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World Scotland charts course to independence from U.K.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is calmly and confidently leading her nation on a path many hope will see Scots remain in the EU – and probably leave the U.K.

The first hours of June 24 were bewildering. The United Kingdom, shockingly, had just voted to quit the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron immediately announced his resignation, and no one – least of all the politicians who had campaigned in favour of a so-called "Brexit" – seemed to have any idea what would happen next.

The contrast couldn't have been clearer as Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took to the podium in Edinburgh, wearing her trademark red suit and looking – unlike the emotionally drained Mr. Cameron and the deer-in-headlights Vote Leave leader Boris Johnson – like she had slept well the night before.

Scotland, Ms. Sturgeon said in measured tones, had chosen a different direction from the rest of the U.K., voting 62 per cent in favour of staying in Europe. It would be "democratically unacceptable," she said, for Scots to be pulled out of the EU when their choice to stay had been made so clear.

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And, unlike the politicians in London, the leader of the separatist Scottish National Party knew what she wanted to do about it.

That plan is now rapidly being executed. While most of the world has been focused on the falling markets and political drama in London – where the ruling Conservative Party is at war over who should succeed Mr. Cameron, and the opposition Labour Party is in similar crisis – Ms. Sturgeon sought and received a mandate from Scotland's parliament allowing her to negotiate directly with EU leaders in Brussels, effectively decoupling Scotland's foreign policy from England's for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707.

A day later she held a one-on-one meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a man who previously avoided those seeking secession from the EU's member states. But after the Brexit vote, a spokesman said Mr. Juncker had "a very open door" for Ms. Sturgeon.

Back home, Ms. Sturgeon formed a panel of experts she tasked with advising her government how Scotland can best protect its decision to remain inside the EU. While the panel is impressively non-partisan, the widespread expectation in Edinburgh is that it will come back to Ms. Sturgeon with the recommendation she anticipates: that Scotland will need to seek independence from the U.K. in order to keep its place in Europe.

That, of course, fits very nicely with what Ms. Sturgeon wants to do anyway. Though Scottish voters rejected the idea of independence in a referendum held less than two years ago, Ms. Sturgeon has called the idea of a new vote "highly likely" within the two-year period that the terms of the U.K.'s withdrawal will be negotiated (the two-year clock begins whenever the British government invokes Article 50 of the EU constitution, the clause allowing member states to voluntarily leave the union). Ms. Sturgeon has already asked civil servants to begin drafting the legislation necessary for another referendum on independence.

What's surprising is how little resistance there is in Scotland to the idea of another vote so soon after the last one, which saw 55 per cent of Scots vote to stay in the U.K. and which Ms. Sturgeon promised at the time would settle the issue for a generation. But Ms. Sturgeon says the prospect of Britain leaving the EU "represents a significant and a material change of the circumstances" from 2014. Most here agree: Brexit changes everything.

Even the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, which fought on the No side during the 2014 referendum on Scotland's independence, backed Ms. Sturgeon's request for a mandate to negotiate directly with Brussels. The Scottish Conservative Party was left as the lonely voice reminding that Scotland was – at the moment – still part of the United Kingdom.

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There's also a sense on the streets that many of those who voted against independence two years ago are now willing to see Scotland go it alone if it means they can keep their EU citizenships. A series of opinion polls carried out in the past week show support for Scottish independence has spiked to somewhere between 54 and 59 per cent since Vote Leave's Pyrrhic win.

"Nicola Sturgeon's speech on [June 24] was not written in the early hours. She was ready," said Jan Eichhorn, a political science lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. "Their goal is very clear. They want the entire EU debate to be connected to the debate about Scotland's future. And they've succeeded."

The success is attributed almost entirely to the 45-year-old Ms. Sturgeon, who has been described as "pitch perfect" in her response to both the Brexit vote, and the accompanying anti-immigrant mood swirling in England.

Before she raised the independence option, the First Minister first attacked the "fear and hate" spread by the Vote Leave campaign. Then reached out to immigrants from Europe and beyond who were worried about their futures after the Brexit result. "You remain welcome here, Scotland is your home," she said. "Your contribution is valued."

"What we've seen in the past few days is her presenting herself as a national figure, above party interests," said David Torrance, who has written biographies of both Ms. Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond. "She's presenting herself as a de Gaulle figure – she's the mother of the nation."

Mr. Torrance said even the opposition seems to recognize that this is Ms. Sturgeon's moment. "They know that if they set themselves against the mother of the nation, the children will be unhappy."

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On the rainy Wednesday when Ms. Sturgeon was making the rounds in Brussels, a crowd of several thousand people gathered in the rain outside Scotland's postmodern parliament building in the heart of Edinburgh to shout their support for whatever their leader does next. "In Nicola we trust," read one handmade sign held aloft in the crowd. "Scotland loves the EU," read another.

"She's the only leader who's actually leading. I just want to hug her," said Lauren Stonebanks, a 36-year-old Scot of mixed-race descent who said she has been frightened by the post-Brexit mood in the country (she says a woman approached her on an Edinburgh bus after the result and told her to "get your passport, you're fucking going home"). Her own sign read "Help us Nicola Sturgeon, you're our only hope."

There have been, and will be, larger demonstrations in London, another part of the U.K. that voted heavily to remain in the EU. Londoners feel angry and lost about the likelihood of having to leave the EU, and losing the freedoms and opportunities that come with membership.

The difference in Edinburgh was the mood. People here were just as stunned to see the U.K. vote itself out of the 28-country bloc. But the closing of one door has very obviously opened another.

"Personally, I feel like this means there's a better chance Scotland will be independent," said Julie Huggan, a 23-year-old photography student, as the crowd chanted "Scotland in Europe" around her.

Most who attended the rally outside parliament said they had voted Yes in the 2014 independence referendum. But Edinburgh two years ago was No country, with this fairy-tale city of castles and cobblestones – and a thriving tourist industry that most often arrives by train from London – voting 61 per cent in favour of staying in the union (grittier Glasgow, in contrast, voted 53 per cent Yes to independence).

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The mood in the Scottish capital has taken a dramatic swing since the Brexit vote. Edinburgh revealed itself on June 23 as the most pro-EU city in Britain, with 74.4 per cent backing the Remain side.

Now, Edinburgh is being forced to choose between the two unions that it is proudly a part of. And some of those who voted No in 2014 say they're not sure they would do so again in the wake of the Brexit decision.

John Edward, who worked as a spokesman for the Scotland Stronger in Europe campaign in the run-up to the recent referendum, said the EU was the decisive issue that convinced him to vote No to independence in 2014. Back then, he said, he didn't feel the SNP had done enough to guarantee Scots wouldn't lose their EU citizenship if they voted for independence. The risks, he decided, were simply too high.

Now it's staying in the U.K. that suddenly looks like the riskier proposition.

"Brexit has given everybody free licence to think about the alternative," Mr. Edward said, during an interview in which he repeatedly threw his arms up in the air in exasperation at pro-Brexit vote in England and Wales. "I had somebody say to me on Friday morning [June 24] 'I think today is the day I stopped being British.' I think the benefits of Britishness have just disappeared."

Mr. Edward said he wasn't yet comfortable with thinking of himself as a separatist. But he said he and many other No voters from 2014 were now leaning that way.

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"Sturgeon has been very clever. She's not playing the separatist card. She's just saying [leaving the EU] isn't in our interests. I think that will bring a lot of people over [to independence] who previously didn't see the attraction of it."

Richard Kerley, a professor of management at Queen Margaret University, said Ms. Sturgeon and the SNP would still have a difficult case to make to Scottish voters in the case of a second independence referendum. The manifesto the SNP presented to voters in 2014 now looks shockingly naive, with plans for an expanded welfare state that was to be paid for by a gusher of revenue from the North Sea oil industry.

The oil price was hovering around $100 (U.S.) a barrel at the time, twice its current level. The collapsing price, which has caused a halt in new exploration and triggered thousands of job losses in Scotland's northeast, would have left a hole billions of dollars wide in the SNP's budget.

Stuart McDonald, a Yes Scotland strategist during the 2014 referendum campaign who now sits as an SNP MP at the House of Commons in London, admitted the party would need to put a very different – and likely less optimistic – manifesto to the public if another independence vote were called. And, he cautioned, the SNP would only call a referendum it felt certain to win.

"We're all conscious of the fact that if we lose another referendum now, it puts independence in a back corner for a significant period of time," he said.

But just when the economic argument appeared to have been won by the unionist camp, along came the Brexit vote, which sent markets tumbling and raised long-term worries about the economic stability of the U.K.

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A Brexit would also cost Scotland more than $1-billion in EU subsidies scheduled to be paid out over the next six years.

Back in 2014, the choice was between the cloudy dream of an independent Scotland – with its future membership in the EU one of the uncertainties – and the stability of staying part of the U.K.

Now, it's suddenly possible to portray a Scottish declaration of independence as a less risky option than staying inside a U.K. that has baffled the world with its new course.

Ms. Sturgeon's trip to Brussels has raised hopes that the EU might welcome an independent Scotland, and perhaps even allow it to take over the U.K.'s membership as a "successor state." And while the Spanish and French governments – worried that Scotland could inspire Catalan and Basque separatists to follow its lead – said they would oppose any process that treated Scotland as anything other than part of the U.K., they were lonely voices this week.

Alyn Smith, an SNP member of European Parliament, earned a standing ovation in Brussels for a speech pleading with the EU to remember Scotland had voted to stay in. "Please, remember this: Scotland, did not let you down," he said, his voice rising to a passionate shout. "Do not let Scotland down now."

Ms. Sturgeon, thus far, has spoken of another independence vote as just an option that events have forced her to put on the table.

But inside the SNP and the wider nationalist movement, there's a growing sense – and excitement – that their moment, a second chance few expected, has come.

"It doesn't just feel like we're heading for another referendum – we're heading for independence," said Lesley Riddoch, a columnist for the National newspaper, an outlet founded after the 2014 vote to promote the separatist argument.

After the 2014 defeat, Ms. Riddoch and other independence backers took to referring to themselves as "The 45" (as in, among the 45 per cent who voted Yes to independence) both as a badge of honour and as a reminder of how close they had come to achieving their dream.

"Now there are two numbers," Ms. Riddoch said. "There's the 45, which is the number we got last time, and there's the 62, which is the [percentage] of people who voted to stay in Europe. As long as we can stay close to the 62, we're cooking with gas."

And that's where Ms. Sturgeon's expert panel and its slow and careful look at Scotland's options comes in. While many SNP supporters would like to see the next independence vote called as soon as possible – while London is still reeling from the shock of the Brexit vote – Ms. Sturgeon wants the 62 per cent to feel like she's acting for all of them, not just the 45.

It's a slow and careful approach that many in the SNP say they have a hard time imagining Mr. Salmond, her more impetuous predecessor, using. But while Mr. Salmond is revered within the party for carrying Scotland's nationalists so close to their goal in 2014, the more cautious Ms. Sturgeon is seen as the right personality to win over unionist voters who may now be wavering between their British and European identities.

Ms. Sturgeon, who grew up in small-town west Scotland, spent four years as a lawyer before running for and winning a seat in the first elections to Scotland's devolved parliament in 1999.

Despite being "a political animal to her fingertips," her biographer said Ms. Sturgeon had a knack for understanding – and then positioning herself as part of – the Scottish political mainstream.

"She even uses Scots vernacular. She says 'I'm gonnae do this,' rather than 'I'm going to,'" Mr. Torrance said. "It's a small thing, but it resonates with voters. They see her as someone they can associate with, rather than a politician."

Her followers toe the line she's set. There's no referendum to talk about now. Nothing has been decided.

But ask them where they think Scotland is heading and you get the rarest commodity on these islands depressed and traumatized by last week's vote for a Brexit: an excited smile.

"We never envisioned this happening, but here we are again," said Gail Ross, an SNP member of Scottish Parliament.

"To say what's going to happen two years down the line – I don't think anybody can say what's going to happen in two days.… But these are historic times that we're living through."

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