Scotland Watches On As Britain Exits The EU | Sunday National | February 2020

Boris Johnson hailed “the dawn of a new era” and Nigel Farage congratulated himself for having “transformed the landscape of our country.” 

But at 11pm on Friday, 31 January, as Britain finally and officially exited the EU, the mood among the 1500 or so people who had gathered outside Holyrood to mark the passing of their European citizenship was funereal rather than festive, the rhetoric sombre rather than celebratory. 

“For me, tonight was exceptionally sad,” one attendee, Claire Mcgilvray, who burnished a huge, billowing Palestinian flag in the shadow of the Edinburgh parliament building, told me. 

“But it’s also an opportunity to say we don’t want the xenophobic ideology that is being driven by Brexit. We don’t want it in Scotland and we need to stand against it.”

SNP MP Alyn Smith had asked Europe to “leave a light on for Scotland” after Brexit, and when the 11 pm deadline approached some onlookers raised LED candles into the night air before launching into an unsteady rendition of Auld Lang Syne. 

Others laughed, anti-climatically, as the moment came and went. 


Mostly, though, there was a sense of bewilderment: at how Britain had reached this point of crisis, why English voters had so enthusiastically embraced the Brexit project, and when — or if — Scotland would ever take a decisive step away from the UK and seize its own, distinctive constitutional destiny. 

Jane Cooper, a veteran independence supporter, felt disappointed by Nicola Sturgeon’s speech earlier in the day — during which the SNP leader had reaffirmed her desire for a second independence referendum but failed to explain, in detail, how she intended to secure one without a concrete agreement from Westminster. 

“We were hoping that Nicola would’ve said something more positive because of all the secrecy,” Cooper told me. “We were expecting a date so she could rally the troops and we could get out there and talk to people. Instead, what she said deflated a lot of us. We got the same old story.”

A majority of the people I spoke to at the gathering seemed convinced that Brexit would be the trigger point for Scottish independence and that the political gulf between the left-leaning, Europhile Scots and their increasingly insular, conservative English cousins was now too big to bridge. 

Brexit was a “tragedy”, more than one person said, which demonstrated how radically English and Scottish politics had diverged in recent years. 

There were a few holdouts, however.

Dr Paul Safonov, a Russian academic based at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, was visiting the UK with some of his American students and wanted to see Scotland’s response to Brexit at first hand. 

He regretted the fragmentation of the European Union but didn’t think independence was a realistic prospect.

“Any type of separatist movement so far hasn’t been successful,” he told me.  “My second nationality is Belgian. Flanders wants to separate from Wallonia, but it’s not going to happen. In Spain, the Catalans want independence. Even California wants independence from the United States. But [central] governments, those who have power, want to keep it.” 

Pro-European Push

One unifying theme of the evening was the belief that an independent Scotland would be welcomed back into the EU quickly and with minimal procedural fuss. 

“The lamps are not going out all over Europe,” Deirdre Brock, the Australian-born SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, told an earlier rally outside Holyrood, which acted as a preamble, of sorts, to the candle-lit vigil. “They are shining a message of hope and ambition and we shall see them lit again for us in our lifetime.”

The SNP has invested a huge amount of political capital in this idea since the Brexit referendum three and a half years ago. 

Scottish government ministers — including Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell, and Nicola Sturgeon herself — have racked up at least 80 trips to European countries since the start of 2018 alone, which averages out to one ministerial jaunt every week for the past 24 months. 

The purpose of these trips has been to bolster European support for a second independence referendum and, in the event of a Yes vote, soften the EU’s opposition to the break up of Britain. 

SNP politicians are increasingly confident that their so-called ‘para-diplomatic’ efforts are having the desired effect. 

“During the first independence referendum in 2014, there was a chill,” said Alyn Smith told me when we spoke last year. But now, “from an EU perspective, a number of people who didn’t quite get the need for independence in 2014 get it now,” he said. 

There are signs that Smith may be right. 

In September, Herman Van Rompuy — the former president of the European Council — told the BBC that there had been a distinct “change” in the way Europe viewed Scotland and that there was now “much more sympathy” for the Scottish independence movement as it sought to navigate an escape route from Brexit Britain. 

Speaking at the launch of the Scottish Greens’ independence campaign in Glasgow on Friday afternoon, the German MEP Ska Keller, the co-president of the Green group in European Parliament, expanded on Van Rompuy’s remarks. “Obviously it’s up to the people of Scotland to decide on their future,” she said. “The only thing we’re saying is that we would do everything we can to allow for a swift return.”


But even then, there are no guarantees that Scotland’s re-entry into the Europe fold would be trouble-free. 

In amongst the guddle of Scottish Saltires and yellow and blue European flags on Friday night were a handful of Catalan esteladas

In her pre-Brexit speech, Sturgeon tentatively opened the door to a consultative referendum.

This would only be an option, she said, if Boris Johnson continued to obstruct a re-run of the mutually agreed 2014 vote and a non-binding plebiscite didn’t get bogged down by legal challenges in the Scottish and UK courts. 

What she didn’t address is whether or not a wildcat referendum, held in direct defiance of Westminster, could win legitimacy with European leaders. 

If it can’t — and Johnson’s position doesn’t change — Scotland could be hurtling towards a Spanish-style stalemate, with Edinburgh, London, and Brussels unable to negotiate a route out of the constitutional morass. 

Optimistic Vision

Observers at the Holyrood vigil weren’t thinking that far ahead. 

For Claire Mcgilvray, the fact that Scotland has been forced out of the EU against its will was enough to justify another referendum. 

A revived independence campaign had to be built around an optimistic vision of Scotland’s future, she told me.

“The democratic deficit is just appalling,” she said. “But the next campaign has to be about us being on a different trajectory, us creating the nation that we want. It’s not anti-Boris or even anti-Brexit. It’s got to be for something.”

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