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Brexit Has Brought the Idea of Scottish Independence Back From the Dead

But it could also sap Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party of its raison d'être.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, greets Britain's new Prime Minister, Theresa May, as she arrives at Bute House in Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 15, 2016.
Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, greets Britain's new Prime Minister, Theresa May, as she arrives at Bute House in Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 15, 2016. (Russell Cheyne / Reuters)

On March 16, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, stood before reporters on a stairwell at Holyrood, the home of the Scottish Parliament. Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, which includes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, had just dismissed Sturgeon’s public appeals for a second independence referendum, the first of which had failed in 2014. May argued that a Britain in the throes of Brexit should avoid the uncertainty of another independence vote, but to Sturgeon, her words represented the crystallization of the case for independence.”

As head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Sturgeon leads a national government that, one year ago, was elected with the largest share of the vote since Scotland’s 1999 devolution, which transferred some governing powers from the central government of Westminster to the Scottish parliament.* She also leads a country where—during last summer’s Brexit referendum, which brought May to power and set Britain on a path to leaving the European Union—more than 60 percent of the people voted to remain in the bloc. “And yet we have a Westminster government with one MP in Scotland thinking it’s got the right to lay down the law,” Sturgeon said on March 16 in Holyrood. “I suspect history will look back on today and see it as the day the fate of the union was sealed.”

With Tuesday’s snap call for a June 8 general election, the question of Scottish independence has experienced a resurgence—so much for avoiding uncertainty. May called the general election in a bid to assert control and follow through on Brexit’s promise. Conveniently, the election is also likely to result in stronger Tory representation in Britain, at the expense of a currently weak and divided Labour party. Scheduling an election early on in the Brexit negotiation process also means avoiding one when the reality of the breakaway has fully set in. It appears that the Conservative Party is hoping to use the vote to clear the path for a “hard Brexit” that offers few concessions to Remain supporters.

On social media, Sturgeon used May’s election announcement to encourage Scots to sign up for SNP membership. Her nationalist party falls left-of-center, and finds its main opposition from the right-wing Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, which has echoed May’s concerns about the referendum. “This will be—more than ever before—an election about standing up for Scotland, in the face of a right-wing, austerity-obsessed Tory government with no mandate in Scotland but which now thinks it can do whatever it wants and get away with it,” Sturgeon wrote in an SNP media release the day May announced the election. “In terms of Scotland, this move is a huge political miscalculation by the Prime Minister.”

Brexit and its aftershocks, then, have seemingly breathed new life into the cause of Scottish independence; Sturgeon has called the prospect of the country’s removal from the EU “democratically unacceptable”—as close to a battle cry as one is likely to hear in modern-day Scotland. Momentum for a second independence referendum has, in fact, been building: On March 28, the Scottish Parliament debated over whether to hold another referendum—what has come to be known on social media as “#indyref2.” The SNP now has the venue of a general election to test public resolve for another vote; in June, Scots will cast their vote as a “way of expressing themselves on the question of a referendum,” political analyst Daran Hill told me.

When Sturgeon gained recognition on the Scottish political scene in the early 2000s, she was dubbed a “nippy sweetie,” slang for a sharp-tongued woman who doesn’t behave the way one “should” in traditional working-class Scottish society. “She still gets up people’s noses,” the Scottish historian and author Tom Devine said. Sturgeon won her position as first minister and leader of the SNP through the typical backroom machinations of politics, joining the party as a teenager in 1986 and standing as a candidate in Westminster for the first time in 1992; she lost that year, as she would in 1994, 1995, 1997, and again in 1999. She eventually sat as an unelected member of the SNP backbench ranks, before being elected and taking up shadow secretary positions across cabinets.

In 2007, Sturgeon became deputy to the gregarious Alex Salmond, the SNP first minister who marched Scotland toward its first, ultimately unsuccessful, independence referendum in 2014.** The referendum failed, in part, because the pro-U.K., “Better Together” side used EU membership as an economic carrot: Without Britain’s attachment to Europe, they insisted Scotland would find it difficult to trade with European countries, a claim that’s still up for debate on both sides. A Scottish bid for EU membership could take years, with no guarantee of success.

As for Sturgeon, after the independence referendum, Salmond resigned, and she ascended to both the party leadership and the position of first minister. In the 2015 U.K. general election, the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in parliament. At Holyrood, a lack of cohesion and momentum among the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties has left the SNP essentially opposition-less.***

Then, in June 2016, the economic stability promised by Better Together vanished when Britain voted to leave the EU. Devine described the current state of British uncertainty as a tipping point. “I sense the mood in Scotland is beginning to change in a way that might make the independence agenda unassailable,” he said. Now, the challenge for Sturgeon becomes adjusting to the strange new reality where world-shifting events may have played to the SNP’s favor.

Like most nationalist movements, the SNP is fueled by its founding mythology—the pursuit of freedom. Independence, should it come, would sap the SNP of at least some of its existential purpose. The party’s origins are rooted in a spirit of defiant anti-Englishness, dating back to the days of Margaret Thatcher. As opposition leader, Thatcher attempted to thwart Scottish devolution when it first came up for debate in 1979 by insisting that all British voters had a say over Scotland’s governance. Two months later, Thatcher was elected prime minister. Her government’s austerity measures and lack of intervention in the economy contributed heavily to the collapse of state-sponsored and heavy industry, leading to economic disarray in Scotland. A leveling of tax rates between rich and poor turned Scotland’s working class against her.

Meanwhile, Scottish conservatives gradually absorbed some of Thatcher’s “anti-Scottish-ness,” slowly diminishing their party’s power in Scotland in the 1980s. There is still debate at Holyrood today over whether the Scottish Tories have been able to crawl out from under Thatcher’s shadow. (Devine sarcastically deemed Thatcher the “Mother of Scottish Nationalism.”)

But, he adds, if Thatcher was the mother of Scottish nationalism, then May is the headmistress. Both unintentionally fostered Scottish nationalism even among those that lean towards the Union. May, who has accused the SNP of exhibiting extreme “tunnel vision,” seems to have underestimated the depth of Scottish distrust for Westminster. “What’s happened, because of the way London has handled the position so abysmally, is a steady unleashing of the economic issue and a movement towards a political issue,” Devine said of the push for independence. The economic fears that trumped Scottish identity in 2014 have been pushed aside in a messy culture war between Scottish nationalists and British unionists. “There’s the sense that, ‘If we don’t do something, we’re going to be ruined by this right-wing clique,’” he added.

For Scotland to hold a second referendum, it must (ironically) first seek approval from the federal government. May argues that Scottish voters can’t be expected to cast an informed vote until Brexit is a done deal; Sturgeon counters that she simply wants permission to plan for a referendum that will be held after Brexit is finalized in 2019.

An independent Scotland would likely still elect an SNP government—that is, if the SNP still exists. Would the party simply dissolve should Scotland vote for independence? Today’s party leaders have suggested that their severe mistrust of the opposition parties means the SNP would stay together. But, absent an obvious rival, it’s easy to see how politics could eat the party from within. There are echoes, Hill said, of the collapse of UKIP in the wake of its bid for Britain to leave the EU. “Because the central purpose of their party is to achieve independence, it creates a crisis of identity,” he said. “That could mean the falling away of support and purpose, as we see with UKIP at the present time.”

In Britain, it’s helpful to view the coming political upheaval through the prism of the Sturgeon-May dynamic. Like Thatcher, May comes out of a southern England, conservative upbringing that emphasizes an ideology of work and self-help that cuts social services to the bones. But May is an unelected prime minister of the Tory heartland, left to reckon with the decisions of her predecessors. Sturgeon, too, has a similar constituency, and is similarly wrestling with her predecessors’ political aftermath. “They both represent their hinterland,” Devine explained. But Sturgeon’s hinterland is growing more powerful by the moment—so far quiet in the halls of Westminster, but echoing in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

* This article originally misstated that the election was two years ago; it took place in 2016. We regret the error.

** This article originally misstated that Sturgeon became deputy first minister in 2014; she filled that role in 2007. We regret the error.

*** This article has been updated to clarify the results in the 2015 general election.