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English Referendums and Scotch Voters


After years of post-Brexit uncertainty, Scotland’s independence movement has become resurgent

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in mid-March, amid calls for Prime Minister Theresa May to resign and an emergency debate in the U.K. Parliament on Brexit, Pete Cannell walked into the National Library of Scotland with a blue bicycle helmet in hand. Completed in the 1950s, the library rests on George IV Bridge, an elevated street that connects Edinburgh’s medieval center to the University of Edinburgh. As a legal deposit, it can request a copy of any printed item published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The library also acts as a kind of repository for Scottish history, from fourteenth-century manuscripts to the Radical Independence Campaign’s (RIC) ephemera from 2014, when Scotland held a referendum on independence from the U.K. Cannell was one of RIC’s early members and now, thanks to ceaseless, circular Brexit debates like the one happening at that moment, he and the rest of the Scottish independence movement were considering another campaign, untucking the topic from its place on a library shelf.

From the street, the library is stately stone, but on the other side of the door Cannell met a more mundane, institutional sight: white walls, a café counter to the right, and tables and chairs to the left. The WiFi password, the only other amenity citizens might expect, wasn’t a public good in the café area but was contingent on a purchase. Cannell glanced around the room and found who he was looking for: Nick Gotts, a bearded man whose sweater bore a blue pin reading “YES” with the gold stars of the European Union flag. They were soon joined by two other longtime activists and RIC members: Allan Armstrong, whose deep voice emphasized his thick Scottish accent, and Pat Smith, a woman with chin-length silver hair and a warm demeanor that easily turned to laughter. The four of them had gathered to brainstorm ideas about potential speakers for RIC’s next public meeting, which would be a discussion about NATO—a topic that had played a key role in inciting the independence movement.

Since first joining with England in 1707—a plan pushed through by the country’s elites despite widespread popular opposition—Scotland has gained more autonomy while still remaining part of the U.K. and subject to its governance in many areas. It formed its own fifty-nine-seat parliament in 1999, after a referendum in which almost three fourths of Scots supported devolution. Scotland had traditionally been a Labour Party stronghold, but the Scottish National Party (S.N.P.) rose to prominence in the young Scottish Parliament, winning a plurality of seats in 2007 and a majority in 2011. That year, the S.N.P. announced that it would call for a referendum on independence.

In general, Scottish nationalism lacks the right-wing populist edge associated with most European nationalism, as well as with the English Brexiteers. The S.N.P. itself is hard to pin down on the political spectrum; multiple people described it to me as a “broad church.” So when it voted to end its long-standing policy of opposition to NATO in 2012, activists began to worry. “We don’t want a conservative independence campaign. We want something that’s much more inspiring than that. So a conference was held and eight hundred people turned up,” Armstrong told me once everyone was seated in the library café with cups of coffee. “That was called the Radical Independence Conference. And from there, we realized, actually, we’ve got more than that, and we became the Radical Independence Campaign.”

RIC organized across Scotland, going door-to-door and registering voters. Smith joked about the tedium of door-knocking, but she also emphasized the way RIC did things slightly differently than the rest of the nationwide Yes campaign, as the pro-independence side was known. “Right from the start, you know, we were aware that working-class people are very often disenfranchised and nobody bothers to go to their door, or if they do, they’re not willing to do that in a way that would encourage them or make them feel that their vote matters.”

When going door-to-door, Cannell’s pitch was simply “the idea that a different kind of Scotland was possible, one in which we put an end to the kind of austerity politics that had dominated the previous few years.” He went on to mention the carnival-like excitement that mounted as the referendum drew closer.

By the time it arrived on September 18, 2014, momentum had skyrocketed. Ninety-seven percent of the eligible population, including sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, had registered to vote, with 85 percent showing up. And yet, when the results were tallied, the Yes side came up short: 45 percent to 55 percent. The energy that the campaign had captured was dispersed, but Brexit may be reviving it, highlighting what Gotts called “a huge democratic deficit in the U.K., and particularly with regard to Scotland.” In the meantime, RIC is still organizing regular meetings, despite the more anemic form it takes today. Gotts laughed: “Us four and some others are keeping it going.”

A RIC rally on January 17, 2019. Photograph by Pete Cannell.

Tommy Sheppard had indulged in a nonchalant morning. The previous day’s emergency Brexit debate had threatened to derail his return to the suburban town of Portobello, on Edinburgh’s North Sea coast, but he’d managed to make it back from London around midnight. That morning he’d had a “lie-in” and then a phone call with a journalist that had run long. It was a little after eleven when he arrived at his office, sandwiched between a flower shop and a podiatrist practice on the main road and only distinguished from the strip of stores by the “Tommy Sheppard MP” sign out front. It’s just a couple blocks from the beach, where people walked the shoreline in light parkas, dogs running off-leash. Inside, a large blue YES sign hung on the wall, and a copy of the New Statesman, the U.K.’s century-old left-wing magazine, sat on the coffee table. Sheppard made his way into a small back room that served as a kitchen, closet, and office of the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East.

In some ways, Sheppard’s story is a common one. He campaigned for independence in 2014 and, in the days after defeat, joined the S.N.P. Many people who had been part of the wider Yes campaign but hadn’t felt it necessary to join the S.N.P. signed up in the referendum’s wake: its membership jumped from 25,642 on the day of the referendum to over 42,000 just four days later. The party now has 125,000 members, making it the second-largest party in the U.K., behind Labour but ahead of the ruling Conservative Party.

In other regards, less so: Sheppard grew up in Northern Ireland and moved to Scotland to attend the University of Aberdeen. After graduating in 1982, he headed to London to serve as the vice president of the National Union of Students, a confederation of six hundred student unions throughout the U.K. that works to protect and increase students’ rights. In London, he became a Labour activist and local councillor in the Hackney borough, eventually leaving the party in the Nineties, when Tony Blair became prime minister and pulled Labour rightward. He shifted his attention to stand-up comedy—which calls on a skill set not wholly separate from that required of a politician—and turned his hobby into a business, setting up The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh. He thought his chance at politics had passed, but then came the independence campaign. He said the S.N.P. asked him to be a parliamentary candidate just a few days after he joined.

Sitting at his desk, a fridge and microwave behind him and a vacuum cleaner in the corner, he outlined his pitch for independence, a variation of an argument he’s given on the floor of Parliament and in numerous media appearances: “For me now, the best way forward for progressive politics is to work for an independent Scotland where we can run our own political agenda, in close concert with the other nations of Britain and in a European context as well, but with the people here controlling their own political direction.”

That “European context” is an unavoidable subject when discussing Scottish independence. In 2014, the campaign for Scotland to remain in the U.K., called Better Together, successfully garnered support by arguing that leaving the U.K. would mean leaving the E.U. In the 2016 referendum on leaving the E.U., almost two thirds of Scottish voters chose to remain, citing fears of the economic consequences, particularly of damage to Scotland’s oil industry, and a broad pro-Europe, pro-migrant sentiment, among other reasons. But then the U.K. as a whole voted to leave, dragging Scotland kicking and screaming along with it.

A late-April poll showed support for Scottish independence at a new high of 49 percent, but it has yet to cross the 50 percent threshold; under ordinary circumstances, this might mean the end of the conversation. “Normally if you win a referendum, then you park that result and history moves on and that’s done and dusted, but not with this,” Sheppard said of the independence debate. “I mean, it’s quite clearly not over.”

The S.N.P. still leads the Scottish Parliament. The question is not if but when to call another referendum, a calculation that most agree necessitates waiting and seeing what happens with Brexit. As Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, told me over the phone a few days later, the U.K. leaving the E.U. makes Scottish independence more urgent, but it also makes it more complicated.

“I feel what’s been happening in the U.K. is taking us step by step closer to independence,” Sheppard said in the final moments of our conversation, taking on a more intense, definitive tone. “There’s no question about that. We are nearer to it now than we were September 2014—my view, at least. … It’s a matter of getting the timing right because I don’t particularly want to win a referendum fifty-two to forty-eight. I want this to be resoundingly won the next time we ask the question.”

George Square lies at Glasgow’s center and hosts an array of monuments: young Queen Victoria rides a horse at the western end; Sir Walter Scott stands in the middle. In 1919, striking workers demanding a forty-hour workweek protested here. The strike was just one part of a period of heightened activism known as Red Clydeside, after the River Clyde that flows through Scotland’s largest city, forty-two miles west of Edinburgh. On the night of the 2014 referendum, independence supporters gathered in the same spot. Before the results were announced, musicians played bagpipes to a saltire-waving crowd; the next day, unionists clashed with independence supporters, the former firing a flare, which led to violence and arrests. When I walked through one characteristically rainy early evening, a few tourists were taking photos of the memorial to officers in the Great War at the square’s eastern edge, but nothing marked this as a place of any contemporary political relevance.

At a pub just off George Square, Neil Mackay assured me otherwise. He’d just come from work as a complaints handler in financial services, and had an envelope full of flyers next to his beer. Mackay said he was never much of a joiner, but that he got involved with the 2014 campaign because, after being a lifelong independence supporter, it had finally seemed like a real possibility. Like Sheppard, he enlisted in the S.N.P. after the referendum’s failure, although he’s let his membership lapse. (In the U.K., party membership allows people to attend party conferences and vote on certain party issues, as opposed to simply registering support.) “I’m supporting them anyway. I vote for them and I’m doing loads of other stuff, so it’s not a big deal,” he said.

That other stuff was the reason for the flyers. Less than a month after the referendum defeat that had left him “infuriated,” “raging,” and “really upset,” he started a Facebook page called All Under One Banner. “Because people were saying that anyway, that we need to get under the one banner,” he explained. “It was a cliché and I thought, well, let’s run with that.”

His idea was to organize simultaneous independence marches in numerous cities, but that first year, Glasgow was the only one that came to fruition. Mackay told me he wanted the marches to become an annual tradition, so he kept at it, organizing with just a few other people. In 2016, they gathered in George Square with a crowd of about nine thousand. The concept of simultaneous marches was dropped and replaced with a more feasible plan: Now they hold marches in multiple cities over the course of a few months, with a core team of about fifteen people doing the bulk of the organizing. Last October, the Edinburgh march attracted tens of thousands, including RIC. The flyers Mackay handed me outlined the schedule for 2019: Glasgow in May, then Galashiels, Oban, Ayr, Campbeltown, Aberdeen, and Perth over the summer before finishing back in Edinburgh in October, with planning meetings for local volunteers in each city.

All Under One Banner’s marches draw a diverse crowd, reflecting that “broad church” and the different reasons people are drawn to independence. Mackay said he is a nationalist; the RIC members clarified that they are internationalists. While largely a progressive movement aiming for an independent Scotland within the E.U., it is not solely so. Hughes called Scottish nationalism a “civic form of nationalism,” rather than an ethnic one, but everyone I spoke to also acknowledged that racism and xenophobia are still forces here, as everywhere.

Mackay referred to George Square as “British-imperialist square,” and listed off the statues and street names that honor British history. “This is how they got Scotland under control, or so they think anyway,” he said. “It’s all subliminal.” To resist this, Mackay told me his group had nicknamed it Freedom Square. As he talked about the right to self-determination as the main argument for independence, he also made a controversial admission: he had voted for Brexit. “I wanted to aggravate it, and I want things to become as chaotic as possible in London so that it fuels the mandate up here.”

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, an imposing Spanish Baroque structure opened in 1901, sits on the western side of Glasgow, at the edge of the park where All Under One Banner’s marches have gathered for the last couple years. Outside, rain was pouring down and wind beat relentlessly, rendering umbrellas farcical props; inside, teachers wrangled groups of children. There, I found a room called “Glasgow Stories,” a collection that includes objects used by anti-nuclear protesters, photos from the 1919 Forty Hours Strike in George Square, and items significant to the women’s suffrage movement, as well as numerous mentions of Red Clydeside. If Glasgow became the home of a renewed push for independence, it would be a logical continuation of the city’s history.

Patrick Harvie’s office is just a short walk away from the museum, but it’s easy to miss—the address confounds even Google Maps. It sits among an array of shops at the end of a tiny alley off the main road. Harvie is the co-convener of the Scottish Green Party and a Member of Scottish Parliament for Glasgow. When he walked into his meeting room, where a colorful pillow adorned each chair, he was wearing a “2014 Pride House Glasgow” T-shirt under his jacket.

Harvie doesn’t describe himself as a nationalist and doesn’t think most members of his party would either. “It has nothing to do with flags or patriotism or, you know, three hundred years of grievance about the Union,” he told me, and instead emphasized Scotland’s need to move towards a more sustainable economy. “It has to do with the strong conviction about a more decentralized set of decision-making structures, and in particular the ability for Scotland to look at its economic prospects and see that we are wildly overexposed to oil and gas, and the need to move away from that.”

The Green Party, which is generally to the left of the S.N.P., also experienced a surge in membership following the independence referendum. They play a key role in the calculus of holding another one: in 2016, the S.N.P. came up two seats short of maintaining its majority in the Scottish Parliament. Now, the S.N.P. relies on the six members from the Greens to give it a majority in favor of independence. Harvie echoed what most say: that a second referendum is warranted, given the fundamental change that Brexit has brought about since the 2014 referendum. “There is a principle argument for saying during this process, ‘Scotland should also have its say,’” he said. “The only way to do that is to say, ‘Okay, the U.K. has voted leave. You now have to decide: Do you want to be part of Brexit Britain or do you want to be an independent Scotland that can rejoin Europe?’”

But where some politicians say Scotland has to bide its time and see how the Brexit cookie crumbles before it can act, Harvie thinks the two could happen simultaneously: if the U.K.’s parliament agreed on a plan that was accepted by Brussels, the U.K. would still be facing years of further negotiations. Why not use that time to also negotiate Scotland’s relationship to the U.K. and E.U. while they’re at it? “If Brexit’s completed,” Harvie argued, “we’ve got this period of complexity and difficulty. Let’s use it to achieve what we actually need.” Otherwise, he believes Scotland could be looking at something like a ten-year wait for another shot at independence.

Independence would give rise to complex debates. There are the logistics of untangling Scotland from the U.K., which Harvie and Sheppard said would be doable no matter what happens with Brexit—although, both mentioned, far simpler if Brexit never comes to pass. Then there is how the E.U. would react if an independent Scotland wished to join its ranks, particularly as some European governments fear encouraging independence movements in their own countries. Hughes told me that those fears are real but that there is also “huge sympathy in the European Parliament for Scotland’s position.” And before any of that, there is the matter of whether or not the U.K. government would agree to recognize another independence referendum while Brexit negotiations are ongoing. On that front, the prospects look dim: in April, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that a second independence referendum should be held by May 2021 if Brexit goes forward. The U.K. government immediately rejected the idea, arguing that the results of the 2014 referendum should be respected.

The particulars of these new debates vary depending on the outcome of Brexit—something that remains largely out of Scotland’s hands. Perhaps the only safe bet about what is to come is something Pat Smith had said back in Edinburgh, sitting around a table at the National Library of Scotland with her fellow RIC activists. “Adversity gives us a chance,” she’d told me, laughing. “And we’ve got a fair amount of adversity at the moment.”

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