland is expected to be in the EU. In the end, the economic costs of benefits need to be looked at as a whole, not only focusing on the border question, though that is part of it. But there has been no serious discussion of those costs and benefits.”
She went on: “It’s hard to say how much impact it will have, but it will influence choices of those Remain voters who have come round to supporting independence because of Brexit and it will influence those who can already see how Brexit is impacting on their livelihoods and how it is constraining or removing choices, such as to live and work across the EU.”
David Clarke, vice-chair of the European Movement in Scotland campaign, commented: “Many of the issues in this election are a proxy for the disastrous Brexit policy of the present government. Whatever your views on independence, and in the European movement we are fastidiously neutral on the issue, this would not have reared its head so prominently and so soon after the last referendum had Scotland not been wrenched out of the EU against its will.
“One of the great strengths of Europe is its commitment to democracy, peace and togetherness, values which we believe the Scottish people hold dear as well. So when the UK Government railroads over Scottish concerns and interprets a wafer-thin vote for a disastrously undefined Brexit to mean the most rigid, hardest departure possible, with all that that entails for Scottish business and society, you can understand why our relationship with Europe is one of the key issues at the heart of this election.”