How Scotland Could Ruin Theresa May's Career as British Prime Minster

Keeping Scotland part of the UK will be one of the prime minister's biggest challenges.
July 18, 2016, 6:20pm

Theresa May meets Nicola Surgeon at Blute House in Edinburgh. Photo by Andrew Milligan / PA Wire

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

When David Cameron arrived in power in May 2010, one of his first actions was to jump up to the Scottish parliament for a chat with then first minister Alex Salmond. A new "agenda of respect" with Scotland was to be established, Cameron promised, as he committed to making the UK work for all of its different nations and regions.

And so to 2016: David Cameron has just resigned, UK politics are a total mess, and the country is as divided as ever. His three-days-into-the job successor, Theresa May, followed his example and came up to Scotland for talks on Friday with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Symbolically, it was May's first official visit as prime minister. The concerns of Scotland will be listened to, May promised, as she committed to working for "all parts of the United Kingdom and for all people." Her words sounded vaguely familiar, but the context couldn't be more different from six years ago.


If whoever eventually replaces Theresa May as Conservative leader decides to kick off his or her premiership with a visit to Scotland, he or she may be arriving in a foreign country. The independence referendum two years ago was meant to settle Scotland's constitutional question for a generation, but as the UK hurtles toward Brexit—a decision opposed by 62 percent of Scottish voters—it might just become a thing again. For Theresa May, this could turn into a nightmare.

When May and Sturgeon met on Friday, they apparently had an amicable enough chat. Sturgeon described their conversation as "constructive and successful," with May promising a "UK-wide approach" to Brexit that was fancifully interpreted by some as a Scottish veto. But no amount of polite consultation with the Scottish government is going to change the meaning of May's repeated assertion that "Brexit means Brexit." Short of redefining the borders of Britain, that is, which just so happens to be the whole point of the SNP (Scottish National Party).

Nicola Sturgeon is currently full of talk about exploring other options for Scotland to retain EU membership, with some touting the idea of a "reverse Greenland," referring to a set-up that means the non-EU territory of Greenland is still part of EU member Denmark. This arrangement seems unlikely, though, and while May is trying to hold off an inevitable showdown, her own secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, has already ruled out such an idea.


The SNP needs to go through the motions as part of its cautious strategy for calling another referendum. By making independence look like the reasonable option—less about flag waving and more about economic certainty and bilateral trade—the party hopes to win over the anxious middle-class and older voters, and the powerful business lobby, who opted for the "security" of the UK in 2014. It might just be that the prospect of an independent Scotland within the EU now proves more attractive than Theresa and Boris's Brexit Britain.

The two manic days after the referendum saw some of the last remaining bastions of Labour Scotland—namely Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling and the Daily Record newspaper—indicate a new acceptance of independence in the changed climate. Given that Rowling donated around $1.33 million to the No campaign last time and the Record is public enemy number one as far cybernats are concerned, this was pretty big news. Independence supporters are hoping this trend will continue, keenly aware that some of the areas that delivered the strongest Remain vote in June, including Edinburgh, voted heavily for No in 2014. Post-Brexit polls are now placing support for independence at more than 50 percent—maybe not quite safe enough ground for another referendum yet, but unprecedented nonetheless.

If Scotland had voted to leave the UK two years ago, David Cameron would have almost certainly tendered his resignation the next day, as he did when the EU referendum vote came through. If Theresa May loses Scotland over the next few years, she will also find herself in the same predicament. Her own EU-obsessed grassroots, not to mention many of her Cabinet ministers, are unlikely to allow the watering down of Brexit for the sake of an SNP Government that doesn't want to be in the UK anyway. Nicola Sturgeon also has to appease her own party's support with the promise, however distant, of a second independent referendum. Hours after her "constructive" meeting with the prime minister, Sturgeon sent out an email to party supporters mockingly titled "Come what may," in which she warned that "warm words about a 'special Union' won't cut it," referring to May's speech.

In public, both parties are content with placid negotiations and #inspiring photo opportunities for now, but as Brexit marches on, things are likely to get a lot messier.

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