The ties binding the nations of the United Kingdom have long been fraying. Where once the Irish Question dominated our political discourse, today the Scottish Question threatens to destroy the UK’s fragile unity. The pressure for Scottish independence pre-dated the vote for Brexit, but while England and Wales voted to leave the EU, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.
Theresa May’s self-declared mission is to deliver Brexit (in accordance with the majority view) and also to maintain the Union. Yet the former task risks undermining the latter. When a majority of Scots voted to remain in the UK in September 2014, David Cameron had already promised to hold a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. Yet he made this pledge in the belief that he would win the referendum. Indeed, Scots were told that opposing independence was the only sure way to guarantee their nation’s future in the EU. Now that this falsehood has been exposed, they are entitled to revisit their decision in a second referendum.
Before Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech on 17 January, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, said that her ultimate goal of independence could be “put aside” if a “soft Brexit” were pursued. A red line for her would be the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s single market. The Prime Minister has confirmed that Britain will leave the single market and perhaps also the customs union. The onus is now on Ms Sturgeon to act or stop endlessly threatening to hold a referendum and accept that Scotland remains part of the UK, as the Supreme Court reminded her in its ruling this week.
In her speech, Mrs May vowed to ensure that as the “right powers are returned to Westminster” the “right powers are passed to the devolved administrations”. Like Mr Cameron in 2012, she is attempting to call the nationalists’ bluff. Though the Scottish National Party rushed to reopen the possibility of a second independence referendum, it has been careful not to commit to one. There has been no spike in support for independence. The collapse in the price of oil, the SNP’s failure to answer the currency question, concern about a hard border between England and Scotland and economic uncertainty have all weakened the case for separation.
It does not follow, however, that the backing for the break-up of the UK will remain unchanged. In 2014, the unionist side won by making the economic case against independence. During the 2014 referendum campaign, unionists could also point to the possibility of Labour returning to power at Westminster (potentially even in alliance with the SNP). Yet the Conservatives’ double-digit national poll lead suggests that Labour, which has collapsed in Scotland, could be out of power until 2030 or beyond, by which time the British state may not even exist.
After 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in the EU, the Nationalists could frame an independence referendum as a vote to rejoin the bloc and preserve European citizenship for all Scots. Though it is doubtful that Scotland could simply inherit the UK’s membership – not least given secessionist pressures in Spain – the EU may well welcome a new member state as Donald Trump and others predict its demise.
Besides reviving the Scottish Question, Brexit has thrown Northern Ireland’s future into doubt. The Republic of Ireland’s continued membership of the EU raises the spectre of a hard border between the north and south on the island. The UK and Irish governments alike have dismissed this prospect, but Mrs May has conceded that, at the very least, customs controls on the island of Ireland are likely to return.
Devolution has proved an incomplete solution to the disunities of the UK. While we acknowledge the frustration of all those who voted Remain, in Scotland especially, we have not given up on the UK. Yet the status quo is not good enough. A new constitutional settlement and the creation of a fully federal state are necessary if the UK is to survive.
England’s political and demographic dominance has long stoked nationalist ambitions. It now threatens to remove Scotland and Northern Ireland from the EU against the will of the majority. The Union survived the partition of Ireland, two world wars, the demise of the British empire and the rise of Thatcherism. It may not survive Brexit.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West