Scottish Parliament Pushes For New Independence Referendum

Mar 28, 2017
Originally published on March 28, 2017 10:38 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

These are divisive times in the United Kingdom. Today, the Scottish Parliament voted to seek an independence referendum that could split the country apart. Tomorrow, the U.K. triggers Brexit, the process for breaking away from the European Union.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London on the fault lines forming in the country.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It was only three years ago that Scots voted in a referendum to remain inside the United Kingdom. And last summer, Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay inside the European Union. But they were angered when most English, who outnumber them by about 10 to 1, voted for Brexit and carried the day. Today, Nicola Sturgeon, the political leader of Scotland, said Scots deserved another chance to vote for their independence.

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NICOLA STURGEON: It is about the rights of people in Scotland to choose our own future, and in itself, it is a demonstration of democracy in action.

LANGFITT: Like some Scots, Kevin O'Hagan agrees. O'Hagan's 35 and works as a chef in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city.

KEVIN O'HAGAN: Well, I believe since the last referendum that the goalposts have changed dramatically in the sense that Scotland is now going to be leaving Europe. So I now feel that we're voting not to stay in the U.K., but to stay in Europe.

LANGFITT: Most economists think independence is a luxury Scotland can't afford. For instance, Scotland's economy relies in part on oil from the North Sea, which has suffered since the 2014 price collapse. And Kezia Dugdale of the Scottish Labor Party said independence could cost Scotland a fortune in U.K. subsidies.

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KEZIA DUGDALE: It means cuts to pensions. It means an end to U.K. defense contracts that keep thousands in work. We are stronger, richer, fairer and better nation by remaining in the United Kingdom.

LANGFITT: Back on the streets of Glasgow, though, Iain Macaulay shrugs off the fiscal argument. Macaulay is 53 and is a project manager with the National Health Service.

IAIN MACAULAY: You know, it's like leaving home when you're a teenager. You leave home, but you take a risk. And I think Scotland should, could. And I don't believe the numbers that are put about - that the oil is worth this and that. I think Scotland is a rich country, otherwise, England would just say, go. Let us go. Why not let us go?

LANGFITT: The U.K. Parliament will ultimately decide whether Scotland can even hold a second referendum. Prime Minister Theresa May says if there is one, it should be after the U.K. leaves the EU. May would love to avoid another vote.

But Richard Whitman says blocking the Scots would seem hypocritical after last summer's Brexit referendum. Whitman is a senior visiting fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House, the London think tank.

RICHARD WHITMAN: On the one hand, how can you argue for the opportunity of the U.K. to leave the European Union on the basis of giving the public a vote to say that and then deny the Scots the opportunity to vote on the union with the United Kingdom?

LANGFITT: In the referendum three years ago, 55 percent voted to remain in the U.K., dealing Sturgeon's Scottish National Party a sobering defeat. Polls show if another referendum were held today, it would fail again. But Whitman says once the U.K. approves a second independence referendum, Sturgeon could carefully pick a time to maximize her chances.

WHITMAN: If by leaving the European Union, the U.K. economy starts to stumble or decline and Nicola Sturgeon is able to say, look, the only way you could really guarantee our prosperity and well-being in the future is to leave the U.K. behind, then I think that's probably a winning formula for her.

LANGFITT: The U.K. economy has held up surprisingly well since last June's Brexit vote, and the Brexit process is expected to take at least two years. In the unpredictable landscape that's U.K. politics, that's an eternity.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

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