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The Brexit Revolution Begins to Consume Itself

Jonathan Lis explores how once careful balances of identity and political power have been upended and Englishness has taken their place

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2019. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Archive/PA Images

The Brexit Revolution Begins to Consume Itself

Jonathan Lis explores how once careful balances of identity and political power have been upended and Englishness has taken their place

Perhaps it was always going to come to this. After five long years fetishising independence, sovereignty and control, two weeks ago Boris Johnson stood before a television camera in West Lothian and declared “I believe in the power of doing things together”.

The Scottish people, of course, agreed. That was why they voted by a margin of 55% to 45% to remain in the United Kingdom, and by 62% to 38% to remain in the European Union. The people of Northern Ireland agreed, too. They voted to remain in the EU by a margin of 56% to 44%.

A lot can happen in five years. This week saw the twenty-first consecutive poll showing a majority of Scottish voters in favour of independence – albeit with a slightly narrower majority and up to 10% undecided. In Northern Ireland, a recent poll found that a majority favoured a border poll in the next five years.

The Union has never looked so fragile. How did it get here, and where does it go next?

Background to a Referendum

There appear to be four main motors of Scottish independence.

The first, and most recent, is the Coronavirus crisis. The Scottish people have not only witnessed separation in action, with health matters devolved and the Scottish Government taking an individual approach; they have witnessed separation to be a success. Scotland has done better than England and its leader has been more effective.

That relates to the second, more long-term factor: a changing political trajectory. This has encompassed national political sensibility; the ambition to take ownership of resources; and a drive, shared with other polities such as Flanders and Catalonia, for increased autonomy – partly as a response to perceived failure and neglect by central government.

Although the Conservatives have not won a General Election in Scotland since 1955, the differentiation and distinctiveness of Scotland’s politics has only become significantly marked in the past 15 years – principally with the stratospheric rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

That, in turn, has fed into the third key motor: Brexit. Scottish voters have every right to be furious about what has happened since the 2016 EU Referendum.

In the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the No side – incorporating both the UK Conservative Government and Labour opposition – emphasised that an independent Scotland would not gain entry into the EU, and that it was only by staying in the UK that the country could preserve its EU membership. On the eve of the vote, the Scottish people received a ‘vow’ that they would have a greater say in their own affairs and their constitutional settlement. As soon as that ‘No’ vote was delivered, matters simply reverted to the status quo ante.

In 2016, Scotland had no veto over Brexit. It was not even granted any influence over Brexit’s implementation. When, in December of that year, the Scottish Government produced a comprehensive paper outlining how either Scotland or the UK could remain in the Single Market, the then Prime Minister Theresa May’s Government dismissed it out of hand.

The message to Scottish voters was clear: the ‘vow’ of 2014 was a lie to get the result over the line. Scotland’s views would not count and, when push came to shove, Scotland would be outnumbered. The decimation of Scottish fishermen in the space of a few short weeks has been the coup de grace.


These three factors feed into the final one: England itself.

Nationalist movements do not simply grow in isolation. The rise of Scottish nationalism is about home-grown politics but also a response to Westminster’s arrogance and contempt.

Since 2010, and especially since 2015, a Conservative Government has ruled with almost no interest in Scotland or recourse to its electorate. Indeed, with Brexit, it has actively worked against Scotland’s interests.

Feelings of Englishness and Scottishness have both grown – and, in doing so, have grown apart. Scottish nationalism’s idea of itself is open, international and inclusive. The iteration of Englishness has been to put up borders and keep people out.

There is nothing wrong with heightened national consciousness per se. The problem is that an increasingly English Government has promoted that identity at the expense of both Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Conservative and Unionist Party had the opportunity to make compromises with the UK’s different electorates and keep the entire country economically aligned. It chose not to.

Leaving the Single Market mattered more than saving the Union. Both May and Boris Johnson chose ending free movement of people from Europe over the economic integrity of their own country.

A Referendum in Action

Johnson’s policy on a new Scottish independence referendum is simply to refuse one.

Scotland had its ‘once in a generation’ vote in 2014 and that is the end of it. In doing so, the Prime Minister makes the pro-independence case more starkly than Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ever could: because a man who isn’t Scottish and doesn’t live in Scotland can overrule millions of people who are and do. The self-determination of an entire electorate can simply be vetoed at his whim.

Such an approach is not only unsustainable but indefensible.

No democratic country can retain a constituent part against its will. If the Scottish people have self-determination, they must be allowed to exercise it. If they do not, they must ask why they have been denied it.

The SNP had a post-Brexit independence referendum as a central manifesto commitment in the national elections of 2016, 2017 and 2019, and convincingly won all three. It is likely to win a resounding majority in elections to the Scottish Parliament in May. That doesn’t mean that the Scottish people will necessarily vote for independence, but it does mean that they are asking to choose. What more would they have to do to show it?

The lesson of the past five years, here and abroad, has been to avoid complacency. Britain is not so special that things can’t ‘happen here’. There is nothing to guarantee permanent stability if a Scottish Government repeatedly wins mandates to hold a referendum and is repeatedly blocked from doing so.

Catalonia is not so far away and, in some ways, not so different.

Northern Ireland to Follow?

Northern Ireland’s set of circumstances are clearly completely different.

A bloody civil war only ended two decades ago and the argument is not about independence but uniting with another state. And yet, many of the same factors in Scotland can be witnessed there too: a growing disenchantment with the UK Government, particularly within the Unionist community; a sense of divergence over COVID-19; and, most importantly, the failure to safeguard Northern Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations.

The last border poll in Northern Ireland took place in 1973 and was boycotted by nationalists. Coincidentally, that poll took place just two months after the UK and Ireland had both entered the then European Economic Community, together. Now, Northern Ireland has different arrangements from both Ireland and Great Britain. It is, quite literally, in two economic regimes at the same time. That will necessarily cause friction – and has.

Brexit will pull Northern Ireland in two directions.

For goods, it is now easier to trade with Bulgaria than Britain. But services have been largely omitted from the EU deal – which means that it is now harder for some businesses to trade across the Irish land border. The more the UK Government diverges on regulations, the more it will either pull away from Northern Ireland, or pull Northern Ireland away from the Republic.

There is a real risk for unionists that the most noticeable divergences will be with Britain, and that Northern Ireland will simply align itself with Ireland. What first takes place economically, may soon follow constitutionally.

The Endgame

The Union now faces its hard truths. The Scottish people have already left in spirit. If Scottish voters choose to remain in the United Kingdom, it will be under a form of economic duress or emotional blackmail. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, whatever now happens with Brexit, one side will feel aggrieved.

Something has snapped in the governance of the UK. Once careful balances of identity and political power have been upended and Englishness has taken their place. The Union may yet survive, but it is unclear at what cost.

Boris Johnson long ago resolved that he did not, in fact, “believe in the power of doing things together”. He does not believe it in either his political or personal life. Neither does the English party of Government.

The problem is that the voters of Scotland and Northern Ireland do still believe it and do want to do things together – possibly, with other people.

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