Scotland’s Marriage of Inconvenience

As Brexit looms, Edinburgh may forge its own path on the world stage.

Pro-Scottish Independence supporters with Scottish Saltire flag masks pose for a picture at a rally to call for Scottish independence from the U.K. in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on July 30, 2016. (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Scottish Independence supporters with Scottish Saltire flag masks pose for a picture at a rally to call for Scottish independence from the U.K. in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on July 30, 2016. (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, two-thirds of voters in Scotland—across every single district—voted to remain. Now, as Brexit looms, many experts expect Scotland to forge a more distinct role on the global stage—one that could lead it to independence.

Westminster and the devolved Scottish Parliament differ on a number of issues related to Brexit, beginning with immigration. While anti-immigration sentiment among Brits helped power the Brexit vote, the Scottish government has welcomed newcomers as a solution to an aging population and seeks closer ties with Europe.

“The difference between Scotland and England is only going to grow,” said Kirsty Hughes, the director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.

In a speech in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke of how the reintroduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 had allowed the nation to “chart a different course” from the rest of the country on domestic issues, while also raising Scotland’s international profile.

Last year the Scottish government opened innovation and investment offices in Paris and Berlin, and the most recent Scottish trade statistics released at the end of January show that while the United Kingdom remains Scotland’s largest export market, the pace of growth in exports to the EU is more than double that to the rest of the United Kingdom.

“We’re already taking steps to make sure that Brexit doesn’t isolate Scotland and see us turn inward rather than continue to look outward. The expansion of our presence, mainly across Europe but also in the United States and Canada, is all part of that,” Sturgeon told Foreign Policy

The electorate in Scotland has historically tacked left of center, and this has been reflected in its politics.

“I think Scotland as a whole is, its political culture is very different to the political culture south of the border. It is still a bastion, an increasingly rare bastion … of the old liberal international order, of multinationalism, interest in international cooperation, a view of solidarity across borders for the greater global good,” said Mariot Leslie, a retired diplomat who last served as the U.K.’s permanent representative to NATO.

While authority over foreign policy, immigration, and defense is held by Westminster, the Scottish government, which has been dominated by center-left parties, has sought to make its mark on global affairs.

“Scotland is seen as a small, plucky independent country which has more neutral status. It’s not actually a P5 player with a hard power stick. It’s seen in that more Scandinavian way as a country which is open,” said Mark Muller, a senior mediation advisor to the United Nations Department of Political Affairs who established the Beyond Borders Scotland festival for international dialogue.

On domestic and international issues, governments led by the Scottish National Party have repeatedly suggested that Scotland could play a role similar to that of their Nordic neighbors to the north—small but responsible global citizens that take a strong role on issues of the environment and human rights.

The Scottish government has sought to make the nation a world leader in renewable energy, aiming to have 100 percent of Scotland’s electricity needs met by renewables by 2020. In 2017, the year for which most recent data are available, renewables met 70 percent of Scotland’s electricity demands.

Without control over foreign policy, it can “make it easier to be progressive,” Hughes said.

Daniel Kenealy, a lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh who has served as an advisor to the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee, said that the Scottish National Party, which has held the largest share of seats in the Scottish Parliament since 2011, is in essence always in campaign mode on issues of foreign policy and defense—without having to implement their proposals.

“They have been really quite skillful, I think at least, at using foreign-policy issues and external affairs-type issues to further their narrative of an independent nation with a distinctive set of interests,” he said.

While the Scottish government welcomes immigration, opinion polls show that voters don’t differ too sharply from the rest of the United Kingdom on the issue of immigration—the lightning rod issue of the Brexit vote—Hughes said.

But underscoring Scotland’s differences with the rest of the United Kingdom may further the Scottish National Party’s goal of eventually securing a successful independence referendum, Kenealy said.

“You can do a lot with the imagination of difference. … If you come to the conclusion that your interests as a nation are exactly or pretty much exactly the same as the bigger nation of which you are a part, well then there’s no point in being independent,” he said.

A referendum on Scottish independence failed 55 percent to 45 percent in 2014. The question of whether an independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the European Union was a subject of lively debate with no real conclusion that year. So far, Brexit has not prompted a surge in support for Scottish independence, but that could change depending on the terms under which Britain leaves the EU.

No timetable for a second independence referendum has been confirmed, and the first minister is expected to only pursue another vote if opinion polls indicate that it could pass.

“Until we know where the U.K. is going with Brexit, it’s difficult to know where Scotland might go,” said Michael Keating, the director for the Center of Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

Many of the who spoke with FP underscored the uncertainty that still hangs over Brexit, with just over five weeks to go until the March 29 withdrawal date—that, in turn, makes it difficult to predict how it will impact Scotland.

“Scottish politics to me seems relatively normal, as sort of democratic Western politics goes, and British, London, Westminster politics is highly abnormal and in a deep, deep crisis,” Hughes said.

Muller, the U.N. mediation expert, said that the Scotland’s recent history of undergoing devolution and a two-year public debate on independence had helped to solidify the nation’s view of itself.

“Scotland’s had a robust conversation with itself in light of all this constitutional reform and is therefore much more confident about what its role is in the world,” he said.

In the run-up to the independence vote in 2014, “you couldn’t stand in a supermarket queue or sit on the bus without hearing perfect strangers talking about issues of Scotland, what happens next, how do we govern ourselves, what sort of people do we want to be, what’s our place in the world,” said Leslie, the retired diplomat.

“You get the impression in England that it is only finally now coming to terms with some of the big questions about the U.K.’s role in the world, post-colonial role in the world,” Muller added.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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