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Brexit Could Be Turning the Tide for Scottish Independence

Scottish secession still seems unlikely. But until the 2016 referendum, so did leaving the EU.

Nicola Sturgeon at the SNP conference (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Meet the other group of secession-minded nationalists in Britain: A few hundred miles north of where the details of Brexit continue to be debated, members of the Scottish National Party met in Edinburgh this weekend for their spring conference. There was one topic on everyone’s minds: independence. And by the end of the conference, it was on their calendars too. In closing remarks Sunday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Parliament will be advancing new legislation on an independence referendum next month, hoping to give Scotland the second opportunity in five years to leave the United Kingdom.

The theme of the conference, displayed in bold black type on bright yellow boards as far as the eye could see, was hope. They’ll need it. While the left-leaning Scottish National Party may be the third-largest party in the United Kingdom and the governing party of Scotland, they’re up against formidable odds. Not only is the British Parliament opposed to Scottish independence, but opinion polls suggest a narrow majority of Scottish voters are too.

Day by day, however, the ongoing Brexit fiasco both makes the case for and raises the odds of Scotland’s independence bid.

As with most political issues in the U.K. these days, an independence referendum, or IndyRef2 as they call it here, is largely about Brexit. All 32 of Scotland’s councils voted to remain in Europe in the 2016 Brexit referendum, meaning that the decision to leave was effectively, and characteristically, an English imposition. Having endured three centuries of uneasy marriage with England and many more centuries of bickering and bloodshed before that, many in Scotland have understood Brexit as a historic offense—and they are committed to making it the last of its kind.

“Scotland has been treated with contempt,” Keith Brown, a member of the Scottish Parliament and the Deputy Leader of the SNP, told me. Another member of the Scottish Parliament, Michael Russell, decried the “medieval notion of a sovereign parliament.” Deidre Brock, an SNP member of the British Parliament, echoed the outrage. “We are furled to the United Kingdom’s decaying dreams of empire,” she said.

With this has come a recent rise in support for independence. New polling released before the weekend’s conference suggested that leaving the U.K. is now endorsed by 49 percent of the Scottish public, as opposed to the 45 percent who voted for it in the 2014 referendum when 55 percent voted against.

Several factors led to that handy margin by which Scottish independence was defeated five years ago. With the price of oil at a historic high, hovering around $100 per barrel, the prospect of losing ownership of the North Sea oilfields was unappealing. So was the prospect of post-independence panic, budget cuts, and austerity, given English politicians and institutions’ warning that the U.K. would not cooperate in any currency union with Scotland. But above all, there was the issue of the European Union: U.K. lawmakers vowed to kick Scotland out of the EU if it decided to leave the U.K.

“Only by remaining in the U.K. could Scotland remain in the EU,” Iain McLean, a professor of Scottish politics at Oxford University, recalls with a laugh. “Now that didn’t work out too well, did it?”

“The arguments for independence are much better now than they were in 2014,” Professor McLean says. First and foremost, again, is the EU. Despite increasing calls for a second Brexit referendum, including from the SNP and its leader Nicola Sturgeon, Brexit is unlikely to be reversed. Contrary to the core claim of 2014 then, the only way to remain in the EU is for Scotland to leave the U.K.

The austerity calculation is also the opposite of what it was then: Both David Cameron and Theresa May have squeezed Scotland in just the way Scottish voters had hoped to avoid. One year after the referendum, Cameron froze public sector salaries and slashed some 100,000 public sector jobs—bringing the civil service to its smallest size since the Second World War. Since taking office, May has continued to oversee the shrinking of Britain’s police forces—a fact which has been linked to Britain’s recent crime wave of stabbings and acid attacks. The SNP, on the other hand, has continued to roll out new public services, such as the “Baby Box,” which provides a suite of support for every child born in Scotland, and new public investments, such as the creation of a Scottish National Investment Bank. With Scotland currently spending 20 percent more per head on public services than England, it is difficult to say that Scots would have to endure more austerity outside of the U.K., under a public services-minded SNP government, than inside the U.K., under a fiscally hawkish Conservative government

Meanwhile, the price of oil has fallen from nearly $100 per barrel to roughly $60, with North Sea oil revenues falling by a staggering 97 percent. The politics of oil have changed too as the SNP has aggressively pursued reductions in Scotland’s greenhouse gasses, making Scotland “on target” to generate 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by next year. “Oil won’t be an issue again,” one forty-year veteran of the SNP told me. “No one wants it.”

Hope is alive in the halls of the SNP; former obstacles are falling by the wayside.

Nevertheless, one key question from the 2014 referendum—the post-independence currency—remains unanswered, while new questions from Brexit are beginning to emerge.

The last time around, currency uncertainty—what Scotland would use after it left the U.K. and the pound—ranked as the greatest factor for those who voted against independence. That uncertainty persists. After two hours of debate on Saturday, the SNP resolved to create a new currency “as soon as practicable,” leaving an indefinite transition period with an uncertain end goal. It’s unlikely that such a vague vision for something so consequential can calm the fears of Scottish voters.

Meanwhile, although Brexit has boosted support for Scottish independence, it has also highlighted the difficulties of disentangling and dissolving a union. Indeed, Scotland’s exit would appear much more difficult than Britain’s Brexit. While the U.K. and the EU share neither a military nor a currency, Scotland and the U.K. share both. And on top of that, they’ve shared a monarchy for the past four centuries and a parliament for the past three.

There is also the particular issue of border complications. In the current Brexit debate, no one on either side seems to know what to do about the post-Brexit border between the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. According to the Good Friday Agreement adopted in 1998 during the Northern Irish peace process, the Irish border must remain totally open, free, and frictionless—which is also important given the deep integration of Ireland’s cross-border commuters and commerce. However, enforcing the new regulations and customs checks between an EU member state and the non-EU U.K, would seem to require exactly the kind of border the Good Friday Agreement rules out. The riddle appears unsolvable.

While the Scottish-English border lacks the historical violence and sectarian delicacy of the Irish border, the core conundrum remains. How would Scotland and England manage cross-border commuters and cross-border commerce? How would it be open for some things but closed for others?

Thus far, the SNP seems to lack a plan on this front. “There’s no doubt that the border will be a problem, but I think it can be addressed,” Agnes Magowan, the SNP councilor for North Lanarkshire, told me. “But I haven’t got any definitive answers,” she added.

“If there’s reasonable and sincere intention, these things can be worked through,” Keith Brown, the SNP’s Deputy Leader, told me, echoing Magowan’s comment. “I just don’t have an answer for you right now.”

In a two-day conference that explored every nook and cranny of independence, the border issue was conspicuously absent, the difficulty of disentanglement was conspicuously unaddressed, and the currency question was conspicuously unanswered. If Scotland fails in its second bid for independence, these three issues will likely be to blame.

At the same time, however, they may yet prove irrelevant. Brexit has left Britain distracted and divided, with neither the capacity nor the cross-party camaraderie to campaign against independence. Just as well, it has left Scotland resentful and resolute. “We did not vote to leave the EU and we will not be dragged out against our will,” Sturgeon said to thunderous applause on Sunday.

For now, independence is still unlikely. But then again, until the referendum, so was Brexit.