On the June 23 2016, Dad and I were driving back to San Francisco from Sacramento, where we’d visited our relatives. We were fairly late, so had on US public radio to help keep us awake for the drive back to our motel. In the previous two weeks listening to US media, international news tended to get only limited coverage. That night was different. The US media were focused on one issue, and that was the result of the Brexit referendum.
Listening to the results being reported while driving on that California freeway, I recall thinking ‘this result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom’. On hearing that both Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to stay part of the EU, in contrast to the rest of the country, it was hard to imagine that this would not become a significant issue.
Fast forward three and a half years. It is 10pm, June 12 2019. By now I’m living in London. I’m driving home on the A40 in West London passing The Grenfell Tower, I hear UK general election exit poll predicting that The Conservatives would win a significant majority. I stay up all night to watch the results (though at times I struggle to stay awake). It becomes clear that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has won the vast majority of seats in Scotland. I also watch with interest the Northern Ireland results, where for the first time unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) have failed to win a majority. I recall my thoughts back in June 2016, and once again I think to myself, ‘This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom’.
Prior to the election I blogged about Scottish Nationalism and why Brexit had revived calls for Scottish Independence. I also blogged about Northern Ireland and how Brexit threatened the precarious 1998 peace agreement.
So what happens now? Well for Northern Ireland, the major development since the election has been that the Northern Irish parliament (Stormont) has reconvened for the first time in 3 years. After the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) dismal result, they have now realised that power sharing in Stormont is their best hope of remaining relevant. Northern Ireland hasn’t suddenly given Sinn Fein or other nationalist parties wanting a United Ireland a majority – their vote remained fairly stagnant. The vote shift was from unionist to more moderate/pragmatic parties who support the Good Friday Agreement and are non aligned to either Unionist or Nationalist factions.
The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement states the following:
“the Secretary of State” should call a referendum “‘if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”
There is no sign that such a referendum will be called in the immediate future. Nor can one say with any certainty how such a referendum would go. But at the end of 2020 we will have a better idea whether the UK has secured a decent trade deal with the EU. We will know the level of alignment with EU legislation. And from here, it will be easier to gauge what the true impact of Brexit will be on Northern Ireland. A United Ireland is always an option, and if the ongoing relationship between the UK and the EU is fraught with difficulty – Northern Ireland may just vote to join the Republic.
Unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland do not have an arrangement where they can hold an independence referendum. At least not one that the British Government has to recognise. In fact PM Boris Johnson has rejected calls for a second referendum on Scottish Independence. This doesn’t stop the Scottish Parliament calling one. The experience of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017 should ring alarm bells with the British Government. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, but the government in Westminster refuses to recognise the result – this could cause an interesting constitutional crisis. Aside from civil unrest from the people of Scotland, internationally there would considerable sympathy for Scotland were they denied independence. Not least from the EU, who would relish the opportunity to take back part of the by then former UK into the EU.
In politics it is risky to make predictions, and I generally try to avoid doing so. But questions of whether Northern Ireland and Scotland will remain part of the UK are now asked daily in the British media. Further, there seems to be an increasing realisation and acceptance from the British public that this could well happen.
UK Labour, still reeling from the 2019 election loss are now in the process of choosing a new leader. Sections of Labour still see Scotland as part of the country they can win back, while others believe this unlikely. In 2014 Labour ran a united front campaign with David Cameron’s Conservative Government urging Scotland to stay in the UK.
Many in Labour fear if Scotland leaves the UK, the party will never have the numbers to form a government in the UK again. This is nonsense. The last time the UK Labour Party relied on Scottish MPs to form a government was after the 1974 General Election. In all 3 elections Tony Blair won, Labour could have formed government without its Scottish MPs. But this is beside the point. For Labour, and the rest of the political establishment in Britain, the issue of Scottish independence should be seen as an issue of self determination and democracy.
If Scots want Scotland to be a separate country, then nothing should stand in their way. If Scots vote to stay in the UK again, as they did in 2014, then the issue is put to bed. But by refusing a second referendum post Brexit, this could bolster support for Scottish independence making it a much more likely prospect.
The break up of the United Kingdom is not inevitable. And there are pros and cons if it were to occur. But the calls for this to occur are becoming much louder. The challenge for the political establishment in London is how it will manage this. And if the UK does break up, what does that mean for the future of England and Wales. Would Wales and England stay united? How would a United Ireland and independent Scotland engage with England and Wales? What would be the social and economic implications of such a change?
The next few years will be very interesting for the United Kingdom.