The stark and potentially irreparable divisions within the United Kingdom have not been caused by Brexit, but England and Wales’ decision to leave the European Union has revealed and widened them.
Today, Nicola Sturgeon finally put an end to speculation and announced her intention to hold a second Scottish independence referendum. Opinion is divided as to whether now is really any better a time to do so than 2014, when 55% of the country put its faith in the continued union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since then, it is likely that the two opposing sides have merely crystallised their position, with a shrinking portion of people sitting on the fence. Brexit will have changed things, but probably not enough to alter the result. So why does Sturgeon think that things are different? What is she hoping will push Scotland over the line to independence?
The fact is, Scotland has been pretty emphatically ignored by the government in Westminster. The overwhelming numerical superiority of England means that Theresa May’s Brexit platform depends on keeping the favour of the 15 million English people (53%) who voted to leave the European Union, rather than the 1 million Scots (62%) who did not. As a result, the convincingly pro-European Scotland has been shafted by the Conservatives’ plans to withdraw from the single market, and go it alone with uncertain promises of trade deals and renewed international vibrancy.
The United Kingdom does not exist as a fluid entity. England and Scotland have a recognisable border, both politically and culturally. By ignoring Scotland’s desire to remain a part of the EU, the majority of an entire country – an ostensibly equal part of the union – has been cast aside. Theresa May’s government is operating without Scottish consent, and this more than anything else, will push Scotland away from the union. In the coming months, we may see opinion continue to shift towards independence unless the government does something to allay fears that Scotland will be emasculated by a hard Brexit for which they did not vote.
It may be the role of the Conservatives, still profoundly unpopular in Scotland, to keep the country in the union.
Already, the government has put out a statement rejecting a second referendum. The issue of independence, like EU membership, has been decided for at least a generation. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn – despite his hasty retraction – is more sympathetic to a new vote. The confusion over his actual position, a long career spent in opposition to British interests and the weakness of Scottish Labour will make his role in any referendum a difficult one. Given that Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling both played a significant role in winning 2014’s vote, the unionists have lost a key ally in Labour. It may instead be the role of the Conservative Party, still profoundly unpopular in Scotland despite the best efforts of the vibrant Ruth Davidson, to keep the country in the union.
In 2014, the conditions for remaining part of the United Kingdom depended on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. This bargaining chip has been tossed away, so the onus is back on the unionists to argue against independence; economic arguments from the government will now ring hollow, when they have ignored the same wisdom to withdraw from the single market. Nicola Sturgeon and her allies can call upon emotional, patriotic arguments, and now have the lure of the big and noble European project to back them up. Mark my words, an independent Scotland would smash Finland’s two and a half-year record for accession to the European Union, and would not – as many have asserted – be blocked by a Spain wary of its own separatist problems.
The same is true of Northern Ireland. Although the result was less decisive than Scotland’s, a higher percentage of the electorate voted to remain in the European Union (56%) than did to leave in England and Wales. The wishes of Northern Ireland are being ignored, but unlike Scotland, there is no strong spokesperson able to voice their grievances in Westminster. Both the government and the British media treats the country as little more than a distraction; coverage of their recent elections was limited, showing something of the disdain that the rest of the UK shows for its bastion over the Irish Sea.
The recent elections to the Northern Irish Assembly have shown a freshly energised nationalist base.
The recent elections to the Northern Irish Assembly have shown a freshly energised nationalist base, fearful at losing the porous border with the Republic that has given so many people on both sides employment, business and friendships. The fragile peace afforded by the Good Friday Agreement is at risk of being damaged by severing the precious connection to the rest of Ireland. If a hard border results from a bad Brexit agreement, Northern Ireland is at greater risk of recession and economic turmoil than any other part of the United Kingdom. If that is the case, surely many more in Belfast, Derry and Armagh will wonder whether they are better off as a province of Ireland, than a forgotten outpost of Britain.
Irish unification is, for the first time in generations, now visible on the horizon. Though still shrouded in haze, it has become more tangible than ever before. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has begun to make contingency plans, demanding that any Brexit agreement must ensure that unification would not affect Ireland’s own membership of the European Union. Fianna Fáil, the main opposition party, is preparing to contest elections in Northern Ireland, something that will make them far more tangible a presence in the province than the Westminster government. Though still distant, a bad Brexit that decimates British prestige and economic clout, continued disinterest from London, the growing confidence of Irish republicans and the higher birth-rate among Catholics will bring the dream of a united Ireland closer and closer.
The survival of the United Kingdom may depend on remaining inside the single market. A more assertive remedy would be to transform the country into a federal state, with a system more reminiscent of Canada or the United States. Only then can the independent will of each country be safeguarded from an overbearing central government with little interest in a Celtic fringe opposed to its agenda. The UK government is therefore in a precarious position: do they allow a referendum now and risk the break-up of a three hundred year-old union, or do they reject Sturgeon’s calls and damage already fragile relations between Scotland and Westminster, furthering resentment and distrust?