Why has Britain's Theresa May already visited Scotland?

Within 48 hours of officially taking on the top job, British Prime Minister Theresa May headed to Scotland, hoping to emphasize British unity as some Scots mull post-Brexit independence. 

James Glossop/Reuters
Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May, left, meets with First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House in Edinburgh, Scotland on Friday, July 15, 2016, with Scottish saltire flags behind. Prior to the meeting, May said "This visit to Scotland is my first as prime minister and I'm coming here to show my commitment to preserving this special union that has endured for centuries."

British Prime Minister Theresa May visits Scotland on Friday, her first trip since officially taking over the top job from David Cameron on Wednesday.

Visiting Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, as her first port of call soon after taking power, is an effort to underscore the importance Prime Minister May places on the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a particularly critical juncture for this fragile allegiance, as a majority in Scotland voted to remain in the European Union during Britain’s recent referendum, whereas the overall result favored the so-called Brexit.

Indeed, May will have her work cut out as she seeks to negotiate with Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who countered the prime minister's "Brexit means Brexit" assertion with her own insistence that "remain means remain," emphasizing that Scots' wish to retain ties to the EU must be respected. 

"I believe with all my heart in the United Kingdom – the precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland," May said in a statement. "This visit to Scotland is my first as prime minister and I'm coming here to show my commitment to preserving this special union that has endured for centuries."

In the referendum on Britain's future in the European Union, Scots voted by 62 percent to 38 percent to remain, whereas Britain as a whole voted to leave by 52 percent to 48 percent.

But this was not the first referendum in recent years over existential questions on the future of the United Kingdom: In 2014, Scotland held a referendum on independence, asking whether it should secede from the UK.

Independence was rejected by 55 percent to 45 percent, but the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose ultimate vision is Scotland as an independent country, has since been thriving, snatching up 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British parliament in the 2015 general election.

"We have been put in a position where our vital interests – businesses, jobs, universities, freedom to travel, workers' rights and much else besides – are all at risk," Scotland’s finance minister, Derek Mackay, said Friday. "Warm words about a 'special Union' are simply not enough – a Union that ignores our wishes and drags us out of EU against our democratic will would not be very special."

One idea that has been floated to reconcile these opposing viewpoints is that Scotland could somehow remain in both the EU and the UK, even if the rest of the UK were to embrace the Brexit.

Scottish independence is "only one of a number of options that are being considered," said Stephen Gethins, the SNP member of Parliament and the party's spokesman on Europe, according to The Telegraph. "If you look at the way the European Union and the United Kingdom have found solutions over the past 40 years, I'd be very surprised if the political will is there, that they can't find a solution to this particular impasse at the moment."

Others are less sanguine when it comes to the prospect of Scotland and the rest of the UK going separate ways on the EU, while still remaining part of the same country. David Mundell, who has retained his position as Secretary for Scotland in May’s new cabinet, said he found such a scenario "very difficult to envisage." 

Yet Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the SNP as well as being Scotland’s first minister, seems determined to find a way of accommodating the Scottish vote on Brexit.

"I have been absolutely clear on this issue," she said on Thursday. "The people of Scotland voted decisively to stay part of the European Union, and their wishes must be respected."

But if first impressions are anything to go by, she faces a tough negotiator in Britain's new leader, who has acted decisively since coming to power, already implementing "the most radical change to the shape of Whitehall [a road considered the heart of British government] for years," as The Guardian reported.

As prime minister, May has made it clear that her desire for unity transcends geographical boundaries, saying she believes in a union "not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all of our citizens," and "not just the privileged few."

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