What will Brexit mean for Scotland and Scottish Independence?
On Friday, January 31, after over three years of back-and-forth, Britain has exited the European Union. While the full effects of Brexit won’t be felt immediately, Brexit will profoundly change the relationships that exist between the United Kingdom, Europe and the world.
While these changing relationships are fascinating and worth paying attention to, this article will focus on an internal divide that has been developing throughout Brexit talks—one with deep historical roots.
The divide I’m referring to is the one between Scotland and England. As the majority of Scotland voted against Brexit, Scottish citizens, as well as the majority party of Scottish Government, the Scottish National Party (SNP), have been calling for a second Scottish independence referendum due to the fact that Brexit will negatively impact Scotland.
A brief history of the relationship between England and Scotland, devolution, and the Scottish independence movement
Could Scotland leave the United Kingdom in the wake of a disappointing outcome on Brexit? Possibly. To understand why requires a background on the relationship between England and Scotland. The two bodies first began sharing a monarch after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 with the accession of the Scottish James VI to the English Crown.
This technically united England and Scotland – the two continued to have their own Parliament, religions, and laws, but they shared a monarch. Conflicts between the two systems under this arrangement explain in part why the two nations decided to merge in 1707, after they voted to create a single Parliament and Kingdom of Great Britain.
However, the sharing of power under one Parliament did not last forever. In 1997, England and Scotland reached a new phase when the UK Parliament passed a law allowing for devolved Parliaments. In Scotland, this created a quasi-federalist system between Scotland and England, where a number of powers were devolved to a newly established Scottish Parliament, while others remained reserved to the United Kingdom.
Because of the very voluntary nature of the joining of Scotland and England—through vote not conquest—it has always been within the realm of possibility that a vote could work the opposite way, to seperate the two back to their original independent positions. We saw this play out in 2014.
What led to the rise of Scottish independence sentiment in 2014? Among other things, it had to do with politics within Scottish government. Most notably, the SNP had surged in popularity by 2011, gaining control of Parliament for a number of reasons. The SNP’s win meant that independence had a mandate behind it for the first time in their 80-year history. UK Prime Minister David Cameron eventually signed off on an independence vote in the Edinburgh Agreement, then promptly campaigned fiercely to keep Scotland in the UK. In the end, “no” won in a 55.3%- 44.7% split. The Scottish independence movement was put to bed temporarily, despite the fact that the SNP remained in power.
Scotland and Brexit
Enter: Brexit. The contentious debate over whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the European Union. In the end, “Leave” won, with a slim 51.9% majority. However, this split was not consistent across the entire United Kingdom. Notably, Scotland voted remain in a 62%-38% split. If Scotland didn’t vote for Brexit, why should it suffer in its wake? This is the question First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and SNP leadership have been asking ever since the vote went through.
Pollsters have reason to believe an independence vote might pass if it were held today. A recent poll shows independence sentiment at an all-time high of about 52%. Additionally, Brexit has transformed the conversation about whether an independent Scotland would be allowed to join the European Union. While in 2014, leaders made it pretty clear that Scottish admission to the EU would not be simple—due to the potential negative ramifications for other secessionist movements in Europe—former EU leadership has indicated that sentiment has changed following Brexit.
There is also the question of whether Scotland could even hold another independence referendum. Sturgeon is actively looking into her options to find a legal course to hold such a vote. SNP leadership feels legality is crucial to avoid the kind of mania surrounding an illegal vote similar to the one held in Catalonia.
For now, only time will tell what will happen in the wake of Brexit, but much of Scotland is not happy about being cut off from EU programs and funding that they were previously benefiting from. If Sturgeon finds a way to legally hold a vote, Brexit’s consequences may be farther reaching than we already know—it might mean the degradation of the United Kingdom.