Will Brexit break Britain?

By Malcolm Christie

The United Kingdom is a multinational state, comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the ‘awesome foursome’, according to Boris Johnson. Yet the UK is becoming disunited as a result of Brexit and covid-19. Unionism is under threat. Just as it wriggles free from the EU’s grip, the UK is locked in an existential crisis that could spell the end for what Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, called ‘our precious, precious union’.

In fact, the Anglo-Scottish union was under strain even before Brexit. However, with our departure from the EU, the possible roadmap to its disintegration is now clear. If the SNP wins the Holyrood elections in the spring, Scotland could hold another independence referendum within the next couple of years. The UK government is also treaty-bound to hold a referendum in Northern Ireland if a majority looks likely to support re-unification with Ireland – which, increasingly, it does, given widespread fears that Brexit could re-ignite sectarian violence.

In some ways Johnson has only himself to blame. Through the long covid months, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has dwindled into being a prime minister of England. He is disliked north of the border, especially since he remarked that devolution has been ‘a complete disaster’.

Ironically, devolution only made sense in the context of EU membership. The Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh governments lent powers (industrial subsidies, agriculture, fishing) to Brussels. Now London wants to take them back for itself, instead of letting them revert to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. The Scottish government plans to fight this ‘sovereign’ absolutism.

All three devolved governments have diverged from England’s hapless covid strategy. In Scotland, 62% of respondents to a poll trusted Scottish government ministers to deal with the pandemic, compared with 37% who trusted the ‘English’ government. Mark Drakeford, Wales’s First Minister, has indicated that English visitors might soon be stopped at the border by police. The Northern Irish administration led by Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill has also gone its own way.

The prospect of the UK breaking apart is alarming because nothing like it has happened before – not to a modern democracy with such international and historical standing.

In 2014, Scotland voted against independence in a referendum. Staying within the UK was sold as the only way to guarantee its EU membership. Now the SNP is demanding a new vote on the grounds that Brexit has turned that equation upside down. The majority in Scotland, as in Northern Ireland, voted against Brexit but were outnumbered by those in England. Independence might now be Scotland’s only route back into Europe.

Malcolm Christie is Treasurer of the AGS

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