‘Britain is not what it was’

Why Scotland voted to stay in EU

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

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MOTHERWELL, Scotland (AP) — Cooling towers, blast furnaces and coking coal. The grit and humour of steelworkers heading to early-morning shifts. That was Motherwell before the steelworks closed and the ‘Steelopolis’ of Scotland became another tattered, post-industrial town trying to a find its place in a service economy.


Had this been south of the border, maybe Robert Butcher — whose father lost his job when the Ravenscraig steelworks closed in 1992 — would have channelled his resentment toward the European Union. But, unlike many blue-collar voters in England and Wales, Butcher doesn’t see how leaving the 28-nation bloc would benefit declining industrial towns like Motherwell that were once the backbone of the sprawling British Empire.


"Britain is not what it was. It thinks it is, but it’s not. And it’s as simple as that," said Butcher, a 52-year-old metal worker, fixing his car in the front of an abandoned home, not far from the former Ravenscraig worksite.


In one of the defining splits of June 23rd’s EU referendum, all 32 council areas in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland, went against their southern neighbours and voted for Britain to stay in the bloc. Even towns shattered by the demise of shipyards, coal mines and steelworks made the calculus that quitting the EU wouldn’t turn things around for them.


"I think it’s a lot to do with the Scottish independence movement," said Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, one of the 54 legislators representing the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the British Parliament.


A lawyer and former actress, Ahmed-Sheikh said the SNP’s enthusiastic campaigning for continued British EU membership helps explain why Scotland voted to "Remain." The party leads the local Scottish Government and spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign for Scottish independence in a 2014 referendum.


"It really is unfathomable to imagine Scotland not being part of the EU," she said, outside her constituency office in Alloa, a town once known for its wool industry. "People up and down the country are thinking that they’re going to wake up tomorrow and it’s all going to be a really bad dream."


Immediately after the vote, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon raised the possibility of a repeat referendum on Scottish independence, saying it’s unfair for Scots to be pulled out of the EU against their will simply due to the larger numbers of English voters.


In Edinburgh, a picturesque university city where kilt-wearing bagpipers entertain tourists on the Royal Mile, 74 per cent voted to "Remain" — the highest in Scotland. The overall win for the "Leave" side in Britain appeared to deepen the animosity toward England among some Scots.


Others were just shocked by the outcome.


"The day that the result came out I was on my way to one of the agricultural shows in Edinburgh," said Lindsay Wright, a 23-year-old celebrating her degree in veterinary medicine. "And the atmosphere there was just one of dismay, and sort of ‘What will happen now, how will it affect our livelihoods?’"


She said perhaps Scots voted differently from the English and the Welsh because they already had thought through the consequences of leaving the EU when they voted in the 2014 independence referendum. Leaving Britain would have meant leaving the EU, too, at least temporarily. In that 2014 ballot, 55 per cent of Scots voted to stay in the UK.


To be sure, not all Scots feel the same way about Europe. Unionists marching Saturday with British flags and Protestant banners in the annual Orange Order parade in Glasgow rejected the assertion that Scotland was being dragged out of the EU by other parts of the UK.


"There’s isn’t a Scottish vote, there was a UK vote," said Findley McLaughlin, a penny whistle player in the Protestant Boys marching band. "The SNP have got an agenda, 100 per cent. They just want to break up the (United Kingdom). And it’ll never work."


Anthony Ridge-Newman, an associate researcher at the University of Glasgow, said Scottish nationalism has changed the way Scots "view their place in the United Kingdom and the way they view their place in Europe". However, he said, there’s a contradiction in how the Scottish National Party calls for independence from Britain while still wanting to remain part of the larger EU.


Motherwell, south-east of Glasgow, belongs to an area where 62 per cent of voters backed remaining in the EU. Places with the same recent history of decline in England and Wales typically voted "Leave" by a similar margin.


Ironworks and coal mines made Motherwell one of Scotland’s most important industrial centres in the 19th century. The Ravenscraig steelworks opened in 1957 and its closure in 1992 left hundreds of steelworkers jobless, affecting thousands of related businesses.


"It was all right for them that went and got their redundancy," Butcher said in a thick Glaswegian accent, taking a break from replacing a bulb on his headlights. "But if you didn’t get a job within a year, you had to start living off the money."


The cooling towers came down in 1996 but the Ravenscraig site is still undergoing redevelopment. Derelict and polluted land is still being cleaned up to be reopened for residential or commercial developments — a project partially funded by the EU.


Asked why he thought industrial towns in England and Scotland voted so differently despite sharing so many traits, Butcher said it comes down to how they view their place in the world.


"There are a lot of things England likes with the EU, but they don’t run it," he said. "And that’s their only problem, when they don’t run it. They like to have the last say."

   

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