As the Brexit Deal settles down and the UK becomes used to being a Third Country in relation to the EU, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the damage that Brexit may have done to the United Kingdom. This is particularly evident in N Ireland and Scotland – both of which voted to Remain in the 2016 Referendum. There is a perception in both nations that the vote to leave the EU was an English and Welsh vote, which is dragging the other two Nations out against their will.
Writing in the Evening Standard, George Osborne, the UK’s Chancellor when the decision was taken to hold an In-Out Referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU, argues that “by unleashing English nationalism, Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade.”
December’s EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement leaves N Ireland as the only part of the UK still in the EU’s Single Market. An outcome which inevitably leads Belfast to look towards Dublin and Brussels, not London, for its economic and political future. Dublin, of course, has not been blind to this opportunity to improve its standing in N Ireland, moving fast to fund access for students in N Ireland to ERASMUS + and sending ambulances to assist with patients North of the border.
An opinion poll over the weekend found a majority of people in N Ireland still favour remaining in the UK. But Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, felt obliged to respond to a separate question in the same opinion poll which showed majority support for a Border Poll on the future of N Ireland, by describing such a vote as ‘absolutely reckless.’
The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) argues that sustained ascendancy in Scotland legitimises their stance on independence. The SNP has governed Scotland since 2007. In 2015, they won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at the UK General Election.
Scotland voted 55:45 in favour of remaining in the UK in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. But in 2016, Scotland voted 62% in favour of remaining in the EU – the highest proportion in all four nations of the UK.
Many of those who voted ‘No’ to independence in 2014 have changed their minds as a result of Brexit. Polling now consistently shows a majority in favour of Scottish independence and re-entry into the EU (the last 17 opinion polls have found support growing for independence, with the most recent poll showing support at 57% support). The Scottish FM over the weekend made it explicit that if the SNP wins the elections in May (as it is expected to do, it will call for another Independence Referendum – one which it seems likely it would win this time round.
The Covid Impact
And what Brexit began, Covid has intensified. The EU27’s unity in dealing with Brexit contrasts sharply with the UK’s disunity on Covid. Increasingly, as the UK has moved through the different phases of this pandemic, the four Nations have responded at different speeds, often taking divergent measures. When PM Johnson makes health announcements now, he does so for England. And each time that FM Nicola Sturgeon makes decisions exclusively for Scotland, she does so decisively, with increasing confidence – and her opinion poll ratings continue to climb. This exercise of executive power has strengthened the arguments in favour of independence from Westminster in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland.
Is there a Solution?
Ex-PM Gordon Brown has this morning rung the alarm bell, arguing that the UK runs the risk of becoming a ‘failed state’ if the Scottish and Irish questions are not solved by considering the arguments for federalism in the UK; further devolution of powers to the UK’s constituent Nations and to towns and cities; rebuilding consent through citizens’ assemblies; and reform to the House of Lords.
However, it seems unclear, at best, that further devolution will satisfy the increasingly confident calls for Irish unification or for Scottish independence: why settle for further devolution when you can have total independence? And there are few voices now in power that could make that argument credibly: having argued that the UK is better off outside the EU, it is problematic for the same politicians to now argue that Scotland and Ireland are better off inside the Union.
In the face of the growing support for the Welsh Nationalists; the ‘unstoppable conversation’ in Ireland; and the SNP’s continuing and apparently inexorable rise, those calling for the arguments to focus on the benefits of the Union feel increasingly like Canute. Brexit has unleashed rising tides of separatism in the UK and it is far from clear that anything can be done to stop them.