What does Boris Johnson’s victory mean for the Union?

Another referendum in Scotland could be hard to resist.

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When David Cameron was Prime Minister, after the SNP’s triumph in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, he had a choice: did he accept their request to hold a referendum or block it? 

His argument, at the time and now in his book, was that it was unsustainable and unrealistic for any Prime Minister to refuse the SNP’s request of an independence referendum following their triumph in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections. 

The SNP have another big victory, this time at a Westminster level: and on a manifesto promise to go for a fresh referendum.

No fair-minded observer could seriously look at the political circumstances of 2014 – the United Kingdom in the European Union, the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties all forces of considerable strength at Westminster, the prospects for any at the next election seemingly up for grabs – and claim that the referendum mandate can be said to stand. Yes, Boris Johnson has the constitutional power to do so: but is it sustainable for him to use that power? It doesn’t look like it from here.

And it’s not just the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom that is under strain. It’s a mis-read to see the rejection of the DUP – they have lost seats including that of their deputy leader and head of their Westminster caucus Nigel Dodds – as primarily a rejection of unionism. It is partly a rejection of them and of Sinn Féin, who dominated in 2017, have failed to restore a mothballed Stormont and, in the case of the DUP, have overseen the greatest defeat for Unionism in Northern Ireland in a century thanks to the creation of a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea.

But that border – which will now certainly come into being, and will create a significant barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – is a threat to the future of the United Kingdom too. Boris Johnson occasionally likes to refer to himself as a one-nation Conservative: but the nation he presides over may end up as just two: England and Wales.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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