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Referendum calls in EU-loving Scotland grow louder

By EARLE GALE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-01-11 09:48
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An anti-Brexit protester holds a sign outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Britain December 31, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

With the United Kingdom having fully stepped out of the European Union's door on Jan 1, a cacophony of criticism in Scotland about Brexit has led to a ramping-up of calls for another referendum to be held on Scottish independence-a demand that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is sure to resist with all his might.

The referendum calls are based on the fact that the Scottish people overwhelmingly voted in the 2016 referendum for the UK to remain a part of the bloc it had joined in 1973.

But, with other parts of the UK voting to leave-most gallingly for the Scots none more enthusiastically than huge swathes of rural England-the resulting vote of 52 percent in favor of an exit to 48 percent in favor of staying meant the people of Scotland were in effect outvoted.

Many north of the border are now saying an independent Scotland would be free to make up its own mind about the EU, and rejoin if it chooses to.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is a committed advocate of an independent Scotland, tweeted on Dec 31 in the final minutes of the post-Brexit transition period that Europe should "keep a light on" for Scotland because it would be "back soon", during which the UK and EU had continued to behave as if the nation was still a member of the bloc.

However, Johnson has said he does not want another referendum to be held on Scottish independence so soon after the one in 2014 in which the Scottish people voted by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent in favor of remaining within the UK.

Johnson said such votes should not be repeated for at least a generation.

His supporters say he has a good point. After all, should Scottish separatists really be allowed to keep holding referendums until they get the result they want?

The prime minister repeated his mantra on Jan 3 when he said on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show that the UK's two recent encounters with direct democracy, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 referendum on EU membership, were divisive and basically bad news for everyone.

"Referendums in my experience-direct experience-in this country are not particularly jolly events," he said. "They don't have a notably unifying force in the national mood. They should be only once-ina-generation."

To stay or leave

Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, said something similar when she was pushed to allow another referendum. But her answer differed a little from Johnson's because she said a repetition of the referendum would be warranted only if something significant happened that made it important for the government to ask the people of Scotland once again for their opinion on the issue.

Supporters of another referendum on Scottish independence say Brexit was the sort of significant event she was talking about.

Tony Blair, the Labour Party politician who was prime minister of the UK from 1997 to 2007, told the BBC: "We had a referendum that rejected Scottish independence, but Brexit put it back on the agenda again. And it's going to require very careful management."

Blair, a Scot himself and a strong advocate of Scotland remaining part of the UK, said Johnson will have to walk a fine line if he is to resist calls for another referendum and also avoid the appearance of London telling Scotland what to do. The United Kingdom is, after all, not so much a single country but a union of nations that are equal and are members of the union because they want to be.

Experts say Johnson will be hoping political parties in Scotland that oppose independence and want to remain part of the union will become stronger and take on the pro-independence Scottish National Party. The SNP runs the nation's devolved government and is pushing for a new referendum on the issue.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives have tried to do just that in recent days by urging Sturgeon, the SNP's leader, to focus on limiting the spread of COVID-19 instead of trying to break away from the UK.

SLD leader Willie Rennie told The Herald newspaper that controlling the spread of COVID-19 should be the priority. "We need to put the recovery first as we face this colossal new wave of the virus," he said. "If the country is to be locked down, so should the campaign for independence… Civil servants are being put to work right now on the SNP's next independence bill. That is the wrong priority for the government."

A spokesperson for Sturgeon said: "No one is proposing holding an independence referendum in the middle of the pandemic-unlike the Tories, who have disgracefully ploughed ahead with Brexit amid the COVID-19 crisis."

In an opinion piece in the Edinburgh News, SNP politician Angus Robertson recently wrote that publications throughout the EU, including Italy's Corriere della Sera and Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have been mulling the prospect of Scotland breaking away from the rest of the UK and rejoining the bloc.

"For the first time across Europe, there is a clear understanding that this is a profoundly democratic question: an overwhelming majority in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, Westminster has imposed Brexit nevertheless and a growing majority in Scotland now favors independence in Europe," he wrote.

While calls for another referendum are clearly becoming louder, it seems likely that Boris Johnson will turn a deaf ear on them for as long as possible.

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