Will Brexit drive Scotland to break from the United Kingdom?

/ AP

A demonstrator flies a Scottish Saltire EU composite flag during a protest against the British government's move to suspend parliament in the final weeks before the Brexit deadline, in Glasgow, August 31, 2019. Getty

Stirling, Scotland — When Scotland voted in 2014 against independence, that seemed to settle the issue: The hauntingly rugged region where Britain's royal family spends its holidays at its vast Balmoral estate would remain with England, Wales and Northern Ireland in a United Kingdom governed from London.

But less than two years later came the Brexit referendum, and while the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, Scots distinguished themselves as the biggest dissenters. Not only did Scotland vote overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, it was the only one of the U.K.'s four parts where not a single constituency delivered a "Yes" vote to leave.

Simply put: Scotland is being dragged largely unwillingly toward what many of its people fear will be economic suffering on Oct. 31, when the messy divorce is scheduled to take effect, quite possibly without an agreement to cushion expected blows to businesses and households.

Disgruntlement with Brexit and machinations in Westminster that have pushed the U.K. ever closer to a no-deal departure is so keenly felt in Scotland's glens and weather-beaten towns that independence is back as an issue. In the aftermath of Brexit, Scotland could again become a headache for whoever is in power in London.

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Rather than be shackled to what they suspect could become a diminished and isolated U.K., advocates of Scottish independence are clamoring for another referendum to allow it to strike out on its own and perhaps even rejoin the EU.

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Even some of those who voted against independence, betting that Scotland would be better off in the U.K., are having second thoughts.

Changing hearts and minds

Chris Deerin, director of the Reform Scotland think-tank, was a firm "No" in 2014, describing the idea of a breakup of the union with Britain as "utterly bizarre" and "almost unthinkable" in his political commentaries at the time.

As Brexit looms, Deerin's tune is changing.

"I'm not at the stage where I'd say I'd vote 'Yes' yet, but it's definitely not unthinkable," he says. "And, anecdotally, there are lots of people I know who also voted 'No' in 2014 who, if not now committed to voting 'Yes,' are open to a discussion."

He adds: "If Scotland is independent in 2025, 2030, I think Brexit will pretty obviously be the main reason for that. … It has set Scotland against England."

But Scots wanting a second shot at independence won't automatically get one.

"The will of the Scottish people"

The U.K. government has repeatedly ruled out the possibility, saying Scots had their say and that a second vote could heap further division on the country already riven by generational, regional, political and economic divides over Brexit.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's hardball negotiating tactics since he took office in July, replacing Theresa May after she failed to get Parliament's backing for her Brexit deal with the EU, suggest to some Scots that he's especially unlikely to yield.

Johnson has taken steps to suspend Parliament for part of the remaining weeks before the Oct. 31 departure, shrinking options and time for lawmakers who want to stop a chaotic no-deal departure. Johnson's critics have likened him to a dictator and his maneuverings to a coup.

"Are you a democrat or not? Do you respect the will of the Scottish people or not" said Ian Blackford, a lawmaker with the pro-EU Scottish National Party, addressing Johnson as the U.K. Parliament reconvened Tuesday in London.

"The Scottish people did not vote for Brexit. The people of Scotland did not vote for a no-deal Brexit. They did not vote for the Tory party and they certainly did not vote for this prime minister," Blackford added during the raucous debate.

Such charges resonate among independence supporters north of the seamless, open border with England noticeable only because of road signs that declare "Welcome to Scotland" in English and "Failte gu Alba" in Scottish Gaelic.

Britain Brexit Scottish Independence
Edinburgh-based actor Gilchrist Muir dresses up in chainmail and leather as Sir William Wallace, north west of Edinburgh, Scotland, September 1, 2019. AP

Edinburgh-based actor Gilchrist Muir says he's always felt Scottish rather than British and has long viewed the U.K.'s Union Jack flag as "a symbol of oppression."

For one of his more regular acting jobs, Muir dresses up in chain mail and leather as Sir William Wallace, recounting to tourists how the 13th century Scottish independence hero defeated English invaders in the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge. Wallace was later executed in London in 1305 — hanged, disemboweled and beheaded as a traitor to England's King Edward I.

Mel Gibson played Wallace in the 1995 movie "Braveheart." Posing for tourists' photos with his long sword, Muir borrows Gibson's signature cry from the film, howling: "Freedom!"

But out of costume, chatting in an Edinburgh pub over a beer, he's deeply pessimistic about any shift in Westminster's stance.

"It's like I'm a passenger in a car that's out of control, and the driver's left, and you have no say over where the car's going. That's what it feels like right now. The Parliament has been hijacked. We have no say. Scotland has no voice," he says. "In any other normal democratic country or context, I would think yes, there's a good chance of getting some sort of movement in that direction, but in the current state of affairs, even if it was the will of the people, I don't have much faith."

"Helpful to the independent cause"

But others are gearing up for a renewed push, cheered by polling that suggests Brexit, and especially a no-deal departure, may be strengthening the independence cause. The resignation in August of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who cited family reasons, deprived the anti-independence camp of one of its most popular leaders.

Scottish flags, with a white cross on a blue background, hang inside and outside the distillery where Dale McQueen brews gin.

Britain Brexit Scottish Independence
Dale McQueen speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his gin distillery in Callander, north of Edinburgh, Scotland, September 1, 2019. AP

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, who champions calls for a second independence referendum by 2021, opened his new factory this year in Callander, with spectacular views of surrounding crags.

McQueen says he hopes to be able to plow profits from his fast-growing business into a second referendum campaign.

"I'm very optimistic that Scotland will be an independent country," he says. "I hope and pray for that. I think it (Brexit) has been helpful to the independent cause, simply because we're having something imposed on the country. We didn't vote for it."

First published on September 4, 2019 / 8:36 AM

© 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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