Accompanied by Scottish bagpipes, Republican nominee Donald Trump applauded the British decision to “take their country back” just hours after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Speaking at the reopening of his Turnberry golf course in Scotland, Trump drew parallels between the American and British popular frustration with the proverbial “establishment” and congratulated the victory of the common man in recapturing a government from the cosmopolitans and the privileged elite. The irony is that the Scots overwhelmingly prefer to remain, but are being marginalized by the EU referendum.
While it is tempting to chalk this up as yet another example of the lack of awareness behind many of Trump’s public statements, what is more compelling is that while England and Wales voted strongly in favor of abandoning their political and economic union with Europe, 62 percent of Scots wanted to hang on. Now that Brexit has been forced upon them, Scots want to “take their country back” more than ever before — not by leaving the EU, however, but by emerging from the long political shadow cast by Westminster. Brexit has breathed new life into the Scottish independence movement, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) smells blood in the water. Yet neither continued Scottish EU membership nor even independence are foregone conclusions, and although Scotland will continue to resist its separation from the EU, the rest of the UK will drag Scotland along kicking and screaming.
Why Brexit is the Breaking Point for Scotland
While Scotland decided against separation from the UK in 2014, it appears that anger over the Brexit decision has set the SNP back on the warpath. Though Northern Ireland also voted against Brexit, with 55.8 percent choosing remain, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, a Unionist, has already accepted the results and ruled out measures as drastic as a border poll or independence referendum. While Brexit may have further inflamed political divisions within the six counties, those in the devolved government are not as keen on resistance as their counterparts in Edinburgh.
The SNP has already begun capitalizing on the Scottish public’s anger over Brexit, and has vowed to protect Scotland’s place in the EU while pushing for a second independence referendum. JP Morgan, in an indication of the financial industry’s view, has already confirmed that it anticipates a second Scottish referendum resulting in a nationalist victory before 2019. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already entered into talks with the EU and announced that the Scottish Parliament is undergoing the necessary procedures to enact another independence vote.
This sort of reaction over the UK’s decision to leave the EU may seem surprising to those familiar with the Scot’s long-held desire for greater political autonomy. Scotland has inched towards national independence throughout the past century — from the creation of the SNP in the 1920s, to achieving greater autonomy and Scottish devolution in 1999 — reaching its zenith with the referendum for Scottish independence less than two years ago. While Scotland chose not to end its 305-year union with England in 2014, the SNP continues to dominate politics for a third consecutive term in the Scottish parliament, winning 63 of the 129 seats in the last election. One could assume, however, that Scottish nationalists would not take kindly to the political predominance of an unwieldy multinational political body like the EU and would welcome a breakaway.
Yet Scottish nationalism has historically been in response to British imperialism rather than the larger European Union. Feeling that the rest of Britain is “patronizing the Scots as ineffectual and incompetent,” Scots have consistently resisted rule by Westminster. The European Union, however, is viewed as an opportunity for representation at the global level — Scottish nationalists desire the status held by other European countries on the continent and within the world. The decision to pull Scotland out of the EU along with the rest of the UK has undoubtedly fanned the flames of resentment.
While some dismiss Sturgeon’s moves as political opportunism — attempting to use a moment of uncertainty and weakness to push the nationalist agenda — it is well understood that the SNP will not leave the EU without fighting for what it genuinely believes are Scotland’s national interests. However, when the UK departs, it will likely have Scotland in tow.
“Anything you can do, I can do better….”
Scotland has flirted with two broad options for ways in which it can protect itself from a Brexit — it could attempt to block the invocation of Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, either altogether or within Scotland, or it can gain independence and then rejoin the EU as a sovereign state. Unfortunately for Scotland, standing up to Westminster and gaining acceptance from supposed friends in the rest of the EU will be harder than initially believed.
First, even SNP bigwigs have dismissed the idea that Sturgeon and her Scottish Parliament could block the invocation of Article 50 for the whole of the UK. While the UK parliament is not legally bound to carry out Brexit, MPs will likely honor the results of the majority vote, as it was a promise of the Conservative government that remains in power today. The Scotland Act of 1998, which gives parliamentary supremacy to Westminster over a devolved Scotland, also dictates that the UK has veto power over the decisions made in the Scottish Parliament. Thus neither Scotland nor any devolved government has the actual power to override or block the Brexit decision. That said, Westminster has insisted that Scotland have a seat at the table in negotiating the terms of Article 50, but members of the government are quick to point out that being “closely involved” in discussions does not mean that the Scots will have a veto to stop Article 50 altogether.
Sturgeon’s efforts to engage EU member states over a special status for Scotland to remain in the EU while still a part of the UK have also faced opposition. The decision to allow Scots an exemption from Brexit and to accept them as members of the EU community must be one of consensus. Spain and France, however, have already expressed their opposition to Scotland remaining, explaining that member states should avoid interference in what they consider to be a British domestic affair. The Spanish Premier has strongly stated that the European Commission should only engage with Westminster — not sub-state bodies. Currently a part of the UK, Scotland must go along with it when it leaves the EU; partial Brexit is off the table.
Alternatively, could Scotland successfully divorce itself from the UK and apply for EU membership as an independent state? This scenario rests on a number of dubious assumptions. First, it is uncertain whether Scotland will even receive a second independence referendum. In an interview with Business Insider, British constitutional expert Peter Catterall explained that the Scots cannot leave the UK without the consent of Westminster — a body under no constitutional obligation to grant them an independence referendum.
Recently elected Tory Prime Minister Theresa May indicated in her first few days in office that she has no intention of presiding over the breakup of the UK, remarking that “the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party…. it means we believe in the union, the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” Catterall further explains that the process of Brexit is largely unclear at this point, and negotiating a path forward will be tricky enough without the possibility of the country’s breakup. May will prioritize the projection of strength and unity while navigating through the uncertainty of Brexit. Politicians such as former Prime Minister John Major agree that to allow Scotland to break off from the UK now would send a message of weakness that the UK cannot afford while negotiating its careful withdrawal. However, Scotland Secretary David Mundell provides a faint glimmer of hope, noting that democratic, rather than constitutional principles would determine whether the people of Scotland would be granted independence; if there is evidence that a second independence referendum is the will of the people, then they will receive one.
Yet even if Mundell is correct that the SNP is able to negotiate a second independence referendum, arrange a voting date, and actually deliver an independent Scotland, it will not be able to pick up where it left off with the European Commission. Scotland’s path back to the EU will instead be strewn with formidable obstacles. The country must reapply as a new nation and would require unanimous approval in the EU Council, per the accession guidelines of the European Commission. For reasons similar to those for opposing partial Brexit, it will be nearly impossible to persuade Spain and France to accept an independent Scotland back into their exclusive club. The Spanish government fears that making re-entry easy for Scotland will spur its own secessionist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country and it is almost certain to block Scottish accession. Independence is thus a moot point unless Scotland can line up accession votes, as well.
Full Custody for Westminster
The lingering debates over the actual implementation of Brexit — whether Westminster is obligated to carry out the results of the EU referendum or whether the UK could hold a second EU vote — have significantly cooled with May’s arrival. The Prime Minister has moved quickly, creating the position of a Brexit Cabinet Minister and raising eyebrows with her appointment of former mayor of London and devoted Brexiteer Boris Johnson to the position of Foreign Secretary. If these maneuvers were not enough, her unequivocal statement that “there will be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it by the back door, and no second [EU] referendum,” makes it clear that Brexit is happening.
Scotland has been left without plausible options and with plenty of complications. The UK is eager to hold onto Scotland, while the EU spurns it. A partial Brexit that excludes Scotland is already off the table and to grant Scotland a second vote on independence now would be to essentially grant independence itself, making such an acquiescence unlikely. Should Scotland somehow gain independence, it will likely be met with rejection based on the unanimity requirements in EU accession voting. While Sturgeon and the SNP will put up a fight and a fuss, such a struggle will be ultimately nothing more than tilting at windmills. Instead of its people taking control over their country, Scotland will likely lose its place within the EU regardless of attempts to protect it.
Emily Strickland is a MSc. candidate in Comparative Political Economy at the London School of Economics in London, UK.