On a rainy summer afternoon there is a melancholy air to the Auld Acquaintance Cairn, a monument to the three-century old union of England and Scotland tucked away in a field behind a pub on the border between the two nations. The cairn, an orderly mound of rocks with a central open chamber of local stone, was built in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Brexit was already highly unpopular in Scotland, which voted heavily to remain in the EU in 2016. With the UK Conservative party now in the throes of a leadership race that has largely been dominated by hardline views on Brexit, many Scots are concerned that the new prime minister will push for a “no deal” exit from the EU later this year.
Opinion polls suggest Scottish support for leaving the UK remains far stronger than it was before the start of the 2014 campaign and only a few points short of a majority. The Scottish National party government, which supports independence, has already drawn up legislation for a second referendum on the issue that it says it wants to hold within the next two years.
Its case is being helped by the political rhetoric in England about Brexit. A YouGov survey of members of the Conservative party released on Tuesday showed that nearly two-thirds would be willing to see Scotland become independent as long as Brexit was secured.
“The 2014 referendum never really settled the issue. It established a historic level of support for independence . . . and that was before Brexit,” says Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at Edinburgh university. “What we are seeing now is that the balance of risks is changing. The UK is maybe not appearing as the safe, risk-free option that it did in 2014.”
Any unwinding of the 1707 union of England and Scotland that created Great Britain would have far-reaching implications. Scotland accounts for about a third of the UK’s landmass and 8 per cent of its population. It provides the base for the UK’s submarine-borne nuclear forces. And it is a core ingredient of British identity.
For many in Scotland and in England the very idea of independence is distressing. Rory Stewart, the Conservative party leadership candidate who made the strongest defence of the union until he was knocked out of the contest on Wednesday, says separation would “break his heart”.
“I would have no country left,” Mr Stewart, who organised the construction of the Auld Acquaintance Cairn, said in Edinburgh last month. “I’m a Scot who’s representing an English Borders constituency. If the United Kingdom splits then what am I?”
Such worries count for little for supporters of independence, who complain that Scotland faces being dragged out of the EU against its will and subject to a hard Brexit decided by a Conservative party that won only 12 per cent of the Scottish vote in last month’s European parliamentary elections.
The Tories are “leading the UK to complete disaster at the moment”, Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, told the Financial Times during a visit to Brussels last week. “If that can’t be stopped . . . it makes it all the more important that Scotland at least has the option of choosing a different path,” said Ms Sturgeon, whose party took 38 per cent of the vote in the May election, winning three of Scotland’s six European seats.
The European election result offered graphic evidence of diverging political trends north and south of the border. In England, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which demands a quick and comprehensive break with the EU, was the clear winner with around a third of the vote. In Scotland it took just 15 per cent.
Still, independence is neither imminent nor, analysts say, necessarily inevitable. Many SNP activists are impatient for action and Ms Sturgeon plans for her referendum legislation to be on the Scottish statute books by the end of this year. But the first minister has also made clear that she will not organise such a vote without UK government approval of the sort given for the 2014 referendum. And there is little chance of the next Conservative prime minister giving approval before the next Scottish parliamentary election in 2021 at least.
Ms Sturgeon herself has good reason not to rush, not least since she has yet to see any sustained majority backing for independence. Optimistic colleagues point out that they managed to raise support dramatically during the 2014 campaign. But there is no guarantee this would happen again and a second defeat would be disastrous for her cause. Some in the party cite the example of Quebec, where support for independence has faded since a second referendum was narrowly lost in 1995.
The political turmoil and administrative complexity surrounding Brexit have thrown a harsh light on SNP claims in 2014 that Scotland would be able to smoothly and cheaply disentangle itself from the UK in just 18 months.
Brexit has certainly won over some pro-European voters to independence, but the shift in opinion has not been all one way. A significant minority of supporters of Scottish independence in 2014 also voted to leave the EU in 2016 and are unimpressed by the SNP’s attempts to stop Brexit happening at all.
Some Scots are unconvinced by SNP warnings that Brexit will inflict major damage on the economy, particularly if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
“It is just scaremongering,” says Jim McColl, founder and chairman of industrial group Clyde Blowers, whose previous support for independence has cooled since 2014 and who backed Brexit. Mr McColl says willingness to walk away without a deal is essential in negotiations, and even if there is no overall agreement, the EU would still be keen to avoid disruption. “All businesses need to know is what’s happening, and then they adapt their plans to work in that environment,” he says.
But most economists say Brexit will harm the Scottish economy and that leaving without a deal would be highly disruptive. Michael Keating, professor of Scottish politics at Aberdeen university, says the process of leaving the EU is already alienating Scotland further from UK politics centred on the parliament in Westminster. The greater the economic disruption and barriers to trade and movement with the EU that Brexit creates, the greater the sense of grievance that can be tapped by the SNP, he says.
While a Brexit that takes the UK out of the EU single market and customs union would strengthen the political case for independence, it would also raise the economic cost of leaving the UK. The SNP’s 2014 vision for independence assumed Scotland would continue to enjoy an open border with the remaining UK since both would be part of the EU single market. But a hard Brexit would force Scotland to choose between prioritising its exports with the rest of the UK, worth around £50bn a year, or to the EU, worth £15bn.
A “soft” Brexit would ease that dilemma but also make it harder to justify a renewed push for Scotland to leave the UK. “The closer the future relationship [between the UK and the EU], the easier independence becomes, but the less the sense of grievance,” says Prof Keating. “That’s the paradox.”
The SNP has other challenges too. The fall in oil prices since 2014 has dramatically worsened the fiscal challenge for an independent Scotland. A party commission set up to revamp the economic case for separation has proposed tight spending controls for the early days of a new Scottish state along with continued use of the British pound on an informal basis for an extended transition period, but this has dismayed more radical and leftwing campaigners.
Much could depend on the next UK prime minister’s approach on Scotland. Some Conservatives worry that Boris Johnson, the clear frontrunner in the race to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader, could prove disastrous for the union. Mr Johnson has in the past questioned relatively generous public spending in Scotland, joked that a SNP swing vote in the UK parliament would be “Ajockalypse Now” and this month unveiled tax cutting plans that took no account of the fact that income tax powers have been devolved to Scotland.
Prof McEwen says that if the new prime minister wants to avoid alienating Scottish voters who are not supporters of independence but who are also not passionately pro-union, he will need to be seen to be respectful of the interests of the devolved government.
“It’s not immediately clear that the current cohort vying for the leadership of the Conservative party quite appreciates that,” she says.
This raises a more fundamental question about how much England really cares about maintaining the union with Scotland. Research by the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff last year found that a majority of English voters thought that a second referendum on Scottish independence would be a price worth paying for Brexit. The YouGov poll of nearly 900 members of the Conservative party, which is so proud of its commitment to UK unity that its full name is the “Conservative and Unionist party”, found 63 per cent would rather see Scotland leave the UK than have the UK remain in the EU.
A few minutes drive from the Auld Acquaintance Cairn at the Gretna Green tourist attraction, visiting English Brexit supporters seem unconcerned about the impact on the union with Scotland. Simon Corbett, a shipbuilder from the Lake District, says Scottish independence might have some impact on his work, but the priority was to push ahead with leaving the EU. “If you are always sitting on the fence you never get anywhere,” Mr Corbett says.
Kevin Thompson, a retired engineer who lives in France, believes the cost and complexity of the UK’s departure from the EU would put Scotland off severing the much tighter relationship with England. And he adds that he would not be troubled even if Brexit did lead to Scottish independence. “I’d feel sorry for the Scots, because I don’t think they could be quite as independent as they think they would be,” he says.
Researchers say English nationalism was an important driver of the vote to leave the EU. If the new Conservative prime minister focuses on tapping into such sentiments it could have profound implications for the UK’s future.
“Most multinational unions collapse at the centre, not the periphery,” says Prof Keating. “When it comes to the point that people in England don’t care any more . . . then that’s the union finished.”
In some ways, the Auld Acquaintance Cairn is a symbol of that sense of apathy. It was only built after Mr Stewart’s original plan for a human chain along the Scotland-England border foundered for lack of public interest. Now the cairn lies largely unnoticed behind a hedge, its relatively few personalised rocks with painted pro-union messages peeling away. If Brexit does end up sundering the union it was built to celebrate, the cairn will at least be a fitting memorial.
Additional reporting by Jim Brunsden in Brussels
Consensus call? Weighing the basis for another referendum
As a “historic nation with a proud past”, wrote Margaret Thatcher in her memoir of her years as UK prime minister, Scots have an “undoubted right” to self-determination. “Should they determine on independence no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure,” she wrote.
That view reflects the consensual nature of the union of England and Scotland, sealed in 1707. But the questions of how and when Scotland might revisit its constitutional question remain highly contested.
Theresa May waved aside a demand in 2017 from the Scottish parliament for a second independence referendum, a stance echoed by current candidates for the Conservative leadership.
Tories cite Scottish National party assurances that the 2014 independence referendum, approved by the UK, would be a “once in a generation” event. The SNP insists that Brexit justifies revisiting the issue. Some in the party privately argue that Scotland could organise a referendum without UK approval.
But SNP leaders are chary of an approach that could risk constitutional confrontation of the sort that has flared between Spain and its restive region of Catalonia. Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, says UK approval is needed to put a referendum “beyond doubt or challenge”.
That makes the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections a crucial test of Scottish appetite for independence.
Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader, said this month that the SNP would have to win a majority “outright” to warrant a second referendum. But a refusal from London to allow another vote would risk upsetting even Scots still sympathetic to the union.
Ailsa Henderson, a public opinion expert at Edinburgh university, says the Scottish electorate is divided on when a second referendum should be held, but much less so on whether the UK should be able to deny one. She tweeted last month: “Scots are pretty clear that power to call a referendum should lie with the Scottish government.”