The Brexit process has exacerbated many of the disunities within the UK’s territorial constitution. Division rules at Westminster, Stormont remains deadlocked, and the Scottish National Party is poised to call for a second independence referendum. Meanwhile, polling in England suggests that many people think breaking up the UK is perhaps a price worth paying to deliver Brexit.
Throughout the Brexit process, the prime minister has reiterated her desire to secure a deal that “strengthens the bonds” that unite the four component parts of the UK – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. From the outset, however, this has proven to be more a false promise than a political reality.
At the referendum, only two of the four component parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU. This was enough to swing an overall UK-wide majority in favour of leave, but it went against the will of the Scottish and Northern Irish electorate. In both these parts of the country, significant majorities voted to remain – 62% and 55.8%, respectively.
Despite this, the UK government interpreted the result as reflecting a position of UK-wide solidarity. The UK would leave the EU “as one”, with no differentiated deals for any part of the UK.
Nevertheless, the devolved administrations have routinely highlighted the need for any deal to reflect the opinion of each of the component parts of the UK, and for the devolved administrations to play an active role in deliberations. To date, the role of the devolved administrations in this process has been limited, and subject to the final decision-making power of the UK government.
A second referendum?
All this raises the question of how things would shake out in a second referendum. It is relatively safe to assume that majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland would vote to remain, were it an option on the ballot. And despite its original vote, a recent opinion poll, suggests Wales would now also vote to remain. But there is far less certainty about England.
This creates the dilemma that if England votes contrary to the rest of the UK, the fallout could further reaffirm the incongruity of territorial politics in the UK. On the one hand, should England’s vote be lost within a UK-wide majority that matches the vote in the devolved nations, the demands for an English “voice” within the Union would likely gain additional traction. This is doubly significant as Brexit has been interpreted as an expression of English nationalism which, if suppressed in a second vote, may pose further problems down the line.
On the other hand, if England’s vote swings the overall UK result in its favour, the devolved administrations would once again see their choice unrepresented in a “national” vote.
Under this scenario, if the UK government were to again follow the will of only part of the UK, and fail to effectively address the arguments of the devolved administrations, the constitutional repercussions could be severe. Such a scenario could hand significant capital to nationalist groups, adding fuel to the SNP’s demands for a fresh independence vote, as well as likely bolstering support for nationalists in Wales.
Even if every part of the UK voted to remain, it is likely that events of the past few years will still leave their mark. While this scenario may promise a short-term fix, it is unlikely to provide a long-term solution to the UK’s constitutional woes. The UK government’s actions throughout the Brexit process will serve as a lasting reminder to those in the devolved parts of the UK – particularly the nationalists – of their lack of equality within the territorial constitution.
Events such as the UK government’s decision to pass the EU (Withdrawal) Act without securing the consent of the Scottish government, the limited reference to the devolved parts of the UK in the draft withdrawal agreement, and the threats that have been allowed to emerge to the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border, each leave a lasting precedent of vulnerability and distrust in the minds of the devolved administrations.
With this in mind, it is unlikely that a second referendum will deliver salvation for the Union. Instead, there needs to be a much broader and long-lasting change in Westminster culture. The UK government needs to promote the equality and security of the UK’s component parts in the decision-making process and provide for the security of the devolution settlements. Considering the current political landscape, it appears that only through such long-lasting changes will Brexit potentially strengthen the bonds of the United Kingdom.