Boris Johnson’s Most Lasting Brexit Legacy may well be the Break-Up of the UK
Boris Johnson has done more for the independence movement in Scotland and the possibility of reunification for Ireland than either the SNP or Sinn Féin managed in a generation, says Jonathan Lis
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It is a measure both of the myopia of the English media establishment and the emotional disintegration of the Union that the Scottish Government has begun a legal battle in its quest for independence and almost nobody south of the border has noticed.
On 28 June, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon finally set out her plan on how to secure a new referendum. It would be a consultative vote, held on 19 October 2023, which would ask the Scottish people the same question the 2014 referendum on the issue posed: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’
But unlike before, when the SNP policy was to demand that the UK Government grant the necessary power for a referendum, now Sturgeon has seized the initiative – asking the Supreme Court to adjudicate on whether the Scottish Government and Parliament could legislate for one.
If the court declares that Holyrood cannot independently legislate for a referendum, Sturgeon plans to treat the next general election as a de facto plebiscite. The SNP, she said, would campaign on that issue alone. One way or another, the Scottish people would have the right to deliver their verdict.
It should come as no surprise that the Scottish Government is finally moving this issue from the theoretical to the practical. It has demanded a referendum for a long time and included it in multiple election manifestos. But this is now not simply a question of democracy.
It is a staggering indictment of the contempt that the UK Government has shown Scotland ever since the first independence referendum eight years ago. And it highlights the least discussed legacy of Boris Johnson: the potential fracture of the United Kingdom.
A Question of Democracy
The first, most basic, point is somewhat counterintuitive: this is not about whether Scotland should be independent. The questions about the referendum itself – what Scotland would do about its currency, how the UK would divide its resources, and crucially, how Scotland would join the EU or its Single Market without erecting a hard land border with England – are matters for the campaign, not for now.
Similarly, this is not about disagreeing with the timing of such a referendum. It is quite possible to debate the wisdom of Scottish independence during a cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine, in a country still convulsing from the political and economic shock of Brexit. That is, in fact, the point of a referendum – to debate it.
Rather, this is a question of principle. The Scottish Government has every right to request a new referendum, regardless of whether that suits people in Westminster. They also have every right to hold one. That is nothing to do with the views of Nicola Sturgeon, but the tenet of parliamentary democracy.
The SNP has now stood on the platform of an independence referendum in four successive national elections: the 2016 Scottish election (in the event of a Leave vote in the subsequent Brexit referendum), the 2017 and 2019 General Elections, and the Holyrood election last year. The party has won all four of those votes in Scotland.
Ever since the election last May, the Conservatives have sought to move the goalposts – in particular, with the line that the SNP did not win a numerical majority of Scotland’s votes. It is true that the SNP gained less than 50% and that the pro-Union parties polled more than that. But that doesn’t matter any more than the fact the Conservatives didn’t gain an outright majority of votes in 2019. Indeed, such logic dictates that there should have been a new Brexit referendum after the 2019 election, because parties in favour of that polled 53% across the UK.
Parliamentary elections necessitate parliamentary governance. The SNP and Greens, both in favour of holding a referendum, currently hold a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. As such, they have the right to implement their manifestos.
But there are even deeper principles at stake: the Scottish people’s right to self-determination.
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The union of England and Scotland in 1707 was not a hostile takeover but an act agreed by two sovereign parliaments. Flawed as that process may have been by modern standards, it equates to mutual consent. That is the fundamental principle today: consent. Either the Scottish people have the right to self-determination or they haven’t. If the latter, why haven’t they?
If the Scottish people, or their elected representatives, have no legal means to secede, then the UK is less a union than a prison.
The reason that the Scottish Government has not been able to deliver its manifesto commitment is that Boris Johnson vetoed it. As things stand, the opinions of an entire electorate in Scotland are trumped by those of one man in Downing Street.
Johnson’s Government has shown outright contempt for Sturgeon’s position – London has not simply registered its opposition to Edinburgh’s legal arguments, but asked the Supreme Court to throw out the case altogether.
Johnson repeatedly tells his SNP counterpart from the despatch box that now is not the time for a referendum and the Scottish Government should have other priorities – as though he is somehow empowered to dictate another Government’s agenda and overrule its voters.
But, of course, this goes back a long way, and reflects profoundly on the man himself. Nobody has done more than the current Prime Minister to risk the break-up of the United Kingdom. Johnson has, indeed, done more for the independence movement in Scotland and reunification on the island of Ireland than either the SNP or Sinn Féin managed in a generation. The origin of both is Brexit, of which Johnson was the principal architect.
Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU – in Scotland, by an overwhelming margin of 62% to 38%. But both Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May dismissed Sturgeon’s concerns and proposals at every opportunity.
Scotland was given no role in shaping the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Scottish Government’s proposed compromise – that either the UK, or Scotland alone, could remain in the Single Market – was rejected out of hand. Both prime ministers repeatedly said that this was a matter for Westminster alone.
To add insult to injury, they consistently reverted to the mantra that Brexit was the ‘will of the people’. The implication was clear: the will of the people only matters when they are English.
But it is not just about Scotland. Johnson pursued a hard Brexit regardless of its impact on the economic integrity of the UK or political and social stability in Northern Ireland. For more than 20 years, Northern Ireland’s parties and communities had operated within a delicate equilibrium in which there would be open borders and trade with both Ireland and Great Britain. Johnson was warned that his Brexit deal would sacrifice one of those, and he didn’t care.
Now, Northern Ireland has no functioning government and its politics has once again become a zero sum game. If the DUP approves the eventual outcome of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Sinn Féin will necessarily oppose it, and vice versa.
Whatever happens with that process, Northern Ireland is bound to diverge economically from either Ireland or the rest of the UK – again raising questions about its constitutional status. The threshold for calling a border poll on Irish reunification has perhaps not yet been met but the momentum is gathering.
Johnson’s immediate legacy is that his successor will follow exactly the same policies. None of the Conservative leadership candidates have committed to withdrawing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that breaks international law and alienates Sinn Féin. Not one of them has given any inkling of agreeing to the SNP’s manifesto commitment for a new independence referendum.
The UK may stay intact over the course of the next generation and that may be a matter either of pleasure or regret. But if it does fragment, it will owe more to Boris Johnson than any other political figure.