Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Brexit’s second act may break the UK union

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has, like Prime Minister Boris Johnson, struggled to fight the virus, but her steady competence has secured the trust of the Scottish people © Andy Buchanan/Pool/Getty

And now for the second act. The first has seen the curtain come down on a deal to shape the UK’s relationship with Europe. Another union — that between the nations of England, Scotland and Wales and the province of Northern Ireland, will take centre stage in Brexit’s next act. Forget the guff about embarking on a new Elizabethan age. “Global Britain” is at present heading towards the rocks of constitutional break-up.

There was a moment after the referendum of 2016 when it seemed the UK vote threatened a wider fracturing of the EU. In the event, the Brexit negotiations prompted a remarkable show of cohesion among the EU27. The Covid-19 pandemic has likewise bound the continent in a common enterprise. British rulers have spent centuries honing the diplomatic art of divide and rule in Europe. On this occasion, to no avail.

Instead, cracks have appeared in the constitutional architecture of the UK. Brexit has changed forever the balance between the constituent parts of the UK union. The decision to leave the EU was, at its heart, an expression of English nationalism. A reordering of relationships within the UK is inevitable — and a parting of the ways a real and present danger.

Boris Johnson takes a cavalier view. A unionist in name only, the prime minister decided that leaving the EU took precedence over unity at home. He has always seen himself as more English than British. Scotland, he has complained to officials, is “too leftwing”, too eager to spend money raised from English taxpayers to finance a woeful dependency on the state.

The wishes of devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff were largely ignored during the Brexit negotiations. The government has decreed that significant powers returned from Brussels be hoarded at Westminster. Mr Johnson has described the devolution settlement establishing the Edinburgh parliament — an assembly now dominated by the Scottish National party — as a “disaster”. He might as well have told the Scottish electorate outright that it was unfit to choose its own leaders.

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the collision of political cultures between Mr Johnson’s rightwing populism and the centrist, deliberative style of Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government. The prime minister’s flailing bombast betrays an absence of focus and grip. Ms Sturgeon has also struggled to fight the virus, but a strategy displaying steady competence and transparency has secured the trust of the Scottish people.

The special status conferred on Northern Ireland by the Brexit agreement with Brussels — maintaining the province’s open border with the Republic of Ireland while creating a new frontier with the British mainland — offers the prospect of eventual Irish unity. History and sectarian divisions militate against a rush to reunification, but the Brexit settlement adds a set of compelling economic incentives to the demographic advantage of those who back unity.

The immediate challenge, though, is from Scotland. Brexit has made an irrelevance of the 2014 referendum vote against Scottish independence. Scotland has been torn from the EU against the wishes of the 62 per cent of the Scots who voted Remain. Brexit has thus imposed an unwanted choice between union with England and integration with Europe. Recent opinion polls suggest that, faced with that choice (and with Mr Johnson’s brand of Toryism), there is now a consistent majority in favour of independence.

The prime minister says he will refuse to allow another referendum if, as expected, Ms Sturgeon wins a mandate in May’s Scottish parliament elections. Brexit, Mr Johnson is fond of saying, was a victory for the “will of the people”. But Scottish voices, it seems, cannot be heard. His stance is at once politically unsustainable and a boon to the pro-independence cause. The anti-Johnson vote, senior SNP figures say privately could be worth up to 5 percentage points to the independence camp in a second referendum.

Separation is not inevitable. There are powerful reasons — most, but not all, economic — why Scotland may be better off within the UK. A break would usher in a decade of upheaval. And, cautious Scots may judge, Westminster politics will not forever be dominated by English exceptionalism. 

For many, however, the issue has moved to the realm of the emotional. In matters of identity, hearts rule heads. Changing minds to guarantee the preservation of the Union will require, at very least, two steps. The first, which should be the easiest, is Mr Johnson’s departure in favour of a prime minister ready to redistribute power within the UK. The second (contingent on the first) is a constitutional offer to Scotland — and to Wales and Northern Ireland — that would create an essentially federal union. The status quo is no longer an option. 

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