Diminished Britain, Threatened Scotland

There is no doubt that [the] result represents a significant and a material change of the circumstances in which Scotland voted against independence in 2014. -Nicola Sturgeon

A month after Brexit, markets are just starting to settle. We can expect the uncertainty of the UK’s political future to have lingering effects for years. Some claim that the British vote is the beginning of the end, predicting the breakup of the EU and the post-war international order.

While the immediate aftermath of Brexit was chaos, it has not triggered the dissolution of the EU – at least not in the short term. Instead, what it has done is renewed the question of the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Brexit, for the UK and particularly for the Leave campaign, hinged on the issue of autonomy. Leave campaigners and UKIP political leaders propagated the belief that the UK had lost its ability to make its own laws by having handed their sovereignty over to un-British,unelected EU bureaucrats. The leadup to the vote was brutal in terms of how much the average voter was inundated with inflammatory media from both sides — even by UK standards.

But this wasn’t the UK’s first time facing thorny national autonomy issues.

Two years ago, England’s northern neighbour, Scotland, had held a referendum on independence over a very similar issue – a lack of representation at the British parliament at Westminster and a desire for more self governance. The 2014 referendum saw a battle between two camps; the first argued to avoid risks by staying in the union (trade, certainty of currency and of EU membership to name a few). The second, to reject what "Yes" voters saw as increasing impositions on regional autonomy, fueled by several decades of political divergence.

The Brexit aftermath, with the 62%-38% Remain vote in Scotland strongly contrasting the rest of the UK, now represents another imposition against popular will within the region. And one that could see a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already started testing the waters, putting the possibility on the table in her statement and meeting with European Parliament members. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has a strong incentive to attempt to maintain EU membership, not solely to be viewed as defending the Scottish "remain’ majority; internationalism is also a major component of the SNP platform. Alex Salmond, head of the SNP before Nicola Sturgeon, had been articulating almost paradoxically globalist claims for over a decade. If one believes his staunchly internationalist rhetoric, “Scotland has always been an outward looking nation", and independence, then, is to “once again take [Scotland’s] full and rightful place in the international community.”

EU membership inculcated in Scotland the idea that they could exist as a discrete entity, one holding powers outside of the control of the British parliament. Membership for smaller nations allows them to circumvent inherent disadvantages in the global system – those of guaranteeing their security and gaining access to markets. By arguing that an independent Scotland would have to reapply through the EU ascension process, the 2014 pro-union campaign used EU membership as a wedge. They suggested implicitly that in voting for independence, Scotland was also voting to leave the EU. ‘Better together’ won by 55%.

Fast forward a year or two, and pre-Brexit polls taken in Scotland showed similar levels of support for the EU between pro- and anti-Scottish independence supporters. One independence referendum anniversary poll putting pro-independence voters at 61% in favour of the EU, and anti-independence at 66%. Another poll taken less than a week after the vote set off a flurry of news articles when it pointed to a shift in Scottish public opinion towards independence, but this is far from the sustained lead that would be needed.

Now the British rejection of EU membership has made Scottish independence more desirable, but also more difficult. To stay in the EU, Scotland would likely have to call (and win) an independence referendum quickly to beat the completion of Article 50 and ensure a smooth transition, according to the European and External Affairs Committee.

Similarly, the road to an independent Scotland will be as convoluted as the UK’s Article 50 process. As it stands, Scotland and England are far more closely tied than Britain and the EU; Scottish exports to the rest of Britain dwarf its trade with other EU partners. Prospects for North Sea Oil revenues, the darling of the 2014 "Yes" campaign’s budget planning at the time, became grim when prices dropped that year and even grimmer since. Even legislative matters are complicated by the fact that EU law is part of Scotland’s devolution statutes. And If the SNP does decide to call another independence referendum, Westminster may not agree to it.

A future border between Scotland and England would be an external EU border, subject to border and trade controls (once deals are negotiated); prospects of another Hadrian’s Wall could worry voters more than please them. Scotland as a political entity has been comparatively accepting of the idea that prosperity comes from cosmopolitanism and compromises with southerners. If one believes the 2014 Better Together Campaign, 55% of Scots agreed to make compromises to stay in the UK for just this reason. But if the SNP does succeed in winning a second independence referendum, they may not have any more bargaining power in the European Parliament than they currently do at Westminster.

Scottish support for the Union with England was never simply given. It was a conscious ongoing agreement, rife with questioning and subject to changing circumstances. Two years ago, Scotland voted to stay in the UK and "keep membership in two single markets" – the UK and the European. Now Scottish voters will soon have to make a choice again, this time over which is worse: the loss of their European community, or the loss of their British one.

McKenzie Rainey

McKenzie is a UBC International Relations and Economics alumnus. She has a keen interest in international political economy, globalization theory, and anything published in the New Yorker.

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