Brexit fuels Scottish independence fight as nationalists look to Europe

·3-min read

The streets of Scotland's capital are normally packed at Hogmanay, as people from across the country and around the world flock to see in the New Year in raucous style. As with so much else, the coronavirus outbreak has put paid to the celebrations, leaving Scots in a gloomy mood made worse by Britain's parting with Europe.

But supporters of Scottish independence hope that 2021 will bring some cheer. A small group of activists held a protest outside the country's devolved parliament, condemning Brexit and calling for Scottish independence and EU membership.

"Heartbroken but not bitter – for an independent Scotland in the family of Europe," read one placard held by a masked activist wrapped in an EU flag.

"Scotland didn't vote for Brexit and we certainly didn't vote for the UK government that is pushing this through," said Morag Williamson, a retired university teacher.

'Go for it'

As Britain leaves Europe's single market and customs union, one local resident, Zoe Stewart, told French news agency AFP she has never felt so out of touch with the rest of the country.

"I think it's really sad that we're leaving. I don't want to leave the EU," said Stewart, one of the 62 percent of Scots who voted against Brexit.

"I think we should go for it ... Just to be independent. Just to have our own choices and not follow England all the time."

The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) makes no secret of its desire to hold a new referendum on independence after it lost the previous one in 2014.

Its leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, gave a clear sign of a looming battle ahead for a new vote. "Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on," she tweeted.

The party is widely tipped to win Scottish parliamentary elections in May, and victory would increase pressure on the UK government in London to agree to a second vote.

Increased support

According to a poll by Savanta ComRes, conducted for The Scotsman newspaper in mid-December, 58 percent of Scots now support a break with the UK – an all-time high.

"It is very difficult to detect a trend; it fluctuates," said Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh. "The first part of 2020 was roughly 50/50."

The second half of the year shows a majority of up to 59 percent backing independence, "mainly on the backdrop of Covid", she added.

Sturgeon began organising regular daily media briefings on the coronavirus in March and has since given 150 of them, winning praise for her approach.

The Guardian newspaper described her as a "model of factual reliability, sound advice and caution".

She has benefited politically from her management of the health crisis, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been perceived as more erratic.

As Brexit bogs down, support for Scottish Independence surges to all-time high

Die happy

Under a portrait of Sturgeon, Mike Blackshaw is already running an online campaign for a hypothetical referendum from his Yes Cafe, a hub for local pro-independence activists.

The badges and t-shirts are ready to go, combining the blue-and-white Saltire flag of Scotland and the stars of the EU.

"I think 2021 is going to be a busy year for the independence movement," Blackshaw says.

Along with "Auld Lang Syne", a song to remember long-standing friendships based on the poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns, one of the main traditions at Hogmanay is "first footing".

The first visitor to cross the threshold after midnight brings good luck for the new year. This year, though, Blackshaw has only one wish: for an independence referendum in September.

"Win it and I can die happy," he says.