The English Brexit and the future of the union

Author: Maret Hosemann / Pixabay
At least during the past five years, the political conversation in Britain has been remarkably monopolized by the debate on Brexit. In 2016, the UK decided to leave the European Union by a narrow margin (51,89%). Moreover, the recent Westminster election has given a landslide majority to a conservative government that has promised to implement this decision by the end of January 2020. Together with some other relevant issues such as the economy or the policy on migration, the Brexit debate has revolved around the state of the union as well. The question posed by many commentators has been whether or not the UK will preserve its territorial integrity after leaving the EU, since Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

In this regard, some scholars have provocatively stated that “Brexit was made in England”, the nation with the largest share of Brexiteers (53%). Beyond this fact, we can also find some correlations between the attitudes towards Brexit and the English national identity. According to the CSI Brexit panel (2018), 50% of those who have an exclusive English identity voted for leave (L), while only 24% of them opted to remain (R). We find the opposite numbers for those who have an exclusive Scottish (32% L – 45% R) or Irish (26% L – 33% R) identity. The Welsh fall somewhere in the middle (36% L – 31% R), as well as those who have either an exclusive or mixed British identity (34% L – 36% R).

The perception that Brexit is the project of England has been fuelled by minority nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, strengthening their case for secession/reunification. To be “dragged out of the EU against our will” has become their political mantra ahead of the imminent departure of the UK from the European Union. The “democratic case” for another referendum on secession in Scotland, as well as the uncertainty around the political situation in Northern Ireland, are the two major issues that can endanger the state of the union. But to what extent is the territorial integrity of the UK at risk?

Indyref2 in Scotland: what happens next?

The Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom with 55% of votes in 2014, a poll settled as a once in a generation vote. Nevertheless, their pro-independence ruling party SNP has claimed that Brexit has dramatically modified the material circumstances upon which this decision was made in 2014, paving the way for a new referendum on secession. The remarkable performance of the SNP in the past general elections —winning 45% of the popular vote and 48 out of 59 seats in Scotland— has strengthened the position of the nationalists in their plea for another vote.

Following this victory, in December the Scottish government issued a document titled Scotland’s right to choose: putting Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands. This report makes a case for a second poll based on the distinctiveness of the Scottish nation and its will to democratically decide (again) its future. To effectively call for a vote on constitutional matters, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sent a letter to Boris Johnson requesting the activation of section 30 of the Scotland Act, which allows Holyrood to put forward legislation that is normally reserved to Westminster.

Nevertheless, the British prime minister rejected the petition by arguing that “you [Sturgeon] and your predecessor [Alex Salmond] made a personal promise that the 2014 independence referendum was a once in a generation vote”. As a response, and despite she has not made clear what the next steps are, Sturgeon has assured that the Scottish government will continue to push for another consultation on secession, upholding “the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own future”. Trapped in a situation relatively similar to that in Catalonia around 2012-2014, with Boris Johnson mimicking Rajoy rather than Cameron, the SNP must choose between a pragmatic and a unilateral strategy towards self-determination.

In this regard, it is very unlikely that the Scots will follow the Catalan approach towards this issue. Despite the existence of some disputes between the fundamentalists and the gradualists in the last SNP’s conference, the pragmatic theses of the current party leadership were widely assumed. Sturgeon already made it clear during the electoral campaign that there was “no easy or shortcut route to independence”, and that “we have to demonstrate majority support for independence in a process that is legal and legitimate”. The SNP’s spokesman in Westminster, Ian Blackford, has also explicitly rejected a unilateral approach by stressing the importance of following the constitutional provisions as a way to enhance the chances for Scotland to be internationally recognized as an independent nation.

In this context, the SNP leaders have stated that they are prepared to defend their case in courts, even though they are prioritizing a political strategy in the medium-to-long term. On the one hand, Scotland will face a regional election next year. The poll will be probably framed as an opportunity to renew the mandate for a second referendum. On the other hand, circumstances in Westminster could change by 2023, hoping that a Labour government will permit another consultation on independence. In the meantime, the SNP is targeting those voters that opted for the union in 2014 but are hostile to both Brexit and a Tory government in London. As ERC in Catalonia tries to do, the nationalists are advocating for “broadening the base” of their movement. The challenge is, however, twofold: neither all the SNP voters are EU remainers, nor all the EU remainers —even those who could vote for the SNP— are enthusiastic about independence. Polls still show a tied situation between unionists and secessionists in Scotland.

An uncertain situation in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is a region deeply divided between “union loyalists” —Protestants and supporters of the UK— and “republican nationalists” —Catholics and advocates of the reunification of Ireland, and marked by a bloody history of violence. The EU membership was perceived as an opportunity to build a partnership framework between the UK and Ireland and to secure a climate of peace in the region. In 1998 the famous Good Friday Agreement was reached, that settled a power-sharing arrangement and created new institutions for the cooperation between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The withdrawal of the UK from the EU has been seen as a risk for this fragile settlement, particularly regarding the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Irish territory.

In October, the British prime minister came with a partial solution by proposing a customs border in the Irish sea, meaning that checks on goods will be done between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, rejecting the feared hard border within Irish territory. Beyond that, the internal situation of the region has also recently been addressed, proposing a plan to put the regional government to work after three years of stalemate due to the disagreements between the two major parties. In spite of all this, however, the situation is not definitively calm at all.

Firstly, the post-Brexit settlement is still far from being clear. Vehement unionists have already criticized the deal since they consider that, in practice, it separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Secondly, opinion polls survey growing support for the reunification option. For the first time, the nationalists won more seats than the unionists in the last general election, despite the DUP is still the largest party in the region —and the cross-community Alliance Party experienced big growth. However, even though Brexit has risen the appeal for Irish reunification, it seems that unionism translated into a devolved arrangement for Northern Ireland is still the preferred constitutional option for most of its citizens.

Moreover, the pressure for an immediate referendum has gone down because of the avoidance of a hard Brexit. The main nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has given itself a time frame of a decade to get a consultation on constitutional affairs, hoping that demographics and the economic consequences of Brexit will run in its favour —and having an eye on what happens in Scotland. The political space of the Alliance Party, that wants to overcome the traditional cleavages between unionists and nationalists, is key regarding the viability of both the referendum and its outcome. Even though the party emerged in the 1970s as the representative of non-sectarian unionism, its leaders are not fiercely opposed to the “border poll”, and their electorate could swing between the different constitutional options. Given the singular position of Northern Ireland, the post-Brexit dynamics will be far more important —and unpredictable— in this region than in Scotland, especially regarding these neithers, or non-aligned voters.

Divided, not broken

Brexit has created more problems than it has solved, at least concerning the state of the union. Minority nationalists in EU remainer regions —Scotland and Northern Ireland— have used Brexit to strengthen their case for secession/reunification. According to polls, however, the constitutional preferences of their citizens are not straightforward. The UK is divided, but Scotland and Northern Ireland are internally divided on constitutional matters as well. The future of the UK will be marked by the way the minority nationalists seize the window of opportunity opened by Brexit, but also will depend on the political intelligence showed by the government in London —which is already working on it. Only time will tell.

With support from the  
Ministry of Labour,  
Social Affairs and Families  
Government of Catalonia