There are already many ramifications from Britain’s extraordinary vote to leave the European Union, some foretold, others unforeseen. During the bitter campaign, it was difficult to discern truth in anything either side proposed. Each accused the other of “Project Fear” tactics, nodding toward the success of that strategy for the “No” side in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum. Wary voters selected a synecdoche. They grabbed the moment to vote against European Union membership more from frustration with all politics, often barely concerned with any merits of continuing the membership.
But it’s not just individuals, communities and families that are riven. The three-century-old British state is splitting at the seams. One quite widely accepted prediction prior to the poll suggested that a U.K.-wide vote to leave might renew calls for Scottish independence, despite 2014’s vote. This prediction came true, but further dimensions less widely predicted—not least concerning the two parts of Ireland—came into sharper focus, chiefly because of the clear disparity in voting patterns around the four nations of the current United Kingdom.
In brief, England voted to leave. Some regions that had received substantial amounts of European infrastructure funding recorded a very high Leave vote. Voters are not stupid, yet unedifying commentary in some quarters, mainly the southern metropolitan commentariat, suggested that, this time, voters had been thoughtless; they hadn’t understood the issues. Thus the political class defended itself, failing to grasp that this had been a protest against them.
“Material Change in Circumstances.” That’s the phrase that the Scottish National Party, in power in Edinburgh, deployed as the triggering condition for the vaunted second independence referendum. The Brexit vote, however it was influenced, made plain the difference in attitudes between the four nations of the current United Kingdom. There is evidence aplenty that many who voted against Scottish independence in 2014 have changed their minds precisely because of this factor. As the Scottish National Party was not slow to declare, the nation was promised in 2014 that a “No” vote was the safest way of protecting European Union membership with all its advantages. That’s now the “material change”—the game-changer, if you will.
With England having voted decisively to leave, many voters in Scotland feel that they are being dragged out of Europe against the manifest will of the nation. Emboldened by a vote north of the Scottish border of almost two-thirds for Remain, the S.N.P. is sure to maintain this line of attack as a second independence referendum looks ever more likely. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon spoke plainly in declaring that it is “on the table” while maintaining a cautious stance, resisting all invitations to name a date. One anonymous source, well-connected inside the Westminster bubble, reports that the settled view among most politicos on the north bank of the Thames is now that “Scotland is gone.”
I argued previously that renewal of the Trident sea-launched nuclear deterrent is a key factor (“Nuclear Deterrent or Millstone”) in the independence vote. The four nuclear-armed submarines are based on Scotland’s west coast only a few miles from the Glasgow, the nation’s major population concentration. A vote to renew the system, at a cost of many billions (estimates vary) was rushed through Parliament at short notice. This will again be a major topic of discussion in Scotland in the coming months.
Theresa May, the new U.K. prime minister, clearly made protection of the Union her number-one goal in her first trip out of London. She prioritized an immediate visit to Scottish first minister Sturgeon in Edinburgh, several days before meeting either Germany’s leader Angela Merkel or France’s President François Hollande. There had already been strong pressure from Europe on May’s new administration to launch the process known as Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty), the instrument for departure from the European Union.
But as the dog days of August anaesthetized all save the essential decision-makers, the Westminster government looked set to play for time. May’s first keynote statements on entering 10 Downing Street had been that “Brexit means Brexit” and that the Union is “precious”; one imagines Sturgeon nodding in agreement with the first while clenching her fist on hearing the second. In Scotland, as increasingly in Northern Ireland, the view is that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit, but it means much more as well. Booking a flight to Edinburgh before one to Berlin showed that this reality was not lost on May either. “No” might yet turn into “Yes” in Scotland.