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This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom

Written By: - Date published: 8:11 am, February 10th, 2020 - 13 comments
Categories: boris johnson, Brexit, International, politicans, uk politics - Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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. Its 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’. 

Image result for Break up of the United Kingdom
Is the break up of the United Kingdom imminent?

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 a 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 isn’t 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.

13 comments on “This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom ”

  1. Gosman 1

    Why would the EU support Scotland in the situation if they held an unconstitutional referendum on independence when that is the very reason they opposed the Catalan independence referendum? There may well be sympathy for Scotland joining the EU AFTER it has won it's independence but the EU is unlikely going to support breaking up other nations when that could lead to problems in the EU.

    • Muttonbird 1.1

      Because Spain is still part of the EU? They didn’t pack their bags in a sulk like Britain England did.

      • Sanctuary 1.1.1

        Exactly. Also, the Scottish case for independence is much stronger than that of Catalonia.

        Scotland was an independent nation until the Treaty of Union in 1706 and it retained it's own law courts.

        I guess the sticking point – similar to Catalonia – is the interpretation of the Treaty of Union by the English if they refuse to allow another referendum, particularly Article one which state the union is "forever" and article 25, which says anything that violates the principles of the Treaty of Union is unlawful, which would imply that vote for independence is a violation of article one, and therefore illegitimate…

      • Gosman 1.1.2

        Do you really think the EU's case against Catalan independence would make sense just based on "Well Spain is part of the EU so that is why we are not for breaking up nations whereas we support the break up of the UK"? Do you not think that would both alienate people in Catalonia AND the UK?

  2. Sanctuary 2

    The question of Scottish independence now turns entirely on whether or not the Scottish electorate can be persuaded their economy would be OK after leaving the union and re-joining Europe. English chauvinism means the English have few people north of the border willing to argue for union on the basis of shared affections or cultural values.

    Int erms of their economy, Scotland has a well trained and educated workforce, excellent infrastructure, and would suck a lot of businesses out of Northern England and into relocating in Scotland due to being in the EU and especially by no longer being impacted by the obsession with keeping a strong pound to support the London financial sector. Even industries like ship building could possibly revive with a lower currency (the Germans and Dutch still build ships, for example). Energy – even without oil – shouldn't be a problem for Scotland, which has a lot of wind and Scottish wind power alone can already power the country alone if it were independent.

  3. Obtrectator 3

    Never mind all the niceties of what treaties were signed, or by whom and when. There's the little question of where yon bonny submarines currently based at Faslane would go, or on what terms they'd stay.

    Oh, and don't forget the water issues as well. A couple of beaut little poems that make the point far better than I could:


  4. Wayne 4

    London (as an economic centre) has a vastly stronger pull on Scotland than any European city.

    I don’t think Scotland will go for an unconstitutional referendum. More likely they will wait to get a constitutional referendum around 2030.

    A complete guess at this point as to whether they will vote independence. Ultimately Quebec didn’t (2 times) and the issue has now fallen away.

    • McFlock 4.1

      That's now.

      Let's see if the trade negotiation window slams shut just like the hard brexit happened.

  5. Sabine 5

    and so it should.

  6. soddenleaf 6

    People forget what a nasty piece of work Thatcher was. She went to Europe and demanded a rebate, that rebate was for developing deprived areas, she then gave a tax cut overwhelming flavoring wealthy Briton. I.e southern.

    Europe did nothing for the north, Blair followed in Thatchers likeness, so any wonder the stats counters realized there were votes for brexit. Now you say the breakups inevitable. No. Not necessarily, if like Trump Boris also invigorates the job prospects.

    You see any Democrat nominee in the U.S. is going to have to promise to keep Trump economic stimulus.

    • Gosman 6.1

      Ummm… not sure if the facts support you there. Both Newcastle and Liverpool received copious amounts of EU funding.

  7. SPC 7

    If it were merely economics NI would join Eire. But there is a major identity division, which while fading, that will delay this occurring.

    The major issue for Scotland, now the UK is out of the EU, will be currency. Particularly if the EU requires they use the Euro.

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