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Brexit and Scottish independence

The Scottish desire for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom has never wavered, and it is likely to be boosted by British moves to leave the European Union

Hany Ghoraba , Wednesday 17 Oct 2018
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The British authorities believed that the Scottish independence issue had been settled once and for all when residents of Scotland voted to stay within the United Kingdom in 2014 by a margin of 10 per cent in a referendum.

Very few predicted that the tide would change only four years later and that Scottish independence would re-emerge as a matter that irks British politicians as much as it did before. This change of tide has been caused by the Brexit referendum in 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union.

The Scottish independence movement, known as “unthirldom” in Scots Language, can be traced back to 1853 and the home-rule movement initiated by the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights.

This developed through long years of struggle until the second Scottish devolution referendum of 1997 which secured Scotland its own parliament that has jurisdiction over most domestic issues with other powers reserved to the UK parliament in London.

However, this hard-won achievement fell short of the Scottish nationalists’ ambitions for a fully independent Scottish state, which they almost attained in 2014.

Leading the charge for Scottish independence is the Scottish National Party (SNP), founded in 1934 and today led by incumbent Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

She carries the torch for Scottish independence in much the same way as did her flamboyant predecessor Alex Salmond, who led the SNP for over 20 years and paved the way for the 2014 independence referendum.

Sturgeon said last week that “I cannot envisage us voting for anything that doesn’t include the single market and customs union,” indicating that her primary goal today is to keep the privileges of EU membership for Scotland.

This means that she will likely push for a new independence referendum if Scotland does not achieve these within the terms of the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

Undoubtedly, those terms will change, since it was largely they that the Brexit referendum was all about.

The SNP has been in power in Scotland for 11 years, and it has a strong base in the country. One of the strongest pillars that the “stay” in the United Kingdom camp in Scotland based its campaign on in the 2014 referendum was the EU membership the UK enjoyed at the time.

It even used the threat of an independent Scotland not being a member of the EU as a scare tactic to bring about a yes vote in the referendum. Ironically, that privilege is now off the table, as the UK voted to exit from the EU in 2016, something which could also have happened in Scotland had Scottish residents voted to leave the UK in 2014.

On 6 October, a march for Scottish independence from the UK was organised in Scotland that saw the participation of 100,000 demonstrators, according to organisers, and a few tens of thousands, according to media sources.

These numbers may not seem huge, but in a country of only 5.4 million citizens they represent a significant presence, especially as the new campaign is still in its infancy.

The demonstrators carrying Scottish flags bearing the cross of St Andrew and many dressed in traditional kilts walked through the streets of the Scottish capital Edinburgh reigniting their demands for independence.

The demonstration represented a new wave of calls for another independence referendum by Scottish nationalists who consider that their lost battle in 2014 is not the end of their political war for independence.

The British vote for Brexit from the EU is playing into their hands as the majority of Scots voted in favour of staying in the EU unlike other parts of the UK.

Much to their dismay, the vote for Brexit came as a turning point in the country’s political fortunes as it blows away the arguments of the “stay” camp that had emphasised the perks of staying within the UK as part of the European Union.

Moreover, European leaders in 2014 openly discouraged Scottish citizens from voting to leave the UK as this would likely lead to an independent Scotland having to file a new application for EU membership and possible economic losses for Scotland.

The Scottish independence camp now finds itself having to promote the benefits of remaining in the EU while finding ways to downplay the losses from leaving the UK, which include powerful sentimental connections.

Meanwhile, the Scottish unionists are still influential in Scottish media and business, but their influence may have been negatively affected by the Brexit vote.

Oil plays a major role in the Scottish economy, and while the current oil-price hikes work in its favour, the country’s first minister will need to introduce a post-independence economic plan that is not reliant on fluctuating oil revenues but emphasises the many opportunities Scotland can offer.

The last thing Sturgeon wants is to appear helpless should independence occur in a similar manner to the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

The road to a new referendum on Scottish independence will not be an easy one, even if the stars seem to be aligned in Sturgeon’s favour. The political spectrum in Scotland still includes those who were pro-Brexit and voted for it in the 2016 referendum.

They were mostly driven to do so by the fact that their country has witnessed an unprecedented influx of legal immigrants from other EU countries such as Poland.

According to those who voted for Brexit, legal immigration from the EU, amounting to some 220,000 people, has not helped the Scottish economy, even if these numbers have boosted Scotland’s declining population.

Sturgeon will have an uphill battle in convincing those who voted for Brexit to vote for Scottish independence and a possible return to the EU even with the shining trophy of full independence on the table.

The question remains of how London will respond to these new calls for independence, with British MPs not keen to open another Pandora’s Box, especially after the Brexit vote and their failure to find a clear path for a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Despite its small size, Scotland’s impact on the rest of the world has been enormous, producing some of the most important inventors, authors, artists and others who have changed the world for the better.

Inventions such as the steam engine, the telephone, and television, along with dozens of others, would not have existed without Scottish inventors and scientists. Even the ideology of capitalism was founded in Scotland at the hands of the 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith.

Such great innovations have led the Scots to retain their sense of the uniqueness of Scotland, which continues to fire the spirit of independence in the nation.

Whatever the result of the newly launched campaign for independence in Scotland, the UK will have to add this to its growing problems incurred by Brexit.

Regardless of the outcome, the Scottish desire for independence has never wavered, and it is likely to see a rising trajectory, boosted by Brexit and changing political tides in the United Kingdom.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Brexit and Scottish independence  

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