What Next for Scotland?

A conversation with a top official of the Scottish National Party on Brexit, the pandemic, and independence.

Never has the prospect of an independent Scotland seemed more plausible. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval ratings in the region have dropped to all-time lows. Brexit, deeply unpopular in Scotland to begin with (the region voted 62 percent to 38 percent to remain), has become even more so. Independence campaigners comfortably lost their 2014 referendum. But fourteen polls in a row have shown a plurality of its residents now support independence.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scotland’s first minister, announced she intends to hold a vote as early as this year. “Scotland did not vote for any of this and our position is clearer than ever,” Sturgeon said on Christmas Eve, after the UK and Europe finalized a departure agreement. “Scotland now has the right to choose its own future as an independent country and once more regain the benefits of EU membership.”

If Scotland does secede from Britain and try to join the European Union, Michael Russell will have laid the groundwork for their negotiations with Brussels. A longtime SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament for Argyll and Bute, he has been a key cabinet minister since 2016, charged with overseeing the devolved government’s approach to Brexit. He is also responsible for handling Scotland’s relationship with Europe. His current title is Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs.

Russell recently spoke with me about Brexit, Scottish independence, and the aftermath of the US election. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JW: Drawing on your experience, how do you think Brexit negotiations were handled by this UK government? 

MR: I don’t think it’s a surprise to say they’ve been handled badly. The whole process of Brexit has been chaotic. If you wanted to analyze the root cause of this chaos, it would be that [Former Prime Minister] Theresa May in particular was led again and again by the right of her party towards an ever more extreme position.

In 2016, there was an opportunity for the UK government to say that Brexit was not a majority position in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and ask themselves: How can we get all the UK’s constituent countries in the same room and make sure we all get something out of it? That didn’t happen. As a member of the Joint Ministerial Committee [a forum for the UK government to discuss important matters with the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments], I never saw the Article 50 letter until it was received by the EU. Oversight of the negotiations never happened either.

[Russell and I spoke before the Brexit deal was finalized. In its aftermath, he condemned both the agreement’s terms and timing: “In the midst of a pandemic and economic recession Scotland is now being forced to cope with a hard Brexit in less than one week’s time.”]

JW: Moving onto Scottish independence: In an Ipsos MORI poll last month, 58 percent of likely referendum voters said they would vote to leave while 42 percent would vote to stay. This is the highest level of support ever recorded. Why do you think that is, and what does it mean?

MR: Well, 14 polls in a row now have shown a majority for independence, which I think is quite significant. And it has to do with the history as much as it does current politics.

In the last 150 years, there has been a slow separation of political structures and life between England and Scotland. In the 1870s and 1880s, Scotland asserted administrative independence and then, increasingly, political independence. In the 1890s, the UK even established the Office of the Secretary of State of Scotland. You could argue, and some historians have argued, that that process was delayed and postponed but not derailed by two world wars, followed by the creation of the National Health Service and other cohesive actions that took place in the 20th century. But the trend was still there, and it continues.

I think it’s too easy and too glib to say Brexit is the reason for this increased support for independence. But Brexit clearly has illustrated something which people have felt since 2014, which is how uneven the relationship is between Scotland and the UK.

JW: The SNP is drafting a second referendum proposal ahead of the Scottish parliamentary election next May. If the SNP increases their share of the vote, would that be a popular mandate? What do you say to those, including the current Tory government, who insist that the 2014 referendum was “once in a lifetime”?

MR: That “once in a lifetime” claim is incoherent. It’s as anti-democratic as attempting to avoid the verdict of US voters by stopping votes from being counted. Things change in politics, times change in politics. When I was elected in 2016, like most of my colleagues, we were elected on a manifesto that said specifically, if Scotland was dragged out of the EU against its will, it would be the trigger for another independence vote.

In terms of what happens next year, I think we’ve been very clear. We will publish before next year’s election a draft referendum bill with a timescale on it. If we are able to get a parliamentary majority next May, we will pass that bill and move on to that referendum. That is what we intend to do.

JW: Home rulewhereby the Scottish government gains further devolved powers while still remaining in the UKhas been touted by some as a future option for Scotland. Some have even called for it to be a third option in any future independence referendum. What do you say to that?

MR: If there were clarity about what the alternatives were then, of course, it would be considered. But the best practice in a referendum is to put one thing against another, not to create a series of options.

It is for others to say what their proposal is. If someone comes along and says that this ‘home rule’ is the closest thing to independence, then they are free to argue for it. If they can get a bill through the Scottish Parliament, then fine, but I don’t think they would. I know what my proposal is, which is independence and full membership in the EU. That is the right thing for Scotland, in my view.

JW: What is the SNP’s economic vision for any future relationship with the EU?

MR: Our choice would be to have a socially just and egalitarian left-of-center perspective on the economy. I suppose you could call that as much Scandinavian as European. And I think we would fit happily in there.

An issue that’s thrown up by opponents is that Scotland’s deficit is too big. But the process of accession is one in which a country changes and develops in order to become a member of the EU. It’s not a static process. Croatia’s deficit was larger than it should have been before it joined in 2013. But they managed to work with the EU to ensure that they were in the right position to accede.

JW: The United States election remains a dominant story, in no small part because Donald Trump still refuses to concede, citing false and often ridiculous claims of voter fraud. In a recent opinion article for the pro-independence Scottish newspaper, The National, you argued there were lessons Scotland can learn from Trump’s desperate attempts to stay in power. Could you explain what those are?

MR: It’s that democracy rules. You need to step back and look at the actual evidence on the ground. In the US, there was no evidence of voter fraud. A candidate clearly won.

The evidence on the ground in Scotland is that the people wish to choose their future. If they wish to choose between a very dissatisfactory Brexit and another future, they should be able to do so. The party that is proposing that future is the party of government in Scotland. In last year’s Westminster election, we won 48 seats out of 59, and the polls say that we will win more than that next time.

What we have seen is anti-democratic from Trump, and it did not prevail. Boris Johnson’s refusal to accept that people in Scotland are allowed or entitled to a referendum is anti-democratic too, and shouldn’t prevail either.

JW: Much has been made of the so-called “special relationship” that the UK shares with the United States. If Scotland were to become independent, would that be lost? How would the SNP envisage a post-independence relationship with the US? 

MR: I don’t see why it should be lost. Maybe you can have two special relationships.

There are very, very considerable ties between Scotland and America. I was External Affairs and Culture Minister at one stage in my career. I am familiar with the passion of the Scottish diaspora. Quite a number of US presidents have had Scottish ancestry, and there are little pockets of Scotland that have had a disproportionate effect on the number of people who have signed the American Declaration of Independence.

I cannot imagine that there would be much difference between us. We have some differences in terms of nuclear weapons but that is perfectly manageable given the relationship the United States has with many countries. I’m comfortable.

JW: Does the SNP look forward to working with a Biden/Harris administration? 

MR: Yes, absolutely. In my role as External Affairs Secretary, I have already congratulated the new US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. I understand he’s been to Scotland and even to the isle of Islay, which is in my constituency. I also have a number of good contacts in America to whom I’m talking with about how we can make sure that what happens in Scotland is brought to the attention of the incoming administration.

It will also be tremendous to see the United States back in the Paris Accord. Scotland was one of the first to have declared a climate emergency, and we are really focused on that. As John Kerry indicated in a speech as Biden’s Special Envoy on Climate in Glasgow on November 24, we need to build back better given the pandemic. Building back better in a green way is absolutely essential.

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James Walker

James is an editorial fellow at Washington Monthly, and a graduate of the Columbia Journalism program.