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Brexit And Independence Are Top Of Mind For Scottish Voters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Scottish voters are choosing a path this week that could lead to a breakup of the United Kingdom. Regional parliamentary elections are tomorrow, and the ruling Scottish National Party is running on a promise to let Scottish voters decide whether to leave the U.K. If that sounds familiar, it's because Scotland had an independence referendum in 2014. What's changed? In a word, Brexit. For more, we are joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt. He spent the last few days driving hundreds of miles across Scotland talking to voters. And he is now back on the streets of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, where I actually covered the last referendum.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: All right. So how has Brexit changed people's calculus in the seven years since the last referendum?

LANGFITT: You know, back then, some people who voted against independence, they did so because they were told it was the only way to stay in the European Union. Then, of course, two years later, the U.K. votes to leave the EU. Many Scottish voters felt betrayed, and so some now support independence. So they hope that Scotland can take control of its destiny and go back into the EU. And one of them I met over the weekend, her name's Fiona Thompson (ph). She's an artist. And she explained to me how her attitude towards independence has really flipped since she first voted against it seven years ago.

FIONA THOMPSON: I voted no because at that time, I thought it was our (unintelligible) to stay in Europe. And then we'd got Brexit. Because we've left Europe, which I'm passionate about, I've probably now become someone who's agreed to independence.

SHAPIRO: Frank, is there more going on here than just the impact of Brexit?

LANGFITT: There is. And I think, you know, Scotland is literally a separate nation inside the United Kingdom. It has its own regional Parliament. It feels very different from England. And the Scottish National Party, the politicians, they say independence is the only way for Scotland to basically have control over its fate. Now there's a guy I also met named Fergus Mutch. He's running for the Scottish Parliament in the northeast for the Scottish National Party, and he's hoping to take a seat away from Boris Johnson's Conservative Party.

FERGUS MUTCH: Scotland as a country should make all decisions that affect us and for ourselves. And now we've got a pretty hard-line, anti-European, increasingly isolationist government at Westminster that, frankly, doesn't represent most of the interests of the people of Scotland.

LANGFITT: And, of course, for people - listeners, Westminster is the heart of the U.K. government. And in American terms, it's like inside the Beltway.

SHAPIRO: OK, so people see Scotland as a very different country. They want political control. Tell us about the arguments against independence.

LANGFITT: Well, the strongest one, I think probably the same one that you encountered, and that's economics. Scotland would be leaving its largest market and a financial supporter. And the question is, could it really thrive on its own? And over the weekend, I met a group of Scottish businesspeople. And I did this little poll.

Is there anybody here who supports Scottish independence?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No.

LANGFITT: Nobody?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

LANGFITT: So what they said is they were worried that Scotland wouldn't be able to afford the services it now provides to people without financial support from the U.K. They're worried that that's going to lead to higher taxes, barriers to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. And Robin MacGeachy (ph) - he manufactures scientific equipment and relies on parts made in England. And this is how he says he sees it.

ROBIN MACGEACHY: The idea of actually being an independent Scotland, to me, is really quite frightening. If there's an independent Scotland, we will certainly move our headquarters south. We feel very Scottish. But we feel very sort of...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, British.

MACGEACHY: Feel very sort of British. But I feel that, you know, Scotland is being taken away from me.

SHAPIRO: And, you know, coming back to the big picture, the U.K. is such a close ally of the United States. If Scotland were to break away, what would that mean to the United States?

LANGFITT: Yeah. Ari, there's a genuine concern in Washington about this. The U.S. relies on the U.K. for political and military support. And I was talking to a guy named Jamie Greene. He's running for reelection to the Scottish Parliament with Boris Johnson's Conservative Party. And he says, you know, the breakup of this country would weaken the West, and it would help the U.K. and America's opponents. This is how we put it.

JAMIE GREENE: Russia, China, the East, North Korea, Iran - these countries are desperate for our unions to fail. And I think people in Moscow are looking on in glee at the prospect of Scottish independence.

SHAPIRO: One of many voices NPR's Frank Langfitt has heard from ahead of tomorrow's vote in Scotland.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.