DUNDEE, Scotland — Before dawn on June 24, Britain voted by a majority to leave the European Union. Yet every region in Scotland voted to remain, and now Scots face the prospect of being pulled from the European Union against their will. Striding confidently into the press room in Edinburgh, the home of the Scottish Parliament, hours after the result of the Brexit vote, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, branded this prospect “democratically unacceptable” and said that a second referendum on Scotland leaving Britain was “on the table.”
Days later, Sturgeon gained cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament to pursue all options to protect Scotland’s place in Europe, which remains up for debate.
In Brussels, however, where the European Union is based, Sturgeon received a mixed reception in her first visit there after the Brexit vote. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the executive arm of the EU, refused to meet with her, saying it would be “not appropriate” at that time. Both France and Spain oppose talks with Scotland individually.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, however, agreed to talk to Sturgeon, saying that the Scottish vote to remain “won them the right to be heard.” She has also met with Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and several national European leaders. Although the results of these talks are uncertain, Sturgeon maintains that all options are still being discussed for Scotland and that the meetings in Brussels were constructive.
Sturgeon’s decisive action stood in stark contrast with the other British leaders, down south in London, Britain’s capital. Within hours of the Brexit result, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, despite previous promises not to do so should he lose the vote. Then Boris Johnson, his possible successor and an avid architect of Brexit, said he would not run. The main opposition party, Labour, has been plunged into crisis; and most recently, Nigel Farage resigned as head of the UK Independence Party, whose core issue has been promoting Britain’s exit from the European Union.
For many Scots, Sturgeon’s decisive leadership has been reassuring amid the political chaos now engulfing the United Kingdom.
In Glasgow, for example, Scotland’s main industrial city, Carol Scott, a welfare and benefits officer at the Cancer Caring Center Trust, said that Sturgeon “appears steadfast and strong at this time, a good ambassador.”
“Let’s face it,” Scott added, “the chaos that is amongst the Parliamentarians down South makes her look even better.”
A recent journalism graduate from Glasgow, Deane Laouadi, said: “I think in the aftermath of Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon has shown herself to be an excellent leader and a consummate professional. She could easily have played the sore loser, but instead she has remained calm and already started devising practical solutions for her country, despite operating under circumstances she did not vote for.”
Yet disagreement is increasing across Britain, including in Scotland, as to how, when or even if the Brexit referendum should be legally adopted by the British government. The withdrawal process from the European Union, dictated by Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, has never been used before and is also the subject of much debate. The position of Scotland is a further complication to this already convoluted and unprecedented process.
So the basis of Sturgeon’s appeal amid such uncertainty in Scotland alone could not be clearer for its people. Sturgeon reached out not only to the majority in Scotland who voted to remain, but also to the large number of people who wished to leave the European Union, seeking to understand their reasons for doing so. She also reassured non-British citizens living in Scotland that “you remain welcome here, Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”
It is Sturgeon’s seemingly inclusive approach to politics that has garnered respect from her opponents and voters not in her political party.
Monica Toll, a traditional Labour supporter and musician living in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, said, “I think Sturgeon is a stellar politician and a natural leader,” despite Toll’s not agreeing with the Scottish National Party’s policy of independence. It is an opinion that has not changed for her in the wake of the referendum.
“I don’t believe there is an economic case for independence, and find it slightly naïve to think that we are in a better position now than we were in 2014” — when the original referendum to leave Britain failed.
Eve Borrowman, a business student at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, whose economy is based heavily on oil production, said of Sturgeon, “I don’t really like her, but I would vote independence if we could guarantee to be part of the EU.”
Even people who previously supported Scottish independence are now unconvinced about the prospect of a second one.
Emma McLaren, a kilt-maker based in Perth, located in central Scotland on the River Tay, said: “I have always been a supporter of Nicola Sturgeon and did vote for independence. However, this week I feel a bit different. I believe that after the indyref [independence referendum], we all had to accept that Scotland chose to remain part of UK. Therefore, now we must abide by the UK decision on leaving the EU. I don’t feel it’s right to start pushing for a second indyref and trying to keep Scotland part of EU. In my opinion, the vote has happened; we must all accept the decision. We could go on and on trying to get things our own way — where do we stop?”
Other Scots have been more critical of Sturgeon’s motives. Jillian Latto, a school librarian in Dundee, Scotland’s fourth-largest city and near the East Coast, thinks that “whilst to some it may look like she is being proactive in the way she is handling things, her agenda is to push for independence. I think she is creating a further division between Scotland, England and the rest of Europe, and she doesn’t seem to want to work with the UK government to try and work this out together.”
Indeed, the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, based in Edinburgh, said, “You do not dampen the shock waves caused by one referendum by lighting the fuse for another.“
But the thorny question of Scottish independence has moved again to center stage in Scottish politics. The important change from the 2014 independence vote is that while last time membership of the European Union was used to encourage a vote to stay part of Britain, it is currently being used as an incentive to secede.
The European Union seems more sympathetic to the cause now, too, most evident by the standing ovation Alyn Smith, the Scottish member of the European Parliament, received there days after the Brexit vote, when he demanded that the European Union not let Scotland down.
Yet whether independence is the best choice for Scotland remains a point of contention among Scots. John Samuels, a retired judge who lives in London, said that “the remaining [EU] states will impose such hard terms on the UK that it might very well be in Scotland’s economic and political interests to stay within the UK, rather than to embrace the EU.”
While Ewen Cameron, a medical student studying in Aberdeen, said, “I didn’t want to leave the EU, but I know the UK is our biggest trade partner, and so I think the UK is ten times more important to Scotland than the EU.”
As the political elite in London succumb to infighting and maneuvering, Sturgeon, 45, said from the outset of the Brexit result that her priority was to uphold and represent the interests of Scotland, which wanted to maintain the position of an “outward looking, open and inclusive country.“
This stance aligns with Scotland’s commitment to working with larger organizations, such as the European Union and even the United Nations. Sturgeon has vocally supported such issues as accepting refugees and particularly backs women’s rights, using her own leadership as an example.
When Sturgeon agreed late last year to help promote UN efforts to include Syrian women in the peace process, she said that UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates equal participation of women in peace negotiations, “sets out the importance of women’s involvement to conflict resolution and peace negotiations, and Scotland has set out its determination to put women at the heart of government and politics.”
“Our Parliament,” she added, “has three female party leaders and a female Presiding Officer, and in Government we are taking forward a range of action such as my appointment of one of the first gender balanced cabinets in the world.”
As Jenny Smith, a lecturer in constitutional law at Nottingham Law School, in England, said: “Nicola Sturgeon is hugely impressive . . . she has demonstrated that not only over the last week, but also by her performances in the televised debates prior to the last general election, when she shone when put up against a whole swath of leading politicians.”
“It sometimes begs the question,” Smith said, “what would happen if the SNP [Scottish National Party] broadened its horizons and put up candidates outside Scotland in a general election?”