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Scotland May Once Again Try To Break Away From The United Kingdom


Scots will vote today in regional elections that could determine the near future of that country. If the pro-independence parties win a majority, they're going to push for a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Edinburgh.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Scotland held its first independence referendum in 2014, 55% of voters opposed it. One was a Scottish American student named Emma Hodcroft. She'd spent the election day here in the city's old town, urging people to vote to stay in the United Kingdom. Here's her exchange with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who covered the referendum back then.


ARI SHAPIRO: I can tell by all the pins and stickers that you are a no vote.

EMMA HODCROFT: I am a no vote, indeed. We're not so different as I think a lot of people think we are, especially between England and Scotland and Wales. We have so much shared history. We have so much in common.

LANGFITT: Hodcroft said she also voted against independence because that seemed the best way to stay inside the European Union. Two years later came the Brexit referendum. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain inside the EU. But England, which has 10 times as many people, voted out.

HODCROFT: The whole country has been pulled into a different future.

LANGFITT: This is Emma Hodcroft today. She now lives in Switzerland. Hodcroft says Brexit has made working in Europe less certain. And on the issue of Scottish independence...

HODCROFT: I certainly - I feel very far from where I was then. I feel much more on the fence about it now.

LANGFITT: John Craig, a saxophonist here in Edinburgh, has jumped over that fence. He voted against independence in 2014. But since then...

JOHN CRAIG: I've totally changed my opinion on independence because of things like Brexit. And what we need now is actually a Scottish government fully in control of all of our powers to take Scotland into the right direction. I never thought I'd be campaigning for independence.

LANGFITT: Shifts by people like Craig are a big reason why support for independence surged here last year, hitting a record 58% in an October poll.

Another reason people support independence is they feel Scotland is just so different from England. Fiona Geddes works in HR and theater. In 2014, when she lived in London, she opposed independence. But after moving back home to Glasgow a few years later, she changed her mind.

FIONA GEDDES: I started to understand the cultural differences between us as countries, which I hadn't been aware of as a teenager. There's more of a perhaps capitalist, profit-based, individualistic feeling in England and a much more collective, society-focused feeling in Scotland.

LANGFITT: But support for independence has dipped this year, and there remains a lot of opposition.

IAN WILSON: Very few businesses really think it's a great idea.

LANGFITT: Scottish businessman Ian Wilson worries that without financial support from the U.K., an independent Scotland would have to raise taxes, which, he says, could drive some businesses south to England.

WILSON: Increasing the taxation rate would put people off, and you would get an element of brain drain. People like security. And they've got increased uncertainty, then they're going to be very cautious.

LANGFITT: Fiona Houston, who runs a food business, says the last thing Scotland needs now is a referendum that could split the country.

FIONA HOUSTON: I just (ph) find it incredible that we've been through Brexit, we've been through a pandemic and that we're even considering this. I have a small business, and the thought of having to have more uncertainty, it's extraordinary.

LANGFITT: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the Brexit campaign, says his government won't approve another independence referendum. But most people here think Scotland will eventually leave the U.K. Ailsa Henderson studies public opinion on independence and teaches political science at the University of Edinburgh.

AILSA HENDERSON: Just under 40% think that Scotland will become independent in five to 10 years, and a further 20% think that will happen within 10 to 15 years. So the Scottish electorate doesn't think that Scotland will still be in the union in a decade or so.

LANGFITT: Which means Brexit could eventually lead to the breakup of a country that once ruled a global empire on which the sun never set. Tom Devine is a leading Scottish historian.

TOM DEVINE: Can you think of a worse legacy for the British prime minister than to go down in history as having had the breakup of the union of 1707 between England and Scotland on his conscience and on his history? It would make Lord North, who lost the American colonies, seem irrelevant by comparison.

LANGFITT: Lord North served as Britain's prime minister during America's struggle for independence.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Edinburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.