Brexit is changing people’s minds about Scottish independence
Following a 69-to-59 vote Tuesday, the Scottish parliament is seeking permission from Westminster to hold a second referendum on becoming an independent country. And it’s all because of Brexit.
As debate raged among Scottish politicians last week over plans for a second referendum on the country’s independence, the mood among the excited nationalists gathered outside the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood turned a bit Braveheart. “For Alba!” one man roared, using the Gaelic name for Scotland, as another waved a giant Scottish flag before the imposing backdrop of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s landmark peak. The only thing missing was the warpaint.
For nationalists like Fin Kenny, the man waving the Saltire, Scotland’s independence from the Conservative-dominated British parliament in Westminster – a remote, foreign government more than 500 kilometers away – is long overdue.
“It has been for 300 years,” the 58-year-old told VICE News. “We’re being run by a country that doesn’t give a damn. They take and take, and just give us pocket money in return.”
Only three years after a bitter and divisive campaign which saw Scotland vote by 55 percent to 45 percent to remain part of the United Kingdom, these outsized expressions of nationalism are again in vogue around Holyrood.
While the U.K. as a whole voted last year to leave the E.U., Scotland – one of the U.K.’s four constituent countries – voted 62 percent in favor of remaining in. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, head of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), has argued that taking Scotland out of Europe against its wishes will create a “democratic deficit.” In light of what she says is Westminster’s refusal to budge on negotiating any sort of differentiated deal allowing Scotland to retain a form of partial E.U. membership, she wants another independence referendum to be held by spring 2019 – before Britain is likely to leave the U.K.
The threat to sever the three-centuries-old political union between Scotland and England is just the latest aftershock of Britain’s momentous vote to the leave the E.U., an historic and unexpected development that has thrown some of the United Kingdom’s most basic constitutional arrangements into question.
And while Brexit has created an opening for a renewed push for Scottish independence, it has also fractured the country’s political landscape by cutting a new fault line across the issue – turning some of the unionists of 2014 into fervent advocates for an independent Scotland, and vice versa.
Polling suggests that while support for independence is running hot, Scottish sentiment towards the E.U. has cooled, complicating Sturgeon’s attempts to use Brexit to push for a second referendum. More than a third of her party’s supporters voted to leave the E.U.
“Brexit cuts across attitudes towards independence in the same way it cuts across virtually everything else,” says John Curtice, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde who specializes in tracking public opinion around Scottish sovereignty. “It’s a deeply divisive issue that divides the nationalists as it does the unionists.”
The push for a second referendum has thrilled die-hard nationalists like flag-waving Kenny, at a time when support for the cause is at an all-time high – although, on current polling, still not enough to win a referendum (support for independence stands at 46 percent, according to the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey published this year).
But others are dismayed at the prospect of another polarizing campaign that will dredge up the deep animosities over the issue, so soon after what was billed in 2014 as a “once in a generation” decision. Critics accuse Sturgeon of cynically using the Brexit issue as an excuse, at a time when the polls show no clear public desire for a second vote (about half of respondents are opposed to a second referendum in the next couple of years, while just over a third want one, says Curtice.)
Their only comfort is that a second referendum can only be held with authorization from Westminster – permission that British Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated she is not prepared to grant, as the U.K. focuses instead on securing the best Brexit deal possible from the E.U. Following Tuesday’s vote in Holyrood, Britain’s Scottish Secretary David Mundell underlined the point, saying Westminster wouldn’t entertain any talks on a second referendum until after Brexit – and any transitional period – was complete.
A colossal standoff looms, with no easy resolution in sight.
“If (the U.K. government) ignore our wishes, that will send a clear message to Scotland that we’re not in a partnership of equals, that our voices don’t matter,” Jenny Gilruth, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, told VICE News.
If a second independence referendum is held, the independence camp’s hopes for victory hinge largely on convincing one significant bloc of voters to switch sides. Nationalists hope they can woo pro-unionist voters from 2014 who voted “remain” in last year’s E.U. referendum to now support an independent Scotland that could eventually rejoin Europe.
Mike Dailly, a Glasgow solicitor and prominent campaigner for the pro-union Better Together campaign in 2014, is one such convert.
Sitting in a café in his hometown, he tells VICE News that a central consideration in his voting “no” last time was securing Scotland’s place in the E.U. Now that Britain has voted to leave, membership of a United Kingdom seems far less appealing, as the country seemed destined to become more xenophobic and isolated – “the embodiment of Nigel Farage,” as he puts it, referring to the polarizing British politician seen as the architect of Brexit.
“And even Nigel Farage doesn’t want to be Nigel Farage,” he said. “It’s like we’re stepping into a DeLorean and going back to the 1980s, a time of industrial decline, communities imploding, when the only people doing well were the elites. In Scotland, we’re at a crossroads where we have the option to take another path.”
“Even Nigel Farage doesn’t want to be Nigel Farage”
Polls suggest that there has been some move in previously unionist voters like Dailly now more likely to support independence as a result of Brexit.
But the swing has been modest – just 12 percent of voters like him have switched sides. And any gains for the pro-independence camp have effectively been cancelled out by a comparable swing in the opposite direction – by those who voted for Scottish independence and Brexit, and have now changed their minds about leaving the U.K. “It’s left us pretty much where we started,” says Curtice.
For nationalists like Kenny, the notion that there are people who voted for independence in 2014, but are now opposed to a second referendum, is laughable. “You keep hearing about them, but I’ve never seen one,” he says.
But for that, he only need visit Dundee, according to David Robertson – a church minister in Scotland’s fourth-largest city – who is adamantly opposed to a second referendum. “I don’t know anyone who wants this referendum,” he told VICE News. “Of course there are people who want one, but the majority don’t.”
Robertson, an SNP member, was a vocal supporter of the pro-independence “yes” campaign in 2014, who then voted to leave the E.U.
While he believes that Scotland should govern itself eventually, he says the arguments for the country to abandon its longstanding union with England only to enter a much larger one don’t add up. “Why would I exchange the democracy of the United Kingdom, flawed as it is, with the lack of democracy of the European Union?” he said.
The timing of the current call was also “crazy,” he said. On current polling, the yes campaign would likely lose, squandering the opportunity for independence for another generation. It also made no sense to hold the vote before Britain had negotiated its terms of exit from the E.U., as Scots would not know what the future country they were voting on would look like.
As important, fears that revisiting the issue so soon after 2014 would only reopen old wounds, creating “unnecessary division and harm.” Feelings run deep over the independence question: Since announcing he had switched sides, Robertson says he has received hundreds of “abusive and vile” messages online. (Dailly says he too has been swamped with critical messages since publicly shifting allegiance.)
“I don’t want two more years of this,” Robertson said.
A matter of time
With the polls showing no significant movement in public opinion on the independence question since 2014, the SNP’s call for a second referendum has some scratching their heads – although many nationalists say they still believe they would win if a referendum were to be held.
Curtice says that while the “yes” lobby lost the 2014 referendum, it effectively won the campaign by doubling public support for independence within the space of two years. Any second referendum would be held in the context of much greater baseline support. But so soon after a high-profile, hard-fought 2014 campaign – in which most voters took a position on the issue – neither campaign is likely to shift attitudes much further in the short-term.
Gilruth, the Member of the Scottish Parliament, concedes that maybe it’s not the optimal time for a second referendum. “We probably would’ve waited until there was a shift in the polls,” she said. “But we are where we are.” She argues that, given her party’s manifesto pledge to revisit the independence issue in the wake of a “material change” to Scotland’s circumstances, the push for a second referendum is a necessary response to a situation “foisted upon us by a Conservative government we didn’t vote for.”
Would Scotland vote “yes” if a referendum were to be held in the next two years? “I wouldn’t like to say,” says Gilruth, but, like virtually everyone else, she says that Scottish independence is a matter of demographic inevitability. Support for independence is at 72 percent among 16-24 year olds, compared with 26 percent of those aged 65 and over, making independence, in all likelihood, just a matter of time.
“When I was growing up, Scottish independence seemed like it would never happen,” Gilruth says. “It took 10 years to build up confidence in our country that was always told London knew better.”
Cover: Associated Press