In the debate over Brexit, the Scottish independence movement gets shelved


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Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon (2nd-R) poses with MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South Mhairi Black and her parents as they campaign for the Thursday general election. Polls show the SNP out in front and the Conservatives set to close in on Labour. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

GLASGOW, Scotland — Pursuit of one divorce has scuttled the struggle for the other. At least for now.

In fact, the push for Scottish independence may be headed for a rough patch as Britain reasserts its island status.

“What happens in the near term is something quite unpleasant,” predicted the fellow on the other side of my lunch. We were in an airy restaurant not far from the University of Glasgow campus.

On Thursday, British voters will head to the polls for the “snap” election called by Prime Minister Theresa May. It has become an uncertain enterprise.

The Conservative leader had meant for the plebiscite to bolster her party’s margin in Parliament – thus strengthening the prime minister’s hand in Brussels as she negotiates a “Brexit” from the European Union.

But a series of missteps has dogged the incumbent – including the sour reception given an initiative to pay for national health care by requiring elderly patients to use all but the last £ 100,000 of their estates to pay their medical bills.

It was dubbed “the dementia tax.” May quickly retreated, but a once comfortable lead by Tories over Labour, their chief rival for power, has shrunk to single digits.

Yet one certainty has already emerged from the seven-week campaign: The debate over an independent Scotland has likely been pushed into the next decade.

Scottish nationalism, resting largely on strong ties with Europe, has been shelved by another form of nationalism heated by the same populist fires that sent Donald Trump to the White House. May’s most Trump-like proposal: A promise to reduce immigration into Britain from a 2016 high of 273,000 to “the tens of thousands.”

Scots rejected independence by a vote of 55 to 45 percent in 2014. But in March, the Scottish parliament green-lighted a second vote. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had ambitions for another referendum in late 2018 or early 2019 – before Brexit negotiations are concluded, in order to present Scottish voters with the opportunity to remain within the European Union.

The prime minister quickly nixed what might be called a second “Scot-free” vote – until after Brexit negotiations are concluded, and not without a demonstration of “public consent.” Presumably, May would require a series of polls on the topic.

Conservative opposition had been expected. The surprise came from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who declared that Scottish independence would result in “turbo-charged austerity.” The SNP may currently hold 56 of 59 Scottish seats in Parliament, but a binding vote to leave the United Kingdom would require full parliamentary approval.

Corbyn has fudged slightly on the issue since. Still, with Britain’s two major parties now opposed, approval of a second independence vote has become unlikely, which is perhaps one reason why Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party played down the issue when the party unveiled its platform last week.

What’s being dismissed isn’t just Scotland’s independence, but its historic affinity for strong ties to Europe and the rest of the world.

Despite the Trumpian echoes, London’s instinct for keeping Europe on the other side of the Channel goes back centuries. Even as he advocated for a unified Europe after World War II, Winston Churchill argued against himself. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote. “We are linked but not comprised.”

One is likewise tempted to ascribe Scotland’s opposite outlook to the long reach of geopolitics. Or to Shakespeare, who put the Scottish-French pincher strategy in the background of several plays about English fellows who always seemed to be named Henry. Or Richard. One of the two.

But Murray Pittock assures me that this would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Pittock is the lunch companion mentioned above, a Scottish cultural historian at the University of Glasgow who has written the book on the independence movement. Several, actually.

Pittock advises me to look no further than the 1960s. The beginning of the Scottish independence movement coincided with the final, irredeemable collapse of the British Empire, when 25 colonies declared their independence in a brief, eight-year span.

“Scottish nationalism has always been international. Because Scotland has always been a country with a very mobile population,” Pittock said. “If people didn’t settle abroad, they often sojourned abroad.”

With dire poverty at home, the Empire became a global employment office for Scottish wanderers – whether in the military or middle-management.

Pittock once tracked down the obituaries of a single class of Scottish grammar school students grown old. “Something like 40 percent had imperial experience,” he said. “A very large number of the educated Scottish middle class had some exposure to the British empire.”

When the Empire closed up shop, much of that expertise — engineers, doctors, merchants and financiers — came home. But to fewer opportunities.

A far less imperial Britain has become far more centralized and more English-centric. A line from one of Pittock’s books: “The United Kingdom elite is now drawn far more from those educated in the English provinces, and the chief losers in this process have been the products of Scottish universities.”

A few days before lunching with Pittock, I’d been in Dundee and had hired a cab driven by a former cop. What happens next? I asked him. Wait for Theresa May to finish her Brexit negotiations, the cabbie replied. Scotland will get the short end of the stick, and then the topic of independence will return.

Pittock didn’t disagree with that assessment.

“Large state nationalism is usually about regaining past glories. That’s true with Marine le Pen in France, it’s true with Donald Trump,” he said. “Brexit itself is a last attempt to re-inscribe the global significance of Great Britain.”

This is where you came in. “What happens in the near term is something quite unpleasant,” Pittock predicted. “The U.K. as a whole becomes more inward-looking, more nationalist, more aggressive, more determined to find enemies within and without, to justify the enormous economic self-harm that leaving the E.U. represents.

“And there’s a determination to coalesce around British-ness,” he said, adding that he expects the Scottish National Party to be among the demonized.

Immigrants have already been targeted, Pittock said. This was shortly after the Manchester bombing, and I had expected him to focus on Muslims. He didn’t.

He pointed to Britain’s Polish community.

Last year, Poland overtook India as the most common non-British country of origin for people living here, according to official statistics.

Who knew? The world is nothing but a huge diaspora, always in the process of leaving home, or coming back.


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