Election 2020

Scottish Nationalists Hope Biden Win Means a Washington Friendlier to Independence

The U.S. stance toward any future Scottish independence referendum could be crucial.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Supporters of Scottish independence gather at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn for an “All Under One Banner” event in Bannockburn, Scotland, on Aug. 19.
Supporters of Scottish independence gather at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn for an “All Under One Banner” event in Bannockburn, Scotland, on Aug. 19. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Even before Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election on Saturday, but when he had it well in hand the day before, Scotland’s pro-independence leader took time out of her coronavirus fight to share what, for her, was very good news.

“The world can be a dark place at times just now,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted. But “today we are seeing a wee break in the clouds.”

Her Scottish National Party (SNP) spent years estranged from Donald Trump’s White House. Now, with Biden projected to be the president-elect, the SNP is preparing a diplomatic effort to reassure Biden’s America about its plans. Sturgeon, basking in sustained popular support for her independence platform, has one simple task in the United States: to show Washington that a fully sovereign Scotland will be a safe and sound European ally.

And a Biden presidency, said SNP foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith, makes that much easier. “It increases our reach to tell Scotland’s story,” said Smith, a Westminster MP. “We want to make sure there are no surprises in terms of what is going to be happening with Scotland’s constitutional journey.”

The SNP government in Edinburgh is already marching to a drumbeat it believes will end in a second independence referendum during the next presidency. The Conservative government of Boris Johnson on Friday doubled down on its refusal to allow another vote so soon after a 2014 plebiscite saw Scots narrowly opt to stay in the United Kingdom—an independence referendum that took place before Britain itself pulled out of the European Union.

SNP insiders believe that how the United States and the EU respond to the standoff inside Britain will be significant. So how will Scotland talk to Biden, how will they try to convince him—at the very least—not to express hostility to independence? Through Ireland.

“The Irish aspects of Brexit from a U.S. perspective have been crucial in discussion of future trade talks. We want to make sure that there is a visible Scottish angle to that,” Smith said. Biden, like many House Democrats, stressed that any future trade deal with the U.K. hinges on respect for the 1998 Good Friday Accords that ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.

“We have got all the connections with our Irish friends. We do not want to detract from their lobbying. But we also have a perspective on this, and because of their work, we also have an in,” Smith said.

Smith acknowledged that Trump—who is half-Scottish—was hostile both to independence and, personally, to Sturgeon. For Scottish nationalists, just getting Washington to dial down its hostility to their bid for independence is a good outcome.

“Relations with a Biden White House will, I think, be more cordial than they were with the Trump administration,” Smith concluded.

David Leask is a freelance journalist who has covered the international impact of Scotland's independence movement.

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