Edinburgh, Scotland—Five years ago, when Scotland voted in a landmark referendum to remain part of the United Kingdom, the issue of North Sea oil—who owns it and how it should be administered—was a key feature of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) independence platform. If—as seems increasingly likely in the context of Britain’s ongoing scramble over Brexit—Scots vote again on the future of their union with England, the heavy winds and tides that buffet Scotland’s coastline will play an equally critical role in the next campaign.

By some estimates, Scotland has 25 percent of Europe’s total offshore wind and tidal resources and around 60 percent of the U.K.’s onshore wind capacity. Renewable energy is worth nearly 6 billion pounds (about $7.5 billion) annually to the Scottish economy—and green electricity exports are rising every year. But in the face of an accelerating global ecological crisis, both advocates and opponents of Scottish independence think the country can go further in embracing alternative energy sources—they simply disagree on whether Scottish independence would help or hurt that goal.

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In the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016, Scotland seemed to be on the brink of independence.

Scots rejected Brexit by an overwhelming 24 point margin, prompting Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon – the head of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh – to start preparing the ground for a fresh referendum on separation from the UK.

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2017, it seemed, should have killed the campaign for Scottish independence stone dead.

At the UK general election in June, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) lost a third of its Westminster seats, forcing SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to “reset” her plans for a second independence referendum. Then, in August, new analysis showed that an independent Scotland would face a projected budget deficit of 8.3 per cent – the largest of any EU state. And on top of that, major splits have begun to emerge within the ‘Yes’ base, as younger, more radical activists sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have clashed with older, more conservative nationalists loyal to the SNP. 

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In the strange and obscure world of Scottish constitutional politics, something can be utterly inevitable – until it suddenly isn’t. For most of the past ten years, and certainly for the past two, a widespread consensus has existed in Scotland regarding the inevitability of independence. That consensus has been based on the almost total dominance of Scotland’s electoral landscape by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Last month, the landscape changed.

At the UK’s snap general election on 8 June, the SNP shed 21 of its 56 Westminster seats and saw its share of the vote slump by 13 points. Angus Robertson, the party’s chief strategist, and Alex Salmond, its former leader, both lost their once rock-solid constituencies in the rural north-east. Towering nationalist majorities across Glasgow and the central belt crumbled. Even the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a modest Caledonian revival, adding three new Scottish MPs, in Edinburgh, Dunbartonshire, and Caithness, to their previous, solitary total of one.

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Not that long ago, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon was the most exciting social democrat in European politics.

She took charge of the SNP – and with it an absolute majority at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature – in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The SNP lost that referendum, but left-leaning Scots, many of them former Labour voters, flocked to her side.

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Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the Seanad yesterday was the first any foreign leader has given to the upper chamber of the Irish parliament. The Seanad is tucked away in a far corner of Leinster House, a complex of austere 18th century buildings on Kildare Street, just off St. Stephen’s Green, in central Dublin. Its antiquated press gallery can accommodate a grand total nine reporters, so, having travelled down from Belfast, I decamped to a small annex room with a wall-mounted TV and a failing internet connection.

The speech itself didn’t generate much advance coverage in the Irish media. The Irish Times dedicated a few short paragraphs on page five to Sturgeon’s meeting on Monday with Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs. They should have paid more attention.

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An early Autumn morning in Edinburgh, some time in the mid-1990s. Two men are walking together through the Meadows. The sun has cast a dull light across the tree-lined paths. They turn up Middle Meadow Walk, passing Edinburgh University’s George Square campus on one side and the crumbling old Royal Infirmary building on the other. As they approach the junction at Teviot Place, their conversation intensifies. They no longer notice the students, the coffee-sellers or the cyclists. They are speaking, in fluent Italian, about Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. One of the men, dressed in a distinctive tweed hat and cardigan, is Hamish Henderson, the celebrated Scots poet and folklorist. The other, less stylishly attired in a plain shirt and suit jacket, is Tom Nairn, the most influential Scottish political thinker of his generation.

You can see them, can’t you? Two silhouettes in the sunlight. Henderson died in 2002, aged 82, an icon of Scotland’s cultural left. But Nairn is still very much with us, and although, at 84, the years are beginning to pile up on him, he remains as perceptive and self-deprecating as ever.

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Activists rush in and out of Natalie McGarry’s campaign office on Westmuir Street in Parkhead, a short walk from the towering grey-and-green stadium of Celtic Football Club. The Scottish National Party candidate for Glasgow East, an energetic 33-year-old policy officer who rose to prominence during last year’s independence referendum, is preparing her team for the first of its twice-daily canvassing sessions. “OK, let’s go,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” If on 7 May the Nationalists can win here, where the sitting Labour MP, Margaret Curran, has a majority of almost 12,000, they will sweep the country, defeating Labour in its west coast and central belt heartlands.

In Glasgow East, as in Scotland at large, ideology, identity and class have merged to shape a new political landscape. Left-leaning voters, voters who consider themselves strongly Scottish and voters from low-income or working-class backgrounds account for a large section of the SNP’s expanding post-referendum base. According to a recent survey by YouGov, 40 per cent of Scots who backed Labour at the 2010 general election now support the SNP. A similar proportion of Labour supporters voted Yes on 18 September.

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