Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.
Will the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland survive after Brexit? Will there be a second referendum on Scottish independence or a border poll in Northern Ireland? Is Welsh nationalism beginning to re-assert itself? Since the referendum in 2016, these questions have been part of the national conversation as Brexit continues to dominate the political landscape.
There is no doubt that the decision to leave the EU represents a turning point for the United Kingdom, and one that affects the relationship between all parts of these islands. The rise of Euroscepticism in the UK as a whole has some parallels with the rise of nationalism in the devolved nations, both trends reflecting a nation ill at ease with itself. Brexit is wrongly depicted as an English Nationalist project, but clearly the revival of English identity is part of the story. Insofar as Brexit was about ‘taking back control’ it may have reflected disillusionment with London as well as Brussels.
If the Conservatives win the election and Brexit goes ahead, the Party will be presented with an opportunity to shape the conversation about the future of the UK. Labour has been largely absent from the debate in Scotland and has seemed equivocal about the Union in Wales. Its only route back to Government in London seems to be through some sort of arrangement with the Scottish National Party (SNP). While Labour was the main driver of constitutional reform under the Blair era, the project ran out of steam with the failure of a quasi-federal model of devolution to the English regions.
Other parties have at various times engaged with the idea of a written constitution, possibly designed by a Citizens’ Assembly or a constitutional convention. These ideas are worth exploring, but there may also be limited public appetite for a serious conversation about constitutional reform, especially as the UK’s future relationship with the EU remains unresolved. Opposition to Brexit has also led to some strange alliances: the Liberal Democrats have risked their reputation as a Unionist party by entering into an electoral pact with Plaid Cymru.
The debates on Scottish independence and Irish unity are the most pressing constitutional issues facing the UK. Over the past year most of the commentary on the Union has focussed on the potential impact of a No Deal Brexit, but there has been less focus on the likely impact of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Northern Ireland is more obviously affected by Brexit than Scotland because of the border with Ireland, but it also has a guaranteed route back into the EU if the people decide to vote for Irish unity. The upcoming General Election will be a test for the Unionist parties and in particular the DUP, while Sinn Fein are seeking support for a border poll within five years.
An important consideration for nationalists is that by the time a border poll is called, Northern Ireland may have settled into the new arrangements envisaged in the revised Withdrawal Agreement. At that time there may not be any appetite to re-open constitutional controversies. Significantly, the Irish Government has effectively ruled out a border poll on Sinn Fein’s timetable, going as far as it can to take the question off the agenda for now.
The old assumption that changing demographics mean a united Ireland is inevitable no longer seems reliable, especially with the apparent growth of the non-aligned middle ground. Unionists have at least an opportunity to persuade this group to stick with the constitutional status quo, but this depends on whether they can articulate a vision for the future of the Union in a post-Brexit world. This is something I will explore in a separate piece.
The nature of the debate in Scotland is in some ways more unpredictable because opinion might be swayed depending on how the UK performs after Brexit. Whereas a border poll in Northern Ireland seems unlikely within the next five years, a second Scottish referendum may be more possible within that timescale – especially if the SNP has influence over a Labour Government. Although Boris Johnson has ruled out another referendum in any circumstances, the SNP will use the 2021 Scottish Parliament election to seek a mandate for one. The Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, has effectively acknowledged that an SNP majority would represent such a mandate. If Brexit goes ahead, the SNP will have to adapt its case for independence to take account of a new political landscape which looks very different from 2014. Scottish independence is still at the mercy of the Brexit debate itself.
English indifference to the Union is clearly a problem for Unionists but there is also little sign of active hostility towards it. Since the referendum, opinion polls have suggested that Brexit voters place more importance on leaving the EU than on defending the Union of the UK. But voters in England may feel that defending the Union is also something that is really beyond their control. Polls seem to show acceptance of the principle of self-determination for the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Indeed, levels of support for Northern Ireland remaining in the Union are higher than was sometimes case during the Troubles.
The question for the Conservative Party is now whether it can find the language and policies to defend the Union while following through on Brexit. While the party is once again celebrating its ‘Unionist’ name, it will never be able to appeal to all pro-Union voters in the four parts of the Kingdom. The party may retain support of voters who are opposed to a second referendum in Scotland, but a Conservative Government will struggle to convince voters that it is working for the good of the UK as a whole if it is in open conflict over Brexit with the devolved Governments. To this end, the party may need to engage with the ideas about a constitutional convention to discuss the future of the UK. It will also need to think about further decentralising power in England and whether this fits into the model of a devolved UK.
Whatever the outcome of the General Election, and especially if Brexit proceeds on the terms of Johnson’s deal, there is clearly a need for the Government to make the case for the Union – in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the UK’s flexibility has allowed it to survive into the 21st Century. There is no reason that it cannot continue to survive and develop outside the EU. While no-one should be complacent about the future of the Union, there is a chance that a more assertive and self-confident United Kingdom will emerge after Brexit.