Scotland claims credit for inventing the telephone, television and penicillin, not to mention modern economics. Its people built ships, bridges and locomotives for the world and, more recently, Grand Theft Auto. In a 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should break away to become Europe’s newest state, Scots voted to remain in the three-centuries-old United Kingdom with England and Wales by 55 percent to 45 percent. Rather than settling the matter, the nationalists on the losing side gathered strength and numbers, and now may be poised for a second try after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.
The U.K. as a whole voted to split with the EU by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, though 62 percent of Scottish voters in the June 23 poll favored remaining in the bloc. After the vote, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that a second independence plebiscite was "on the table" in the face of a so-called Brexit that doesn't reflect the will of Scottish voters. The 2014 referendum had put politics back into Scotland’s pubs and living rooms, with the nationalist campaign morphing into a movement that showed it can bring voters out in record numbers. Membership in the pro-independence Scottish National Party exploded to more than 115,000, or about 1 in 45 Scots. In the 2015 U.K. general election, the party captured all but three of the nation’s 59 seats in the U.K. Parliament to become the third-largest group in Westminster. Sturgeon, who runs Scotland’s semi-autonomous government, picked up the baton of challenging the U.K.’s austerity and promoting equality – both in Scotland and in the broader U.K. Scotland won control of a portion of its income tax and is continuing to press for more financial powers to protect the health service and free university education.
The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh was restored in 1999, with the U.K. government relinquishing oversight of education, transportation and health. The momentum of the secessionist campaign forced the U.K.’s main political parties to promise Scotland an accelerated plan for more powers to help keep it in the union. The nationalist lawmakers in London also want to remove Britain’s nuclear weapons from a deep sea loch in western Scotland. Independence movements are often about ethnic or linguistic splits, but just as frequently they’re about economics. The U.K. was formed by the Act of Union in 1707, as Scotland faced financial ruin after a failed project in Panama. Even after all the years of intertwining, the distinctions between the nations go beyond kilts and bagpipes. Scotland has 5.3 million people — less than a tenth of the U.K. total — yet it has a separate legal system, its own soccer league and a Gaelic television channel.
Scotland’s politicians are using their unprecedented national influence to get more of what they want from the U.K. and are likely to use the Brexit vote to demand another ballot on independence. The 2014 referendum forced politicians on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall to map out what a stand-alone Scotland would look like and debate whether it would be able to keep the British pound as its currency. Since Scotland's economy would be underpinned by North Sea oil, opponents of independence say the plunge in crude prices since 2014 proved voters were right to decide that there was too much risk in going it alone. Scotland needs to remain part of a larger country that has a greater say in the world, they say. But that argument has been turned on its head by Britain's decision to leave the EU. The secessionists say that Scotland should pursue its own distinct economic and political path apart from the U.K. and remain within the four-decade-old union with the rest of Europe.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer Britain's vote to leave the EU.
- “What Scotland Thinks” blog from John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
- Scottish National Party’s website and its manifesto for the 2015 general election.
- Scotland made its case for independence in a series of government reports and the U.K. published a collection of research papers.
- Research on independence referendums from Matt Qvortrup, a researcher at Cranfield University.
- “How Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book by Arthur Herman, a former professor of history at Georgetown University.
First published Feb. 14, 2014
To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at email@example.com
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