Is Scotland ready to take the high road to independence?

On June 23, Scotland voted to remain in the EU. Sadly, the UK as a whole voted to leave. But they're not going to be dragged out of the EU without putting up a fight, and calls for a second referendum on independence are growing louder. It's a situation the British government wants to avoid at all costs, but Brexit may have been the final nail in the coffin of the union

“The only young people I know who voted Leave were men’s rights activists, misogynists, and Donald Trump supporters,” hisses Claire Bywalec, 23, with barely hidden disdain.

She and her friend Ashlea Camille, 27, got on the train at Perth and are heading to Edinburgh for a big night out. They didn’t need much encouragement to talk about the fallout of the referendum of EU membership – 52 percent of Brits voted to leave, but 62 percent of Scots wanted to remain.

“I was so annoyed by the result. It’s just another example of Scotland being ruled by people they didn’t vote for.”

Into the unknown
While it’s safe to say that the consequences of the Leave vote will be far-reaching, no one quite knows what’s going to happen. For a start, there was no concrete plan presented by the Leave campaigners, who relied upon vague assurances that the UK could easily negotiate a new relationship with Europe, while lying about the costs and negative impacts of EU membership.

The vote was followed by a power vacuum when David Cameron stepped down as PM. He argued that although he was the one who called the referendum, he shouldn’t be tasked with leading the negotiations with the EU as he had wanted to remain.

Theresa May – another Remain MP – became the new PM by seizing power in the Conservative Party, and promptly visited her colleagues in Paris and Berlin to assure them that when the UK leaves the EU, it won’t be leaving Europe. But despite assurances from Cameron and May that the Brexit vote would be final, May has decided to postpone formal exit negotiations – triggered when Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon is activated – until next year.

The view from the train north from Edinburgh to Pitlochry. Photo: Peter Stanners

The view from the train north from Edinburgh to Pitlochry. Photo: Peter Stanners

In the meantime, investor confidence has plummeted along with the value of the pound, while newly-cheap British assets sent the FTSE100 stock market soaring. Soon came reports of a sharp uptick in hate crimes and warnings that Brexit threatened house prices, the financial services industry, pensions and scientific research.

While the UK referendum may cause some to worry about the future of the EU, it’s the UK’s own survival that may be most at risk. It’s a strange union, composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The four countries are represented separately in football tournaments, but together at the Olympics. And while England doesn’t have its own national assembly, the other three do.

Ultimately, it’s May’s government in London that wields the most power, but pre-existing fissures in the union have only deepened in the wake of the vote. Wales voted to leave, despite being the largest UK recipient of EU funding – around 17 billion kroner over seven years. Immediately after the vote, the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, wrote to Cameron to demand that the national government pick up the tab, but was turned down.

Northern Ireland’s recent stability is thanks in large part to the open border with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Should Northern Ireland leave the EU with the UK, its border with the Republic might have to close – otherwise, EU nationals flying into Dublin could take the bus to Belfast and enter the UK without passing through passport controls.

Independence day
But it’s in Scotland where the Brexit result is most contentious. In 2014, a majority of Scots voted in a referendum to remain a part of the United Kingdom. With Scotland now at risk of being dragged out of the EU, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has threatened a second independence referendum.

“I voted to stay in the UK, but now I would vote for independence,” says Otto Sanderson, 36, a deli owner and wine merchant in Pitlochry, a picturesque tourist town near the Cairngorm National Park.

“Before, I was told that if I voted for independence, Scotland would be kicked out of the EU and that was my main reason for staying. But now I see that Scotland could build its own economy, offer tax incentives like Ireland does, and could take a section of London’s businesses who want to remain in the EU to Edinburgh or Glasgow.”

Otto Sanderson says Brexit has put his new business at risk.

Otto Sanderson says Brexit has put his new business at risk.

Sturgeon has been outspoken in her criticism of the British government following the referendum result.

“The absence of any leadership and the lack of any advance planning both from the politicians who proposed the referendum and from those who campaigned a leave vote surely must count as one of the most shameful abdications of responsibility in modern political history,” she told a conference of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Edinburgh.

Emotional intelligence
Sanderson is originally from Finland, but has lived in Pitlochry for the past 12 years after meeting his Scottish wife. He opened his shop with a business partner this summer, and has already seen a marked drop in the number of European tourists visiting the town following the Brexit result.

The picturesque tourist town Pitlochry in northern Scotland. Traders are worried about the impact of Brexit.

The picturesque tourist town Pitlochry in northern Scotland. Traders are worried about the impact of Brexit.

Almost 62 percent of residents in Perth and Kinross, his voting district, voted to remain.

“Straight after the vote, we shop owners knew we would need to be more frugal. We are only just coming out of a bad financial crisis. We sell lots of European produce, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. As a new business, cash flow is always an issue.”

He said he was shocked by the result, and disappointed by the reasons people gave for leaving.

“People voted purely with their emotions on immigration and not at all on the facts,” he said.

The results showed a clear age divide, with younger voters overwhelmingly voting to remain in the UK – the problem was that too few of them turned out to vote.


Gary Ashcroft

   A little way up the road, Gary Ashcroft (left) is waiting for the bus with his suitcase. The 19-year-old lives in Dingwall in northern Scotland, but is on his way to nearby Kinloch Rannoch to work on a new electricity substation.

“I was shocked by the result. I heard quite a few people say they would leave, but I never thought it would happen. I personally want to stay in. There might be problems with the European Union, but by staying we have a better option to change things. Europe is generally a good thing because of the working conditions, freedom to roam and holidays,” he said.

He isn’t worried about the effect of European workers on the labour market.

“If they want to come here and work and pay their way, so be it.”

A progressive Scotland
The referendum result wasn’t legally binding and there is speculation that May might not activate Article 50. It’s uncertain whether the UK parliament would have to vote on the outcome of the negotiations for the new relationship with the EU, though the leaders of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have demanded a say.

As the train thunders over the iconic Forth Road Bridge in the approach to Edinburgh, Bywalec says she’s confident that Scotland can go its own way without the rest of the UK.

“The Scottish parliament could do the job alone. I think the argument that we are too stupid, which has been around since the 1970s, is nonsense. We are very wealthy and very intelligent. And if we were such a burden on England, why the hell would they keep us? If we weren’t contributing anything, why are they hellbent on keeping us?”

At Edinburgh airport, a less than subtle message that the city supports being IN the EU. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

At Edinburgh airport, a less than subtle message that the city supports being IN the EU. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Scotland’s finances may not be in as good shape as Bywalec believes, especially after the drop in the value of oil wiped £10 billion of annual revenue from the coffers of a potentially independent Scotland.

In the run up to Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, it was widely argued that the Scottish economy is too weak to be self-sustaining. Only 44.7 percent of Scots voted to leave the UK then, but recent polls show growing support for independence – 52 percent in a Sunday Times poll immediately after the Brexit referendum, and a more modest 47 percent in a YouGov poll a month later.

With Scottish independence gaining ground, the best strategy for retaining a united UK could be to loosen the arrangement. In July, the independent Constitution Reform Group set out a case for radical constitutional reform in the UK, and presented an Act of Union Bill that would grant fully devolved sovereignty to each of the four countries within a federal arrangement.

Ceding more powers to Scotland to stave off a second referendum,  might not be enough for Bywalec, however, who believe their own leaders are best equipped to serve Scottish interests.

“The Scottish government is quite progressive, and I’m more convinced our rights will be protected under a Scottish rather than an English Conservative government. Sturgeon has stood up for European migrants in Scotland, saying they are welcome to stay on. We don’t want to be run by an anti-woman, anti-human rights party down in London. Sturgeon is the polar opposite.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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