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Ripple Effects: Will The Brexit Vote Lead To The Breakup Of The U.K.?

When Maggie Ranage woke up to the results of last month's vote to leave the European Union, she couldn't believe it.

"I just thought, 'Are they nuts? This is bonkers!' " says the Scot, who teaches art and English as a second language at the University of Glasgow. In 2014, during Scotland's independence referendum, Ranage voted to remain in the U.K. She thought Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be "better together," as a campaign slogan at the time promised. But the Brexit vote has her so mad, "if there's another referendum, I'm going to be voting out," she says.

Tremors from the political earthquake that is Brexit continue to reverberate, particularly in Scotland, where people voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Many Scots are angry. They feel they were out-voted by the English, who outnumber them by about 10 to one. Scots are now talking about holding a second referendum to declare independence from the U.K.

"I don't want to be part of England," says Ranage, who was enjoying beers with friends at a pub just off campus this week, "because I really would like not to be ruled by English people."

You hear this kind of frustration across Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, in places such as Buchanan Street, a pedestrian area where musicians play everything from jazz to bagpipes on summer evenings, which are typically overcast and chilly here.

Demonstrators in Edinburgh gather outside the Scottish Parliament, which was discussing the implications for Scotland of the U.K. vote last month to leave the European Union.
Andy Buchanan / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators in Edinburgh gather outside the Scottish Parliament, which was discussing the implications for Scotland of the U.K. vote last month to leave the European Union.

"We thought it was incredibly unfair," says Daniel Everett, 17, who was strolling along the street in a hoodie earlier this week. Everett, who just graduated from high school, was too young to vote on Brexit, but he really wanted the U.K. to stay in the EU. He was looking forward to taking advantage of access to the EU's single market so he could spend a semester on the European continent. Everett felt the Brexit referendum wasn't fair to Scotland.

"Scotland voted to remain and that's a democratic vote," Everett says. "A lot of the smaller nations feel they weren't heard."

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, said after the Brexit vote that a second referendum to leave the U.K. was "highly likely." Everett and many other nationalists here say if they get another chance, they'll vote for independence and they expect the referendum to pass.

Not everyone here in Glasgow, though, is convinced.

"I don't think there'll be another Scottish referendum," says David Leask, who works for the local newspaper. "Scotland originally voted to stay a part of the U.K. and I don't see it changing now."

Leask says one reason is financial. A few years ago, energy from the North Sea provided nearly 20 percent of the revenue for Scotland's government. About three months before the 2014 vote, crude oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel. Since then, prices and government oil revenue have plummeted.

In the run-up to the 2014 vote, the Scottish National Party painted a rosy financial picture of independence.

"They promised all kinds of things to all kinds of people," says Thomas Lundberg, who teaches politics at the University of Glasgow. Lundberg says given the changed financial conditions, the party needs to be much more realistic with voters in any campaign for a second referendum. "If you raise people's expectations, which the SNP did the last time, and you fail to deliver, there could be a big problem."

For all the talk in Glasgow of the inevitability of a second independence referendum, few expect one anytime soon.

"People are slightly referendum-ed out," says Murray Pittock, a cultural historian of the British Isles at the University of Glasgow.

"The polling evidence is that a small majority of people don't want a referendum right now," says Pittock, "and a small majority would vote for Scottish independence if there was one."

In other words, after the most dramatic period in U.K. politics in decades, the Scots, like practically everyone else here, need to catch their breath and think about the future of this nation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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