NORTH BERWICK/KIRKINTILLOCH, Scotland (Reuters) - The Brexit vote has made a new referendum on Scottish independence more likely, says First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but despite Scots’ misgivings about leaving the European Union there is no sign of increased enthusiasm for secession.
Scotland rejected independence in 2014 by 55 to 45 percent, but circumstances have changed since then because Scots voted emphatically last June to remain in the EU while the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave.
Hence, the argument goes, Scots who do not wish to be dragged out of the EU against their will may be more willing to make the leap towards independence from the UK.
After British Prime Minister Theresa May said this week the UK would also be leaving the EU’s single market — the so-called “hard Brexit” scenario — Sturgeon said this made it more likely that Scots would revisit the independence issue.
In the affluent seaside town of North Berwick, retired chemistry teacher Nancy Smith voted against independence and against Brexit. She says despite her lack of confidence in May to navigate Brexit, she has not changed her mind on secession.
“My allegiance is to the UK not to the EU,” said Smith, 75, who was out shopping on the picturesque high street in North Berwick, a town popular with golfers, tourists and high-earning commuters from Edinburgh.
“The worst thing I can think of is Nicola Sturgeon using this as an excuse. I want Scotland to remain part of the UK,” said Smith, in comments echoed by many others interviewed by Reuters.
Opinion polls show the balance on independence is unchanged since before the EU referendum. A BMG poll for The Herald newspaper, published on Jan. 2, showed support for secession at 45.5 percent, a level almost identical to the result of the 2014 referendum on the issue.
“Although a majority of those who voted against independence voted to remain in the EU, they’re not necessarily committed to the EU to the same extent as they are to the UK,” said political scientist John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde.
Broadly speaking, support for independence in the 2014 vote was higher in economically disadvantaged areas, but it is not a foregone conclusion that Brexit will strengthen the cause of secession in such places either.
“I voted for Scottish independence and I voted to leave the EU. But I’m not sure independence is such a good idea any more,” said Martin Quinn, 43, a builder-turned-taxi driver in Kirkintilloch, on the outskirts of Glasgow, which has pockets of deep economic deprivation.
“I think we got promised too much and it’s not going to be delivered — a stronger economy, money from oil. I don’t think we could cope just now and there isn’t enough confidence. And I think Brexit will make that feeling worse,” said Quinn.
Like much of central Scotland, Kirkintilloch used to rely on coal, iron and steel — it even produced the red postboxes and telephone booths that are among the most famous images of Britain. But those jobs are long gone and the town with a Roman history now mostly serves commuters to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Quinn’s concerns highlight one of the main difficulties for those who dream of independence: the economic arguments look less convincing now than they did in 2014. A major source of income for Scotland is crude oil, which has declined in price, and in any case the North Sea oilfields are rapidly running out.
Scotland’s economy over the past year has expanded at less than one third of the rate of the UK as a whole.
“The actual logistics of independence are now worse than ever given that Scotland’s economic situation is now worse,” said Charlie Cusworth, 53, a doctor in North Berwick.
“If Scotland did leave (the UK), I think it would be far worse, economically, than Brexit,” he said.
In any case, polls suggest referendum fatigue has set in.
“I really dislike referendums. It became a very aggressive thing, people wanting to rip signs down and such. No one wants that again,” said Holly Wilkie, 20, an economics student waiting for a train to North Berwick at an Edinburgh station.
Sturgeon has ruled out calling a referendum this year, and just before Christmas she presented some proposals for compromises with the UK government that would avert one altogether.
Her preference was for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU single market after Brexit, or if not for Scotland to be allowed to stay in it while also staying in the UK. Failing all that, independence will be back on the table, she argues.
Sturgeon’s attempt at compromise appears to have made few gains, however, and in her major Brexit speech this week May ruled out continued single market membership and did not address the fall-back idea of Scotland alone staying in it.
Sturgeon reacted to the speech with dismay.
“The UK government cannot be allowed to take us out of the EU and the single market, regardless of the impact on our economy, jobs, living standards and our reputation as an open, tolerant country, without Scotland having the ability to choose between that and a different future,” she said.
Sturgeon may well decide that the cause of independence requires her to play a long game — and events have already shown that Scottish politics can take surprising twists.
Far from weakening Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), the 2014 referendum galvanised support and eight months later the SNP won 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats in elections to the national parliament. The SNP also dominates Scotland’s own semi-autonomous parliament in Edinburgh.
By ruling out a new independence vote this year, Sturgeon has given herself time to see how May’s Brexit negotiations with the rest of the EU unfold.
“As regards independence I am still a ‘No’,” said economics student Wilkie, before adding that she would consider the arguments carefully as the situation evolved and might not be a No vote forever.
“The EU as a whole, especially issues like free movement, has always been very positive and I think a lot of Scots think that way,” she said. “If Scotland was able to be independent and stay in the EU I could be persuaded.”
Writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Peter Millership