You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Scotland dreads Brexit. But is it enough to boost Scottish independence?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/02/2019 William Booth
A sign marks the border between England and Scotland at Marshall Meadows. © Robert Ormerod for The Washington Post/ A sign marks the border between England and Scotland at Marshall Meadows.

EDINBURGH, Scotland —The craggy Scottish capital is ancient and modern and pretty to look at. It’s home to posh bankers, throngs of international students and the video-game wizards who created “Grand Theft Auto.” This city has got buzz, politics, creatives and soul. And it keeps topping the lists of “Best European Cities” in which to live and work.

Which people here find ironic, since Edinburgh, along with the rest of Scotland, is scheduled to leave the European Union next month.

To say that Scots are dismayed by Brexit doesn’t quite capture their downcast mood. Many are disgusted.

While England and Wales voted to leave the E.U. in a June 2016 referendum, Scotland voted to remain by a wide margin, 62 percent to 38 percent. In Edinburgh, three of every four voted to stay. In some neighborhoods of the city, it’s hard to find a vocal Brexiteer.

In interviews and opinion polls, many Scots say they now feel triply put-upon: They don’t especially like Brexit; they worry it will hurt their livelihoods and their place in the bigger world; and they don’t seem to have much say in it.

(Related slideshow by Photo Services)

Ian Blackford, a lawmaker and a leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), frequently rails in the British House of Commons about Scotland “not being heard” and being taken out of Europe “against our will.”

The Scottish government, ruled by the SNP, predicts Brexit will deal an “economic shock” to the north, leave every Scot worse off by $3,000 a year, wipe out 80,000 jobs and “damage growth and business opportunities for decades.”

There is a sense, north and south, that Brexit could threaten, ultimately, to break apart the United Kingdom — first Scotland and eventually Northern Ireland.

In many ways, Brexit makes the case for another Scottish independence vote stronger: Scotland could say goodbye to English hegemony — and remain in Europe.

But Scottish voters are divided about national identity and political sovereignty, over their place in the European Union and in the United Kingdom.

Ashley Louise Rutherford, a shop assistant from Coldstream, Scotland, says, “I think there will be another independence referendum, and people may vote to leave the U.K. this time.” She’s not sure that would be good. © Robert Ormerod for The Washington Post/ Ashley Louise Rutherford, a shop assistant from Coldstream, Scotland, says, “I think there will be another independence referendum, and people may vote to leave the U.K. this time.” She’s not sure that would be good.

The allure of breaking free at the time of the last independence referendum — in 2014, before Brexit — was tethered to the notion that Scotland and England would remain fellow members of the European Union, maintaining close economic and social integration, a common currency and open borders.

You could have warm feelings for the queen, and the pound sterling, and still be independent, was the thinking.

Ultimately, voters decided — 55 percent to 45 percent — that they wanted to stay a part of the United Kingdom.

But after Brexit? Any future vote on Scottish independence would collide with new realities. If England is outside of the European Union and Scotland inside, what would their relationship be? Would there be a hard border across Britain? Tariffs on trade? Would a Scottish citizen need to show a passport to travel to London — or live or work there?

Douglas Baird, a business manager from Edinburgh, called Brexit “the most ridiculous thing that has happened to the U.K. in my lifetime.”

“We were given an extremely vague question on the ballot paper, which was easy to understand yet impossible to comprehend the finer details. And for what? To settle a dispute in the Conservative Party,” he said. “I may sound like a Scottish Nationalist to you, but I voted ‘remain’ in the Scottish independence referendum, as I wanted Scotland to remain in Europe.”

Baird believes another vote on independence is coming.

Liz Lochhead, a former national poet of Scotland who campaigned for independence in 2014, calls Brexit “an absolute mess.”

“Honestly, I don’t know anyone who voted for it,” she said.

But she thinks another independence referendum might be a long ways away. “There’s no appetite for it now,” Lochhead said.

What she’d prefer is a second vote on Brexit.

The leader of Scotland and the pro-independence SNP, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, describes British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for withdrawing from the European Union as “utterly shambolic.”

“But there was nothing inevitable about the Brexit process turning out to be the complete shambles that it has become,” she told The Washington Post in an interview at the modernist Scottish Parliament Building.

“That happened because those who advocated Brexit didn’t really think about or explain to the people what Brexit meant in practice,” she said.

Sturgeon believes Brexit “immeasurably strengthens the case for Scottish independence.”

She and her party want another independence referendum but have not said when.

“The price for Scotland right now not being independent is that things are being imposed on us that we have no control over and that are going to do real potential damage to our economy and our society, our very reputation in the world,” Sturgeon said.

The Union Chain Bridge, which dates to 1820, spans the border between Scotland and England across the River Tweed. © Robert Ormerod for The Washington Post/ The Union Chain Bridge, which dates to 1820, spans the border between Scotland and England across the River Tweed.

But there’s been no sustained “Brexit bounce” for Scottish independence, and it is far from certain that a second referendum would produce a different result.

The challenge for Sturgeon and the nationalist movement is that Brexit — so far — hasn’t really changed Scottish opinion much.

Ian Montagu, a researcher at ScotCen, a social research agency, took the average of 13 polls measuring how people would vote in a second Scottish independence referendum and found that 55 percent would prefer Scotland stay put.

“These figures replicate exactly the outcome of the independence referendum held in September 2014,” he wrote.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, cautions that a sizable minority of voters — between a quarter and a third — who support Sturgeon’s SNP also support Brexit.

Overall, almost 6 in 10 Scots polled are “euroskeptics,” Curtice concluded, meaning they either support leaving Europe or, more often, want to remain in the European Union but want Brussels to have less power over Scottish affairs — especially over fisheries and farming policies.

The Scots, because of their history and geography, see Brexit differently than the English, said Michael Keating, a professor of politics and director of the Centre on Constitutional Change in Edinburgh. “Brexit complicates everything,” he said.

Tourists take photographs at the border between Scotland and England on the A1 highway, just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. © Robert Ormerod for The Washington Post/ Tourists take photographs at the border between Scotland and England on the A1 highway, just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The Scottish Parliament officially “adjourned” in 1707 and only reconstituted itself 300 years later. Government in Scotland today is “devolved,” meaning it holds some powers but yields others to Westminster.

“We’re used to working with both England and Europe,” Keating said. “There’s no europhobia here. Migration is not an issue. The Brexit slogan ‘take back control’? It didn’t play here. Take back control from who? From London? Or from Brussels? The English are all about parliamentary sovereignty. In Scotland, our government is devolved. Our sovereignty is shared. We are more relaxed about power.”

Sturgeon said, “The people in Scotland are generally used to living with and being quite comfortable with multiple identities. We are Scottish, British, European. This idea that you have to pick one over the other is something I don’t think many people in Scotland really lose sleep over.”

But these days in the United Kingdom, it is all about picking the one over the other.

william.booth@washpost.com

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon