Martin could hardly have foreseen how profoundly his own vision—one of a Scotland that flourished both within the U.K. and the EU—would be undone by his lunch companion, and the politics he came to embody.
Today, many of the old certainties of Scottish politics no longer hold. It is a fraught, uncertain, and confusing period for politicians and voters alike, in which a landscape that once broadly divided along class lines has been reconfigured around two overlapping and profoundly polarizing constitutional questions: Scottish independence and Brexit.
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Martin, a widely respected figure and a pillar of Scotland’s involvement in the EU, is the latest casualty of this dilemma. He has long supported Scotland having a strong degree of autonomy from the British Parliament in London, but opposed outright independence. Now, with Britain due to leave the EU on October 31, remaining part of the U.K. and holding membership in the EU have begun to look more and more like mutually exclusive options for Scotland, rather than complementary ones.
The political calculus is shifting, and people like Martin are grappling with the fallout. “I have been in favour of the European Union and I have also been in favour of the U.K. union,” he told the Daily Record, a Scottish tabloid, in March. “But I am just wondering if that U.K. union is worth saving anymore.”
The politics of Brexit are inseparable from the politics of what in Britain is referred to as devolution, or legislating powers away from London and to assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Scotland has its own legal, education, and health-care systems. In the three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, much of the focus has centered on Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. and so destined to leave the bloc, and what will happen to its relationship with the Republic of Ireland, a separate state that will remain in the EU. There is no hard border between the two on the island of Ireland, and an arrangement between Brussels and London to safeguard peace by ensuring that the U.K. abides by EU customs arrangements until a permanent trade deal is made (meaning the border in Ireland could function as it does now) has been fiercely opposed by hard-line Brexit supporters who hold the balance of power at Westminster.
The effect of Brexit on Scotland’s continued membership of the U.K. may be less pressing—Scotland has no land border with an EU member state, and has not experienced sectarian conflict on anything like the scale Ireland has—but the lingering question of Scottish independence has been completely reframed by the prospect of a meaningful border with England.
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Scottish support for the EU has not always been so strong. The Scottish National Party (SNP) opposed Britain’s membership in the bloc during a previous referendum in 1975 and the other major party here, Labour, did not take an official position, but from then on, Scots began to change their views. The Margaret Thatcher–led government in London carried out an intense period of privatization, leading to widespread closures and significant job losses in heavy industry. At roughly the same time, the EU began investing in Scotland, offering what the bloc calls “structural funds,” or money to poorer parts of the EU to help them catch up with richer areas, to areas where coal mines and steelworks had closed. The EU built infrastructure and industrial estates, and funded training programs. This was true not only in Scotland’s urbanized central belt, but in remote parts of the country such as the Highlands, too. Ewan Gibbs, a historian at the University of the West of Scotland, told me the EU provided “the means to navigate deindustrialization and transition to new forms of economic activity.” This was as much a question of identity as it was of economics: The term industrial citizenship is used by scholars to describe the common bond felt by the many Scottish workers employed directly by U.K. state-owned institutions such as the National Coal Board and British Steel in the mid-20th century. As the government sold off these assets, the ties that had long held industrial working-class communities in Scotland to the broader U.K. began to fray.