The 2014 Scottish Referendum was created to be the end of conversation.
After over 300 years in the United Kingdom, 2014 would be the deciding moment for Scotland — whether to become an independent nation or remain in the union.
There were a number of issues that Scottish citizens worried about — but the primary topics of discussion were looser policies for immigration to include fewer passport checks, Scotland’s dominance in the oil industry and a future in the European Union.
However, the initial referendum was created primarily in response to the rising popularity of the Scottish National Party, its primary agenda being independence.
In the end, a 55.3% vote decided Scotland would stay part of the U.K. End of discussion.
And then Brexit happened.
And then COVID-19 happened.
So, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon brought the conversation back to the table — the possibility of a second referendum looms for 2023, when she hopes the pandemic won’t have to be a national focus.
For most people around the world, the idea of Scottish independence probably looks like something out of the 1995 Mel Gibson film “Braveheart” – medieval battle armor, a kilt and blue and white war paint.
In reality, it isn’t that romanticized. And as most Scots know, “Braveheart” isn’t all that factual either.
Instead, independence isn’t defined by a single person or a single issue.
Stefan Carlin, 25, describes himself as an independent person, and he’s kept his politics that way.
Carlin, who is a student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, said he always wondered why the country hasn’t already become independent.
He sees the economic benefits, like oil revenue the country has to offer to the rest of the world on its own. Rather than continuing to put money into the U.K., he said Scotland could keep those funds for itself to become even more prosperous.
Besides, Carlin noted that smaller countries, with less land mass, like Denmark are independent and successful, so the question was: Why not Scotland?
“Scotland has so much to offer to the world through oil revenue,” he said. “There’s nothing to stop Scotland from being independent.”
But he understood why the majority originally voted to stay in the union.
Scotland could hold strong to the European Union as its safety net, free of the vulnerabilities of starting over. In 2014, it was unclear if Scotland could still be a part of the EU as an independent state. Independence critics believed that the country could lose its privileges of being in the EU and would have to go through a lengthy process to rejoin.
So, maintaining its established presence on an international level was important.
Then, in 2016, the U.K. voted to leave the EU, a union of 27 states in Europe with easy movement between people and resources along with its own single market. It would be replaced by Brexit, which took effect in January 2020.
Brexit ultimately removed the U.K. from the EU financial market, establishing one of its own. It’s a system that allows Britain to establish its own guidelines for international policy and trade along with immigration.
The majority of Scotland voted to remain in the EU — 62% of voters. In total, 1,661,191 people.
But the Scottish vote didn’t matter. Its percentages paled in comparison to the rest of the U.K. that showed up to the polls in support of Brexit. Outside of Scotland, 53% of the U.K. voted in favor.
When the Brexit vote happened, Carlin said it felt like the “sky was falling down” for many people. He said some independence supporters were persuaded into accepting the pro-union vote in 2014, because staying in the U.K. would be the only certain way to remain in the EU.
“Fast forward two years, Scotland’s stayed in the United Kingdom, but they’re no longer in the European Union,” Carlin said.
Ultimately, Brexit sparked a move by Sturgeon to push forward a second referendum on independence, particularly as the SNP grew in numbers in the Scottish Parliament. With many people frustrated with the U.K., it launched the first steps toward a referendum.
“There’s nothing to stop Scotland from being independent.”Stefan Carlin
In fact, 2014 was like a “promise” for many people that Scotland would keep its safety net — and that promise was broken, according to Sarah Massons, the Scottish National Party senior communications director. She said a greater divide was created between Scotland and England when the U.K. moved forward with Brexit after most Scottish citizens weren’t in favor.
It only pushed people to be more in favor of independence.
“Regardless of whether or not you want to be in the EU, you can see that the democratic will of the people of Scotland is not being respected,” Massons said.
Massons said Scotland’s voice “hasn’t been heard at all,” and it often becomes difficult to keep trying when the rest of the union doesn’t seem interested in listening. While the two countries are physically close, Scotland felt more and more isolated.
“We’re doing everything with one hand tied behind our back and, to me, that just doesn’t make sense at all,” she said. “There’s a possibility that a Scottish government, a Scottish parliament in an independent Scotland, could do amazing things.”
For example, Massons said the SNP is looking to introduce a Scottish child payment, which would increase a current government payment to low-income families from £10 per week to £25.
That would be an increase in American dollars from $13 to $32.
When the pandemic swept through four years after the Brexit vote, the support for independence was even further reaffirmed for some people.
Danny Dobbi, who lives in Skelmorlie — a village in the southwest of Scotland — said the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been “slapdash” in his decisions surrounding health policies while Sturgeon remained honest.
As recently as April 12, Johnson was fined by the U.K. police for violating coronavirus lockdown laws after he attended a party.
Dobbi maintains that the U.K. government used dishonesty and fear to persuade Scots to remain in the U.K. Then, the government posed questions that forced people into submission: If independent, how would Scotland pay for pensions? What would happen with its oil?
The pandemic helped Dobbi recognize the type of politician he didn’t want to be affiliated with as a part of the union and confirmed his support for Sturgeon as a potential sole leader of Scotland.
“She’s authentic, she’s transparent, and she sticks to what she says,” he said. “She’s not here to win a popularity contest.”
Beyond Scotland, neighboring countries have sympathized with the push for independence. Joanna McCandless, 42, of Northern Ireland said Johnson’s handling of the pandemic would make most people turn away from considering themselves British.
As an outsider, McCandless said she’s seen Scots become more inclined to see themselves separate from the U.K. as the pandemic has progressed.
“I think that it’s really illustrated the differences and made people more insular within their own country,” McCandless said.
Even as an English resident, James Ford, 40, of Norfolk said he’d like to see Scotland gain independence, especially following the Brexit approval. To Ford, it illustrated the “unfair power” England has in the U.K.
For some, this dichotomy between England and Scotland has created a defining factor in what it means to be Scottish.
Dobbi said his identity as a Scot is crucial to the way he perceives himself and, ultimately, what his real place in the U.K. is.
“If I’m asked to tick a box if I’m Scottish [or] British, then I’m going to say Scottish,” Dobby said.
But it isn’t black and white — or British and Scottish.
Andy MacKay, 34, grew up in Glasgow and attends the University of Strathclyde. MacKay said his family has roots in the shipping industry, so he feels more connected to “the great shipbuilding communities” of Liverpool and Newcastle than to anywhere in Scotland. But, that doesn’t take away from his Scot blood.
“I’m as Scottish as any person in this country — and I’m also proud British.”
MacKay describes himself as anti-independence “at the moment.” He can be persuaded to support, but he’ll need a valid reason to. So far, nothing has been good enough to make him stray from the status quo.
The question of independence for Scotland is far from new. It goes back to the very beginning of the U.K.’s history.
The Battle of Bannockburn looms large in Scottish history — greater for some than others. In 1314, it became the last major victory the Scottish had over England during its original fight for independence.
“I don’t think the ‘Yes’ campaign…put forward a really good enough reason as to why we should break up a union that’s over 300 years old,” he said. “We talked about the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in 2014 [that was] 700 years ago. A lot of things have changed.”
It’s still a topic of conversation in the independence movement for some people. Samanta Baldina lives in Inverness — a city in the Highlands known for its oil and agriculture — where she said the wars for Scottish independence, including Bannockburn, are still well known.
About 200 years after the initial wars for Scottish independence came the War of the Holy League, which pitted Scotland and England against one another once again. It ultimately led to the death of Scotland’s King James IV at the hands of the English army — this was ahead of the official act that brought the two countries together almost 200 years later.
“There is a strong reluctance of being connected with England because of the war, and England killing the [royal] family,” Baldina said. “No one really wants to be with a country [that] just limits them in what they can do.”
But Stephen Kerr of the Scottish Conservative Party said, certainly, a lot has changed since the 14th century, and people should let go of those sentiments.
To Kerr, the U.K. has proven to be “the most successful union between countries that there’s ever been in the history of the world.” With long and deep ties between Scotland and England, the culture and ancestry of both countries have mingled so intimately that Kerr said it could be traumatic for many people to see that split.
“It’s a matter of family,” he said. “We’ve been through so much together over the last 300 years.”
Kerr said people should take into consideration challenges that arose with the split from the EU, a partnership that was a mere 50 years old. It took several delayed agreements before the U.K. could officially leave, and the previous prime minister that initiated Brexit, Theresa May, resigned amid the chaos.
While Carlin said Scotland would be even more financially successful if it were to break off on its own, Kerr said the single market of the U.K. is a “powerful asset” for Scotland with 60% of its trade being tied to England. According to Kerr, most of its economic prosperity comes through its relationship with England.
“We don’t have any sense of inferiority, or any sense of subjugation,” he said. “We are very much the beneficiaries of this great union.”
Shortly after the 2014 referendum, the Scotland in Union campaign was created in the footsteps of the former pro-union campaign Better Together. According to Pamela Nash, the campaign’s chief executive, the SNP continued its work for independence, so many people believed a union campaign was also necessary.
Nash said remaining in the union brings financial benefits, global protection and prestige.
“If you have a bigger country, you can weather the storm and you can support each other,” she said.
Nash said an independent Scotland could lose its membership in the United Nations Security Council, Group of Seven and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The 2014 referendum created a lot of “emotional costs” for many Scots, Nash said, forcing many of them to choose between two sides of their identity.
So, Kerr is adamant that the referendum won’t even happen in 2023.
According to Kerr, Scottish citizens are more focused on other things — like education and health — and politicians should concentrate on that.
However, Kerr said the SNP continues to push the narrative for an independent Scotland, which he said can take time away from focusing on the real issues.
“Any survey that has been done of public opinion in Scotland over a protracted period of time, before the Brexit vote and since, issues relating to independence are sometimes not even in the top 10 issues that people care about,” Kerr said.
If Scotland were to vote for independence, many people just aren’t sure what their lives would look like moving forward.
The idea of an independent Scotland is more convoluted than it may appear from a surface level. It’s not the same U.S. story of leading the charge in the American Revolution to fight for personal freedoms. Nothing is black in white.
The unknown is the SNP’s biggest hurdle and, ultimately, could hurt them in the end, according to Sir John Curtice.
Curtice, a Scottish political scientist and pollster, said people were too afraid in 2014 to enter unknown territory, because they just didn’t know what it would look like on the other side. The SNP, according to Curtice, didn’t make it clear to Scots what an independent state would look like and, instead, simply delivered political talking points.
“There’s no guarantee that this independent Scotland, once it’s free to decide what it wants to do for itself, what it will do. And we shouldn’t necessarily assume all this,” he said.
While Carlin is a supporter of independence, he said the SNP needs to do more to advance the movement.
“To get independence, we have to focus on other societal issues.”
In 2014, Carlin said there was so much discussion about seemingly peripheral issues that “derailed” the independence movement as a whole — like what currency would be used if the movement was approved.
Additionally, there’s misconception over what support for independence actually means and who cares about it.
Brexit may have been the push Sturgeon needed to get people talking about a second referendum, but it likely won’t be what draws the line. In fact, Curtice said a growth in support isn’t about Brexit and is “much more difficult to pin down.”
According to Curtice, there’s “virtually no link” to how people voted in the 2014 Independence Referendum and two years later for Brexit.
“The polling in the autumn of 2016 did identify that some people who had voted no and remain were switching to yes. However, there were other people who had voted yes and leave who switched to no,” he said. “So, the net effect in the short term was zero.”
The pandemic has played its hand in the rising support in the polls as many Scots believe Sturgeon handled the health crisis “a wee bit better” than Johnson in England, Curtice said. In 2020, a poll found that 60% of people approved of Scotland’s handling of the pandemic compared to 16% in favor of the U.K.’s decisions.
But, that sentiment largely “dissipated” last spring, Curtice said.
In 2014, Scots argued over the economic impacts of independence, deciding it would be too detrimental. While Brexit has made people question that, 40% of people said independence would only damage Scotland financially — even with Brexit’s system in place.
While there’s constant fluctuation in the support of certain issues, Curtice said the supporters themselves have remained the same. People who voted for independence in 2014 are likely to vote for it again — and the same is true for unionists, despite how drastically the world has changed in eight years.
However, young voters could boost support for the SNP.
In 2015, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill that reduced the voting age to 16, making it possible for more independence supporters to have their voices heard.
A 2020 poll found that 79% of people aged 16-24 favored independence, an age group that was primarily too young to vote in the first referendum. Two years later, Curtice said the 35-44 age group has become the greatest supporters.
“Demographically, age is very important,” he said.
But, for now, Scotland is virtually where it was before talks about a second referendum began. Curtice said there’s a balanced, 50/50 split with no clear majority.
There’s still uncertainty about what would happen to pensions, oil, currency and the E.U. — and if a referendum will even happen.
“So, the truth is, neither side is in a place where they want to be.”