During Britain’s first referendum on Europe in 1975, there were deep concerns within the British Government that divergent results across its four constituent countries – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – could undermine the foundations of the union. Held at a time of rising support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales and as violence in Northern Ireland continued in full flow, this was not an unreasonable concern. Particular attention was placed on Scotland where support for membership was expected to be lower and it was feared that the Scottish National Party (SNP-G/EFA), then opposed to membership, would use divergent results to push for independence. Ultimately, each of the four countries voted in favour of membership and the threat to the Union was defused.
This was not the case in 2016. One of the most striking features of the results map of Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union was the appearance of the Anglo-Scottish border, divided by Remain-voting local councils in Scotland and Leave-voting councils in England. The scale of this divide is exaggerated by a binary map but is also represented by raw figures: where 53.4% of English and 52.5% of Welsh voters voted Leave, only 38.0% of Scots did the same. Northern Ireland also saw an overall vote for Remain. Thus, two constituent countries of the UK – one of which had only two years previously held a close referendum on independence and the other operating under a fragile power-sharing agreement – found themselves outvoted on a major constitutional question.
Membership of the European Union was a central issue in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum. Supporters of independence led by the pro-EU SNP claimed Scotland would either ‘inherit’ membership after independence or easily rejoin, while opponents argued voting for independence would put Scotland’s membership at risk. This focus on EU membership allowed the SNP to make the case that Scotland’s rejection of independence was predicated on a guarantee of British membership of the EU and thus any change to this would justify a second referendum. The party’s manifesto for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, held just one month before the EU membership referendum, asserted that Scotland should have the right to hold another referendum ‘if there is a significant change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.’
In March 2017, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon formally announced her intention to call for a second referendum on independence. However, the snap UK general election in June 2017 marked a significant setback for the party as it fell from the 50.0% of the vote and 56 seats it had won in 2015 to 36.9% of the vote and 35 seats. These losses included former First Minister Alex Salmond and the SNP’s Depute Leader Angus Robertson’s seats. The result was widely interpreted as a rebuke to Sturgeon’s strategy, particularly as the largest gains were made by the Conservative Party (ECR) under its popular Scottish leader Ruth Davidson, who had run a campaign almost entirely focused on preventing a second referendum. Gains were also made by Labour (S&D) and the Liberal Democrats (RE), both of back continued membership of the UK.
Since 2017, Scottish politics has effectively been held in stasis as parties and politicians await clarity on the outcome of Brexit. There is evidence that support for independence has seen a slight increase since 2016. Averaging the three most recent polls since last June produces an exact 50-50% split once ‘don’t knows’ are removed, with support for independence ranging between 49% and 52%. It is possible that positions on Scottish independence have in part realigned around the debate over Europe – the most recent YouGov poll (30 August – 3 September 2019) found that 56% of 2016 Remain voters now support Scottish independence compared to only 30% of Leave voters. These figures underline the difficulties for the SNP’s position: while undoubtedly pleased by the direction of travel, they lack the clear majority in polls to be comfortable of victory. Moreover, it is clear a significant minority of independence supporters also want Brexit, indicating that while there may be greater rewards available from the party’s anti-Brexit position, such a stance is not without risk.
Facing significant pressure from the party grassroots to make a stronger push for independence, Nicola Sturgeon has once again called for a second independence referendum to be held before the end of the Scottish Parliament’s current term in 2021. Yet, it is not clear how this will be achieved. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Conservative) has stated he will refuse the legal permission necessary for the Scottish Government to hold another referendum as was granted in 2014. Sturgeon has ruled out holding a referendum without the UK Government’s consent (being keenly aware of Catalonia’s attempt to do so in 2017) but has not stated what her fallback plans would be. Were Labour to win the snap UK general election expected later this year, she may hope that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would be less willing to veto a referendum or that, if no party wins a majority, the SNP could secure a referendum in exchange for supporting a Labour government. Alternatively, the SNP may decide to use the next Scottish Parliament election as a proxy vote for independence in order to gain a cast-iron mandate for a second referendum, or perhaps – if the British Government remains resolutely opposed – a mandate for independence itself.
As in Scotland, the Welsh Government endorsed a Remain vote in the 2016 referendum but, unlike in Scotland, the Welsh electorate did not agree, voting by 52.5% to 47.5% in favour of leaving the European Union. This has led successive Welsh Governments, led first by Carwyn Jones and then Mark Drakeford (both Labour-S&D) in the difficult position of accepting the result of the vote whilst believing its implementation will be damaging for Wales. Alongside the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government has also been highly critical of the British Government’s approach to Brexit, favouring a ‘soft’ Brexit which respects the rights of devolved institutions. As a result, the two governments have been willing to work together to place joint pressure on the British Government to include the devolved governments within Brexit negotiations, largely without success. However, this joint front collapsed in May 2018 when the Welsh Assembly chose not to follow the Scottish Parliament in refusing legislative consent for the UK Parliament’s European Union (Withdrawal Bill).
Politically, both Welsh Labour and the Welsh Conservatives have suffered as a result of the parliamentary chaos emanating from London. Both parties experienced their worst ever European Parliament results last May, while the most recent YouGov poll (23-28 July 2019) had the Conservatives on 24% and Labour on 22%, down from 34% and 49% in 2017 respectively. Most gains have been made by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party (NI) which won the most votes in the European Parliament election and currently polls at 18%, providing further evidence of a strong pro-Brexit constituency in Wales. However, the other main beneficiary has been pro-independence Plaid Cymru (G-EFA) who are polling modestly at 15%, up from 10% in 2017. This rise correlates with a growth in support for Welsh independence, with a YouGov poll earlier this month finding 32% of respondents agreeing that Wales should be an independent country, rising to 41% if EU membership could be guaranteed. A higher proportion of Remain voters (33%) than Leave (18%) expressed support for independence in the first question, indicating that opposition to Brexit is partly driving such sentiment despite the fact Wales as a whole voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
Of the three constituent countries with devolved institutions, Wales is the least likely to experience a major constitutional rupture in the coming years. Nevertheless, Brexit has already had a profound impact on Welsh politics and will likely continue to do so for some time.
One of the greatest ironies of the Brexit process has been the central role of Northern Ireland, and more specifically the Irish border, in frustrating efforts to secure a Brexit deal, despite the fact that Northern Ireland’s obvious complications for Brexit received virtually no attention during the national referendum campaign in 2016. Politics in Northern Ireland is dominated by the impact of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to most of the violence of the Troubles and established power-sharing institutions, thereby ensuring that neither nationalist nor unionist parties are able to govern without the other. The open border between the UK and Ireland facilitated by both states’ membership of the EU has served as one of the key pillars of peace in Northern Ireland. It is almost certain that any border posts would become instant targets for armed republican dissident organisations were they to be re-established, while both sides of the border would likely suffer an economic shock in this eventuality.
Thus, the fate of the Irish border has been of vital importance in negotiations between the UK and the EU, which represents the views of the Irish Government. Ireland, and therefore the EU, have refused to accept an agreement which does not contain a ‘backstop’ – a legal guarantee that there will be no physical border. Back in Westminster, hardline Eurosceptics within the Conservative party opposed the backstop on the grounds it could be used to permanently keep the UK within the EU customs unions. Above all else, the backstop issue contributed to Theresa May’s repeated failure to pass her deal with the EU through the British Parliament, leading to the current political stalemate. The real and present risk of a ‘no deal’ Brexit also raises the prospect of a physical border being re-imposed in Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s tense situation was exacerbated by two events in 2017. Firstly, the power-sharing agreement between the unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP-NI) and republican Sinn Féin (SF-GUE/NGL) broke at the beginning of the year. This left Northern Ireland without a clear, representative voice throughout Brexit negotiations. Secondly, the snap British general election in June saw the DUP and Sinn Féin together sweep 17 of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in the British Parliament. Due to Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism, this effectively left the DUP as Northern Ireland’s sole representatives in London. The DUP increased their influence further by agreeing to prop up Theresa May’s minority Conservative government. The DUP has used this influence to promote a ‘hard’ Brexit while opposing any deal which runs the risk of creating barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, proving to be another obstacle to Theresa May’s deal.
How have people in Northern Ireland responded to this intensely complicated situation? European and local elections last May and recent polling indicate that both the DUP and Sinn Féin have lost ground while the cross-community, pro-European Alliance Party (RE) has seen a significant surge, reaching 21% in a recent Lucid Talk poll (9-12 August 2019). Although the Alliance Party does not take a stance on Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, there is evidence that the electorate in Northern Ireland have also responded to Brexit with increased support for the principle of reunification with the Republic of Ireland. The day after the referendum results, Sinn Féin called for a ‘border poll’ to be held on the issue. A recent Lord Ashcroft poll (30 August – 2 September 2019) found 51% of the Northern Ireland electorate would vote to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland in the event of a border poll, with particularly strong support among younger voters. The threat of a physical border being re-imposed against Northern Ireland’s wishes has therefore led to increased interest in the possibility of reunification.
According to the Good Friday Agreement, a border poll must be held if majority support emerges for a united Ireland, although it is ultimately up to the British Government to make this judgement. Nevertheless, even more dramatically than in Scotland, Brexit has struck a significant blow to the prospects for unionism in Northern Ireland.
Brexit is often framed as a project of English nationalism. Although England did record the highest support for Brexit of all four constituent countries in 2016, such descriptions conveniently forget the majority support in Wales for Brexit as well as neglecting the significant minorities who voted to leave the European Union in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nor did England vote uniformly for Brexit – in London 59.9% of voters chose to remain in the EU, while 53 local authorities outside London also voted to Remain, particularly concentrated in the South East and South West regions. However, it is true that any solution to the current Brexit impasse must be acceptable to voters in England in a way that is not true of the other constituent countries. This stems purely from the demographic imbalance between England and the rest of the UK, with England comprising 84% of the total population of the UK. England’s lack of its own devolved Parliament or regional parliament contributes to this problem, as does the UK’s lack of any meaningful federal structures. This also makes it difficult to distinguish between the politics of England and the politics of Britain, with the latter often serving as an extension of the former. England’s overwhelmingly dominant position within the UK and its consequent ability to pursue its own priorities even when these are not shared by its partner countries – for example, limiting immigration – is the central source of tension within the unions of the UK; Brexit has merely provided a particularly dramatic example of this.
A June survey of Conservative Party members conducted by YouGov found that a majority would accept the loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland, significant damage to the UK economy and even the destruction of the Conservative Party itself as prices for achieving Brexit. In many respects, Brexit has struck at the faultlines which run through the British state, exposing and enhancing its structural weaknesses. Neither Scotland, Wales nor Northern Ireland are on inevitable courses towards leaving the UK but, depending on how events unfold in the coming months and years, it is highly plausible that the price for achieving Brexit could indeed be the loss of at least one constituent country and perhaps the unravelling of the entire United Kingdom.