The territorial integrity of the UK remains in question following elections across England, Scotland and Wales. In each nation or region there is a continuing debate over identity, values and/or resources, and the government of Boris Johnson faces pressure to deliver a better deal.
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However, warnings of imminent breakup require reflection. There is a lot still to play for, and the Johnson government has chances yet to pull off the re-stabilisation of the state.
The election results are most significant in Scotland, where the combined seats of the SNP and the Greens provide a pro-independence majority. At some point during the next five years, the re-elected SNP government will cash this majority in and push for a second independence referendum. This will no doubt come after a period of government focused on leading Scotland out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and spending commitments designed to symbolise value differences with Tory England.
If the Johnson government refuses a referendum then there could be a constitutional standoff. One side will claim a democratic mandate and the other will cite rule of law. Talk of the problems of Johnson’s hyper, muscular or “know-your-place” unionism and the threat it poses to the idea of the union as one based on consent is designed to build resentments and politicise identity.
Yet, a pro-independence parliamentary majority also existed after the 2016 elections, and the SNP only feels justified in demanding a referendum this time because of Brexit. It has argued that leaving the European Union amounts to a fundamental constitutional change and would therefore legitimise a fresh independence referendum.
The SNP will know, though, that the prospects for a yes vote in a referendum are questionable. It has not won an outright majority in Holyrood and the combined pro-independence party vote share did not make 50% in constituency voting and only just scraped above it on list votes. In the last 14 opinion polls on independence prior to election day, ten indicated a majority against independence, three were tied and only one suggested a yes majority.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s performance in the post-pandemic recovery ahead, as well as the normalisation of Brexit, may yet compete with SNP strategy. Expect his Westminster government to cast Scottish nationalism as exclusionary, and promote instead reassuring unionism to combine devolution with a rebalanced UK.
The election results in Wales appear a much less significant threat to the union. Plaid Cymru failed again to make a breakthrough and Labour won 30 out of 60 seats. Labour will continue its unbroken period in power since devolution began in 1999.
Debating the possibility of independence should not be disregarded, however, since opinion polls show increasing support. Plaid Cymru made a clear commitment to an independence referendum in a devolved election for the first time in 2021. If it sticks to that path, it could still instigate the kind of national conversation the SNP started in 2007, slowly normalising the idea of independence. Nevertheless, it would be a long road. Support for independence in Wales in pre-election polls reached no higher than 28%, while the no vote was consistently over 50%.
It is more the case that the national question is simply seen differently in Wales. Typical of this has been the discourse followed by Mark Drakeford, the Labour first minister. He insists that he is Welsh to his fingertips while also strongly asserting the advantages of being within a union of nations. The elbowing over power between Drakeford’s and Johnson’s governments will no doubt continue and it could yet still all go wrong. Resentments at perceived neo-colonial Conservative rule are never very far away and Welsh identity could become more strongly politicised.
However, the Johnson government, in pursuing the same promotional spending and economic development agenda in Wales as in Scotland, has an even better chance of ensuring the strong majority of people remain supportive of a continued union.
The election results appear most reassuring of all to unionism in England. The Conservatives have actually made gains on local councils. They won the mayoralty for Teeside with a much-increased majority, as well as winning the Hartlepool by-election. On top of that blow, Labour lost seven councils and 301 councillors.
The fundamentals of England have not changed. There is a strong sense of inequality in resources and performance. The divide is between north and south and between the metropolitan cores and smaller towns. Currently, though, it is in England that Johnson’s government has been most directly effective in pushing back against territorial pressures. In both the 2019 general election and these 2021 elections, the Conservatives have addressed English inequalities through their levelling up agenda. It has been the Tory party, rather than Labour, that has neutralised the peripheral protest that was reflected in support for UKIP and the Brexit party.
Johnson has drawn disillusioned voters into the Tory fold. He should be careful, though. New electoral support brings new expectations and pressure. Success, of course, still lies in drawing the management of English territorial dissent back within the control of the two-party system. It could yet be one of the great achievements of Johnson’s premiership if he is seen to plausibly deliver.
The “super Thursday” elections provide a snapshot of the complex mosaic that is the state of the UK union.
In truth, at any given time, one may reflect on both the strengths and weaknesses in each part of the UK of pressures for protest and nationalism on the one hand and for state maintenance on the other.
One also has to take into consideration Northern Ireland, which has assembly elections in 2022. Here, Brexit has ignited nationalist debate about a border poll on reunification with Ireland. Support for the unionist parties has fragmented amid an outcry over a trade border effectively coming into force in the Irish Sea as a result of the Brexit deal. Nevertheless, all four of the opinion polls held in Northern Ireland during 2021 have shown majorities against Irish reunification of between 5% and 14%. Here, again, there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the debate and no certainty about the outcome.
In hindsight, we may yet come to see the 2021 elections as simply the COVID-19 elections, where the incumbent party of government in each jurisdiction received endorsement. They had implications for the territorial battle over power – chiefly in hastening arguments over “indyref2” in Scotland – but they did not resolve them.
The need to focus on COVID recovery actually buys all the parties more time in preparing for the battles to come. For the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein, that’s time to build support for independence and reunification. For the Conservatives, it’s time to push through unionist spending strategies in devolved jurisdictions and the levelling up agenda in England. Equally, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and others will have time to develop credible plans for alternative middle ways, such as forms of federalism.
The next UK general election, due in May 2024, could instead be the critical election for the state of the union – when these competing cases are put to the test. The territorial condition of the UK remains a chronic one, but there is much still to play for and, within that, the re-stabilisation of the state still remains a realistic possibility.