‘Two different political cultures’: A divided Scotland braces for Brexit

Members of the Scottish parliament voted on Wednesday to keep the European flag flying after Brexit.
Members of the Scottish parliament voted on Wednesday to keep the European flag flying after Brexit. © Tom Wheeldon, FRANCE 24

Despite a majority of Scottish voters rejecting Brexit in the 2016 referendum, Scotland leaves the EU along with the rest of the UK on January 31. For some Scots, this shows that their nation is being ignored and bolsters the case for leaving the UK. On the other side of the independence debate, some rue that Brexit makes it more difficult to make the case for unionism, while others argue that Scottish grievances over Brexit are unjustified.


Edinburgh is a city of two souls. The ancient Old Town climbs up to Edinburgh Castle, towering over the Scottish capital atop an extinct volcano. This thousand year-old fortress is the most besieged place in Great Britain – largely thanks to attacks from English soldiers, most frequently during the bitter Wars of Scottish Independence in the Middle Ages.

The New Town incarnates the British side to Edinburgh’s character. Its construction started in the eighteenth century to provide grand new housing for the city’s flourishing bourgeoisie, which thrived on the back of Scotland’s union with England in 1707. Its exquisite buildings shape the distinctive Scottish stone into quintessentially English architecture.

At the boundary between the Old and New Towns in Princes Street Gardens, the Scott Monument – in all its austere grandeur – represents a synthesis of their identities. It memorialises Sir Walter Scott, the nineteenth-century novelist whose tales mourned the loss of Scotland’s time-hallowed clan society, while celebrating the emergence of a modern nation in political union with England.

Yet some in Edinburgh argued that Brexit shows this union is no longer working, as Scotland prepares to leave the EU on Friday, against the will of 62 percent of its voters in the 2016 referendum.

Scotland's "New Town incarnates the British side to Edinburgh’s character".
Scotland's "New Town incarnates the British side to Edinburgh’s character". © Tom Wheeldon, FRANCE 24

‘It doesn’t matter what the people of Scotland decided’

“Brexit made me more pro-independence,” said Katherine, a young Scottish nationalist walking past the Scott Monument. “It’s always felt like we’re kind of second to the English viewpoint, maybe because there are less of us. It feels like they don’t take our opinions seriously.”

“I think it’s a backward step coming from a sort of English nationalism,” another Edinburgh local, who declined to give her name, said of Brexit.

The notion that Scotland has been ignored over Brexit is a “fairly accurate judgement”, added Allan Massie, one of Scotland’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists, and a staunch unionist as well as a Remainer.

Brexit has been carried out on “the assumption that there was this narrow majority in the United Kingdom, therefore we must go ahead and it doesn’t matter what the people of Scotland have decided – they’re part of the UK and they’ve got to come with us”, said Massie, who lives in Selkirk near the border with England, in one of the most unionist parts of Scotland.

In this context, the Scottish National Party, which combines secessionism with Europhilia, performed well in the 2019 general elections amid a small uptick in support for Scottish independence. It won 48 out of Scotland’s 59 seats, with 45 percent of the vote. “We’ve seen a modest, not dramatic, increase in support for independence” coming from people who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, observed Nicola McEwen, a professor of politics at Edinburgh University.

A monument to novelist Sir Walter Scott whose tales celebrate "the emergence of a modern nation in political union with England"
A monument to novelist Sir Walter Scott whose tales celebrate "the emergence of a modern nation in political union with England" © Tom Wheeldon, FRANCE 24



The day after those Brexit-focused elections last December, Sturgeon asked for a second independence referendum, saying that the SNP landslide was a “strong endorsement” of “not having to accept life as a nation outside the EU”. Johnson’s government rejected this request earlier this month.

‘Scots have always had to look outside’

For one prominent supporter of Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum – which the unionist side won with 55 percent of the vote – Brexit is one of several factors showing that Scotland and England now have “two different political cultures”. Sir Tom Devine, widely regarded as the pre-eminent living historian of Scotland, said that the two nations’ divergent attitudes to Europe over recent years can be attributed to Scots’ outward-looking nature as a nation of emigrants, going back centuries. “Scotland has never suffered over the past twenty to thirty years the kind of inward-looking form of nationalism that England has,” he said.

Starting from around “the twelfth- and thirteen centuries up until the census of 2001, Scotland has experienced – sometimes really in vast numbers – net emigration”, Devine continued. “Because of that, you could argue that Scots have always had to look outside.”

One Scot living in England offered a similar explanation for a divide between the two nations over Brexit, arguing that it is a product of Scotland’s greater ease with its own sense of national character. A “perception of a lack of national identity, or a threat to the national identity and culture” was a key factor behind Brexit, argued Tauhid Ali, a scientist from the village of Dalmellington in western Scotland, who has lived in southern England for over two decades, and who opposed both Brexit and Scottish independence.

“I think this is less of an issue for Scots,” he continued. “Obviously my name is not Scottish, but my father immigrated to Scotland in the early 1960s and I feel very Scottish – I am Scottish, and then British – whereas I think in England they’ve always struggled with the question of what it means to be English.”

A ‘Scottish persecution complex’

Others argued that the differences between the two nations are exaggerated – and that any Scottish sense of injustice over Brexit would not justify leaving the UK. “I don’t think Scotland was ignored over Brexit; I think there’s a Scottish persecution complex, and it raises its head now and again – it’s always been there, especially about the English,” said Charles Simpson, a Scottish artist living in Selkirkshire, who is in favour of Brexit.

“I understand the grievance that Scotland feels, voting mostly Remain, but I don’t think that’s cause for them to break away from the union,” said a Londoner living in Edinburgh as a student at the city’s university. “I think at this point any more divisiveness is not beneficial to anyone.”

“Thinking that Scottish nationalism is bound up with Brexit would be wrong,” said David Spawforth, a former headteacher at an Edinburgh school, now also living in Selkirkshire, who voted Remain in the 2016 independence referendum. “The SNP was founded in the 1930s, and it has always been a nationalist party, and now Brexit has given them an excuse.”

Brexit certainly hasn’t driven away Scottish unionism, the British aspect of the national character embodied by Edinburgh’s New Town. Most polls continue to suggest that Scots would reject independence in a second referendum – one survey in early December by researchers YouGov and The Times even pointed to a 10-point lead for the unionist side.

However, Brexit makes life a lot harder for Scottish unionists, especially those who voted Remain, Massie argued. In a nation where the Brexiteer Tories are the only strong opposition to the SNP. “If you want to say no to Brexit and no to Scottish independence, what are you actually saying yes to?”

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