Is Scotland on the road to independence?
As the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England strains under the pressures of Brexit and the pandemic, the FT's Scotland correspondent Mure Dickie takes a road trip to gauge the mood ahead of parliamentary elections
Produced by Ben Marino, graphics by Russ Birkett
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INTERVIEWER: Just seven years ago, Scotland voted in a referendum to stay part of the United Kingdom. But today, that union is in doubt as never before. Join me on a journey across Scotland to find out why Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic are straining UK unity, and why so many Scots have turned towards independence. We start on the River Tweed, the ancient border between England and Scotland.
Farewell to all our Scottish fame. Farewell, our ancient glory. Farewell, even to the Scottish names, sae fam'd and martial story. Now Sark runs over the Solway sands, and Tweed runs to the ocean. To mark where England's province stands, such a parcel of rogues in a nation! This poem, by Robert Burns, expressed the anxiety that many Scots felt, that their 1707 union with England would lead to the loss of Scotland's separate identity.
For centuries, such anxieties seemed misplaced. In recent years, however, many Scots have turned against the Union. In 2020, opinion polls showed a sustained lead for ending the three-century Union with England. Support for independence has since slipped back, but the country appears nearly evenly divided on the constitutional question. If Scotland was to become independent, then join the EU as the governing Scottish National Party plans, this section of the Tweed would be transformed into a hard economic border. It is a prospect that dismays many who live in the area.
COLIN MCGREGOR: There's Scotland here. River Tweed on my right hand side. The middle of the river is the border. And the land found on the other side, which is England. You're looking over to the Cheviot Hills in the distance, which, again, is back in Scotland.
INTERVIEWER: Colin McGregor farms on both sides of the border, and says any impediment to travel or trade would be emotionally and economically damaging.
COLIN MCGREGOR: We don't regard this as a border. It's just another area of the UK and Scottish borders, Northumberland. And life is just intermingled and mixed together. We just understand the problems that we would have if there was a border, and you know, we're all very sensible, and common sense dictates that it would be very hard to live with.
INTERVIEWER: Leaving the border behind, we had for Glasgow, Scotland's most populous city. But I'm hoping to find out why a large majority of those aged between 16 and 24 want to leave the UK.
BETH MCPHEE: A majority of young people these days are sort of looking towards as-- I think it's a sort of-- it's a sort of wonder of, if it was to happen, like, what outcomes would we see happen, and what changes would we see be made?
INTERVIEWER: Not all young people want to end the Union.
JAMES NEVILLE: It just doesn't make sense. If it's not broken, to break it. It just feels like-- the Union works. And it works because we get all the benefits, we get security. Yes, at times it can be a difficult relationship, but it just doesn't make sense to break away from something that's got so much support, so much security, so much stability. Like, it just doesn't make sense.
INTERVIEWER: Such views were once dominant across Scotland, but Michael Keating, author of a new book on the fracturing UK, says the Union is no longer bound as it was by empire or the welfare state, and that Britishness has changed in ways that seem to leave less space for separate Scottish identity.
MICHAEL KEATING: What has changed with the identity is not that it's become more pervasive, because it's always been pervasive, it's become political. I'm feeling very Scottish now is associated with support for constitutional change and independence.
INTERVIEWER: Brexit has also alienated many Scots, Professor Keating says.
MICHAEL KEATING: Scotland voted by 62% to remain in Europe. Immediately, that put independents back on the table because the only way Scotland could remain in the EU is to become Independent. That took a little bit of time to think in. Scotland voted for-- to remain, not because of nationalism, because both nationalists and unionists voted to remain equally. But since that vote, there's been a move. On people who support remain have been moving into the pro-independence camp.
INTERVIEWER: So we've left Glasgow, and we're heading into the Scottish Highlands. Across Scotland, the independence question has become the fundamental political fault line. In 2014, Scotland voted by 55% to 45% to remain in the United Kingdom. But a few years later, most Scottish voters oppose leaving the EU by 62% to 38%. And that Brexit, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, seems to have had a significant impact on the opinion of constitutionally moderate Scots.
Out for a day trip to scenic Loch Fyne, Peter Laybourn says he voted against independence in 2014, but has since changed his mind.
PETER LAYBOURN: Brexit, of course, changed it, really, a lot. It didn't seem to me that Brexit was going to improve anything, as it hasn't. And it seemed a good way to change was for Scotland to go independent. Scotland has been-- had good left-wing government for a good time. I wasn't a supporter of the SNP, but now I am.
INTERVIEWER: We venture a little further North, to Auburn, a busy ferry port that calls itself the gateway to Scotland's beautiful islands. And it's a fine place for seafood. Here, I find that while anger at Brexit, and the sense that the Scottish government has handled the coronavirus better than London, has pushed some Scots towards independence, the movement has not been all one-way.
CHARLOTTE SMITH: I was all for Scotland becoming independent, separating from England, but I think now, it's probably not the wisest idea considering that we're just coming out of such a drastic period, where the economy is just basically collapsing. So I don't think us, you know, giving up our safety net with the rest of the UK, at this moment in time, is very wise at all.
INTERVIEWER: Worries about the economic implications of independence are widely shared, and could still be decisive if the SNP succeeds in holding another referendum on the issue. Yet, my Scottish road trip has also shown the fraying of loyalties to the UK, and the yearning many here feel for the chance to set their own course. The proud Scot imagined by Robert Burns in his poem two centuries ago was wrong to think Scotland was at risk of disappearing. But the question of whether Scottish identity should be best expressed within the United Kingdom or as an independent nation remains very much unresolved.