Passion spent, Scots yet to be fired up by Britain's EU vote

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 02, 2016 10:59 AM

By Elisabeth O'Leary

STIRLING, Scotland (Reuters) - If Prime Minister David Cameron is to win a June 23 referendum on membership of the European Union, he will need the passion of the Scots, who turned out in droves two years ago to decide the fate of the United Kingdom. But this time around, they just aren't that fired up.

In 2014, 85 percent of Scotland's 4.3 million voters cast ballots to decide whether to seek independence from Britain, the highest recorded turnout at any Scottish election since the advent of universal suffrage after World War One.

They rejected independence by 55-45 percent, but unleashed passions that catapulted the pro-independence Scottish Nationalists (SNP) to a thunderous victory in a vote for British parliament a year later, winning 56 of Scotland's 59 seats.

The upcoming referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU is just as important for Scotland, not least because if Britain leaves the bloc some secessionists may seek independence again.

Scots, whose economy is focused on exports and who are proud of the welcome they give foreigners, are more supportive of the EU than the rest of Britain. An Ipsos Mori poll last month showed 62 percent of Scottish voters would support EU membership compared to 55 percent across Britain.

But the arguments have yet to enthuse voters like Iain, a 49-year-old laborer from Fife in eastern Scotland, who waged his own personal independence battle two years ago.

Back then, he repeatedly got up at dawn to repaint a huge blue "Yes" on an underpass, which another person was constantly repainting with a red "No" after he had gone.

This time, he may not even vote, said his son Andrew, confessing to the unlikely graffiti stand-off on condition their surname not be published.

"I think my dad will vote to stay in the EU, if he bothers voting," Andrew said. "He knows there’s a vote on June 23, he’s informed but he’s not active."

Andrew works as a community youth leader in Stirling, a town clustered around Mediaeval towers at the foot of the highlands, which has symbolized Scotland's feisty politics since William Wallace defeated the English in battle here in 1297.

The town saw turnout above 90 percent in the independence referendum, among the highest in Scotland. But few now are enthused about the EU referendum coming up.


The SNP has scolded Cameron for calling the June 23 referendum just six weeks after a vote for Scotland's own parliament, saying voters will be exhausted and have too little time for debate. By the time of the EU referendum, Scots will have voted 5 times in four years.

But that is not the only reason why Scots are slow to engage fully in an EU debate whose most outspoken figures on both sides have been members of Cameron's ruling Conservative Party. The Conservatives, or Tories, won less than 15 percent of the vote in Scotland at the general election last year and barely register in most communities north of the border.

"It feels like it’s just about squabbling Tories," said Dan Vevers, a 26-year-old student at Stirling's university. "And the Tories aren’t a big deal in Scotland."

The Conservatives, divided for decades over Europe, are now split between Cameron's pro-EU wing and an "Out" camp led by London Mayor Boris Johnson. The two men are schoolmates from the same elite English boarding school, the sort of background many Scots view with disdain.

"Cameron has England on his mind, not Scotland," said Linda Rozens, a softly-spoken 52-year-old jeweler originally from Glasgow, in a Stirling shop selling tartan and Celtic-design craft items.

In 2014, the prime minister conceded his public image as a privileged Englishman with aristocratic roots did not make him the best salesman for the United Kingdom in Scotland, even imploring Scots to ignore their personal dislike for him.

This time Cameron has to call on his political foes, the nationalist SNP, for help to build pro-EU support. The popular Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged Cameron not to campaign north of the border to avoid putting off voters.

The SNP says Scottish voters must not be dragged out of the EU against their will. If Scotland votes to stay in but the rest of Britain votes to leave, the nationalists warn some could seek a new referendum on independence; many voted to stick with the UK because it gives them automatic EU membership.

Meanwhile, the SNP is trying to rekindle the flame of two years ago, even if it is now on the same side as Cameron.

"We know that it is there is a very big vote to remain (in the EU) which needs to be mobilized," said Kevin Pringle, the SNP's former communications boss during the independence referendum, now media director at the Scotland Stronger in Europe campaign.

"The main challenge is to present a positive campaign that motivates people to turn out."

(Editing by Peter Graff)