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. Scotland is also home to Europe's most prominent independence movement. In a 2014 referendum on whether it should break away to become a new state, voters decided to remain in the three-centuries-old United Kingdom with England and Wales by 55 percent to 45 percent. Rather than settling the matter, though, the nationalists on the losing side gathered strength and numbers. Now they're demanding the right to a second try after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.
While the U.K. as a whole voted to split with the EU by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, 62 percent of Scottish voters in the June 2016 poll favored remaining in the bloc. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants a second independence plebiscite by the spring of 2019 in the face of a so-called Brexit that doesn't reflect the will of most Scots. She says it's up to Scotland — like last time — to decide when to hold another referendum, though the U.K. needs to give permission and the government in London doesn't want one. 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, challenged the U.K.’s austerity measures and sought enhanced financial powers to protect the health service and free university tuition for Scots and students from the rest of the EU.
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 5.4 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.
Sturgeon is framing another vote on independence as Scotland's right to choose which path it wants to take: to follow the rest of the U.K. out of the EU and likely out of the European single market, or to break away and keep its access. That choice, she says, needs to be made before Brexit happens. The last referendum forced politicians on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall to map out what a stand-alone Scotland would look like. The debate focused on whether Scotland should pursue its own distinct economic and political path apart from the U.K., and 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. But their case that Scotland needed to remain part of a larger entity that has a greater say in the world has been turned its head by Brexit. To many Scots, the status quo is no longer an option.
The Reference Shelf
- A Q&A on why Scotland's independence is back on the table and a QuickTake on 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
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