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Scottish National Party’s win may reignite the independence referendum

The Scottish Nationalist Party is set to win in Scotland’s parliamentary election and is expected to call for a pro-independence referendum, setting the stage for a clash with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. NPR Correspondent Frank Langfitt joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the election and what the outcome means for the pro-independence movement in the UK.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Counting is still underway this weekend in local and parliamentary elections held Thursday in the three countries that make up great Britain: England, Scotland and Wales.

    For more on how nationalist parties that want to break away from the United Kingdom are doing and what's ahead, I spoke with NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt earlier today.

    So, Frank, why are people paying so much more attention to this round of elections?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    The Scottish National Party was saying if they could get a majority or a pro-independence majority in the parliament this year, they would push for an independence referendum basically to break away from the United Kingdom. So people are watching this naturally very closely.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Since the last time Scotland wanted to break off, we've had a Brexit and a pandemic. How does that change things?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Brexit was fundamental, Hari. I think that the independence referendum failed. It was only 45% voted back in 2014. And a lot of those people, quite a few of them voted to stay in the United Kingdom because they were told it was the only way they could stay inside the European Union.

    Two years later, they felt betrayed when Brexit happened. And that really angered a lot of Scots that I've talked to. And so they've been very determined not only to leave the United Kingdom, but hopefully in the future rejoin the European Union.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So there's two parts to this, the leaving of the United Kingdom, that wouldn't be very simple. And then the other part is the joining of the EU. How long would all this take?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Nicole Sturgeon, she is the first minister of Scotland. She's the head of the Scottish National Party. She looks to be hoping for a referendum, assuming that Boris Johnson will agree to this. And he said so far that he won't, maybe in 2023. But then after that, you have the question of a border between England and Scotland that runs about one hundred miles. There'd be questions of currency things along those lines. And then in terms of getting back into the EU, it could take easily a number of years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So in the meantime, you have a disunited kingdom.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    It's definitely a risky venture. People I talk to, you say that it can be done, even economists, but it could be very challenging economically. And it's a very uncertain landscape, certainly in the UK between the pandemic, recession, and Brexit.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And is there an idea of what the sentiment is? Has there been more excitement about getting to the polls if only 45% went to the polls for the referendum last time, or are they more interested and engaged in the process today?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    The polls have shown roughly on the independence issue about 50/50. Back in October of last year, it got as high as 58%, a record for independence. I think the strategy the Scottish National Party will be to get through these very difficult times and then finding just the right time to call it when they think that the support will be high and they'll be able to win it. As we know in politics, timing is everything.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How does this change the balance of, well, I guess Western democracies and what this does to the United Kingdom?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    I think this is another reason why Americans should actually be paying attention to a story like this that they might not necessarily focus on. The United Kingdom is a close ally of the United States, both militarily and diplomatically.

    And so the idea that the UK could be tied up for another few years, that's for sure, bad news for the United States, especially as it's facing off against a very aggressive and much more assertive China and also Russia and Vladimir Putin. I was talking to one Conservative Party politician in Scotland just a few days ago who said, you know, the idea of Scottish independence would really make Vladimir Putin smile, it's the kind of thing he wants, a fractured west.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the third leg of this tripod, Wales? What's happening there?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    The last time I looked at polls, it was up around 35% in favor of independence. There is frustration there. Also, the big thing that I think frustrates people is that all the power is in the Conservative Party, which is dominant Boris Johnson's party in London in the British Parliament. And they are very different politically than England. There's also a lot of discontent or some discontent in Wales. But Wales wouldn't be the first place to make a move. They'll be watching Scotland very closely over the next couple of years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks so much.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Great to talk, Hari.

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