How Brexit may lead to Scottish independence and Irish unification

1st December 2020

So familiar is the three-word phrase ‘the United Kingdom’ that it can be forgotten that it does not name any particular country.

It is instead a description of dry and abstract political arrangement – the kingdoms that are (somehow) united could be anywhere on the globe.

Of course, the term is short for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – but the shorter form is more common.

It is worth pausing and thinking about the phrase, as it reminds us that the United Kingdom is itself a political union, as much as the European Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

And political unions come and go: there is no inherent reason why any political union is permanent.

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This post is prompted by a tweet yesterday from the Conservative leader in Scotland.

The sentiment of the second sentence of the tweet can, however, be applied to another example of ‘independence’.

And this will be a recurring problem for British Conservative politicians in opposing Scottish independence: the arguments they deployed in respect of Brexit and against the European Union can be re-fashioned in turn by those in favour of dissolving the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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For what it is worth (and it is not worth much as someone writing from England), I happen to support both Scottish independence and an Ireland united by consent.

This is not because I am anti-English and a rootless cosmopolitan, but a recognition that, in the end, all political unions will tend to come and go.

And although I dislike all forms of nationalism (which often tend to be illiberal), self-determination is very much a liberal value.

The people of Scotland and of Northern Ireland (and of Wales) should decide on their own political arrangements.

The United Kingdom is not necessarily a permanent arrangement.

Indeed, but for events before the Norman conquest, England itself could have carried on for many centuries being a geographic expression with a collection of smaller kingships (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria), just as Spain did until the early modern period, and Italy and Germany did until the nineteenth century.

‘Great Britain’ itself – a combination of the union of the English and Scottish crowns and then of parliaments 1603 to 1707 – has no greater claim for political permanence than, say, the combined role of the British monarch being also the Elector of Hannover (which lasted from 1714 to 1837).

(On ‘Great Britain’ being a construct, it is worth reading – or at least knowing about – Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837.)

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But liberal arguments may work both ways.

The liberal principles of internationalism and self-determination can often be used both for and against any particular attempt at political union – for example, an independent Scotland (having exercised self-determination) will seek to be part of the European Union.

The European Union itself has no claim either to permanence, and it may one day join a list of historical attempts at unifying Europe.

Brexit and the recent political events in Poland and Hungary are an existentialist challenge to the European Union, which it may or may not survive.

The point is that no political structure is necessarily eternal.

Many once thought the sun would never ever set on the British Empire, before its fairly rapid dismantlement after the Second World War.

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There is also a plausible argument that it was only membership of the European Union of both the United Kingdom and Ireland that enabled the peace process in Northern Ireland to work and the Good Friday Agreement to be put in place.

Take away the European Union and that handy practical solution becomes unstuck.

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So one particular irony that may come from Brexit is that the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party – by its absolute insistence on forcing through departure from the European Union – may be instrumental in breaking up the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

An independence referendum in Scotland and a border poll in Norther Ireland are both now more likely than not in the next few years – and both may well go against being part of a United Kingdom.

And that would be an exercise in ‘taking back control’ – just not the ‘taking back control’ that Brexiters perhaps had in mind.

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41 thoughts on “How Brexit may lead to Scottish independence and Irish unification”

  1. British nationalism has always been precarious because England and Scotland had such a long prior existence as independent nations.
    And yes, Linda Colley’s book is great.

  2. The phrase “take back control” is pretty vaccuous. Those who peddled it never got into the specifics of what controls needed to be re-asserted and just who excercised that control at that juncture (certainly, the UK had control of its borders since my sons and I (British citizens) had to wait for more than an hour at the UK border when returning home after a holiday in Aruba shortly after the 2016 vote). The laws that they complained of (for anything contentious) required the UK’s blessing to pass and for less significant rules, the UK must still comply with the edicts should it wish to trade with the EU, it has simply given up control of shaping such regulations and norms by walking away from the EU.

    I feel that the UK is better in the EU and, indeed, that the constituent parts of the UK are better in the union, but the contempt the”ruling class” has shown for Scotland and Northern Ireland makes me cringe. A union is not made of an abusive and bullying relationship, but must be a cooperative of equally valued parts. Perhaps a federation is the answer – or at least a change of Westminster administration away form over-privilleged, under-intelligent chancers, at least.

    1. Agreed that a Federal solution to the UK (properly understood) would be one way of avoiding disintegration but I see no way that the dominant country- England- and its Tory majority- would ever accept this. Because by definition it would mean England/Tories sharing powers and this appears anathema to them

      1. Do you think it could work if England was broken down into a number of regions so that each region was around the same (choose your measurement here)?

        Each region has its own assembly and a rump of Westminster became the federal government. I imagine lots of economic power would have to be decentralised from London to the regions…

  3. As I’m sure you realise, once Scotland and Northern Ireland have left, we’ll be left in the “Former United Kingdom of England and Wales”(more normally known by its acronym :-))

  4. I think an interesting thing about Scottish independence right now is that the core of the movement has in a large part morphed from the original illiberal nationalist base, to liberal pro-Europeans who are reacting against the illiberal nationalists of England.

    And I’m doing so both groups are unifying over two “possible” futures which are self exclusionary — one of a promise of even closer European ties, and one of being a new completely independent nation. But that would be a battle post referendum with one group ultimately moving further from their goal. (Like Brexit itself untied isolationists and groups seeking greater world trade integration)

    1. I am unashamedly pro-European, but one major mistake made by the mandarins was the claim that the EU (and more importantly, its constituent parts) sought “ever closer union”. If you look within the nation states (Spain being the perfect example) there is a demand for more regional autonomy. No nation state is going to subsume its own power to be “run by Brussels” (the UK never did), but the catchy little 3 word slogan survives to poison the well. Talking of closer EU cooperation, respect for law, harmonisation of standards and rights about common minimiums (which individual states are free to surpass) is what is meant by it and is not only less threatening, but actually positive – unfortunately, it isn’t quite as catchy!

      1. “Ever closer union” was not a claim of the mandarins. It was set out in the very first recital to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which of course has official versions in French, German, Italian and Dutch, but not English – “DÉTERMINÉS à établir les fondements d’une union sans cesse plus étroite entre les peuples européens” (that is, roughly, “DETERMINED to lay the foundations for an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe”).

        “une union sans cesse plus étroite”, “einen immer engeren Zusammenschluß”, “una unione sempre più stretta”, “een steeds hechter verbond”. It was always there and never a secret. Anyone who didn’t see it was either not paying attention, or deliberately pretending not to notice.

        No EU member state is “run by Brussels”, not least because every important EU body – Council, Parliament, Commission, Court – brings together elected or appointed representatives from each EU member state. Each EU body has its own carefully delineated powers and responsibilities, in a carefully crafted legalistic (and I mean that in a good way) constitutional settlement of the sort we are just not used to in the UK (where “parliamentary sovereignty” trumps just about everything else, up to and including the Crown).

        In time the EU will come to sorely miss the UK’s pragmatic common law counterweight to its formalistic civil law basis. (Laying to one side the hopefully temporary ideological law-breaking machismo of the current UK regime.)

        As for the UK, a border poll in Northern Ireland is just a matter of time and demographics. Frankly, the sooner the better (and good luck to our neighbours in the Republic!). Scotland and Wales may decide to go their own way. I hope they don’t, as I think we are stronger together, but they are nations and can make their own decisions about what is right for them. No good will come from England trying to force them to stay when they are determined to go.

        1. Of course the founding fathers of the European Union did not use English. The states that founded the European Union used only four languages as their official language. The United Kingdom refused to join the proto-EU. Otherwise English would have been one of the languages of the declaration.
          Besides, I am convinced Europe needs one common language, like the USA or the RF. I suggest Esperanto as that common language, because it guarantees a level playing field in a debate. If we start now, in 25 years everybody will spike, write, read and understand Esperanto, even the English.

          1. Two months late to seeing this post, but the US emphatically does not have a common language, as evidenced by the ubiquitous “press 1 for English, para español oprima dos” that every American corporation uses for their call centers as well as the efforts all American governments must make to translate everything into up to 2 dozen languages. (My latest property tax bill has instructions in 8 other languages on how to pay it.) English may be the de facto official language in the US because most people speak it, but there is a large minority of people here who apparently do not understand English at all.

            And for what it’s worth, the variety of “foreign” languages existing in the US for its entire history doesn’t seem to have played much role in tearing this country apart.

      2. Ever closer union of peoples, not states. And that is a subtly different thing. It allows greater freedom of individuals to live their lives and flourish within a wider/deeper structure of law and obligation that sustains them.

    2. That’s an interesting point Jon, and I see them as co-existing, because Scotland would be independent of Westminster and a government that for many years is not the one that the Scottish people have voted for in the UK GEs, and it would be part of a large trading bloc negotiating for what it sees as the best for it’s people rather than having rules imposed on it.

      The other key point is that it would be able to set its own financial priorities, which are very different from Westminster’s and is one of the biggest sources of discontent.

  5. It is not the only United Kingdom, there were others, before and after:
    United Kingdom of Denmark and Norway 1523
    United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1801
    United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway 1814
    United Kingdom of the Netherlands 16 March 1815
    United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves 16 December 1815

  6. I disagree that referendums in the two nations mentioned are more likely than not.

    For legal and valid referendums to take place, the UK government needs to consent to them. I see nothing from the present government that suggests they will consent to a referendum on independence prior to 2024, and given the size of their majority and swing required for Labour, beyond that year.

    1. You overlook the SNP’s democratic mandate. As the popularly elected government of Scotland it could assert that its powers rise from its electorate not drip down from Westminster. Remember, the Constitution of Scotland is not identical to the Constitutions of England or the UK.

      With those powers it could debate and repeal the Union With England Act 1707.

      A big brave and aggressive move, but one which would be proportionate with the Tories’ denial of the Scots’ right of self-determination.

    2. Simply not true in a practical world. U.K. can not afford the political impact of denying a Scottish Yes Vote. U.K. would be a global pariah.

      The simple fact is that Brexit is an English nationalistic move. Scotland does not identify with Rule Brittania and nostalgia over the empire.

      England has swung to the right. Scotland is not a right wing nation – they are more Scandinavian in their values. Separation is inevitable.

      1. If you read the British social attitudes surveys, you’ll note that Scottish and English values are near identical. No surprise when they consume the same culture, watch the same TV, drink the same tea.

        Going further, it’s clear that the base instincts giving rise to Brexit and independence are also overwhelmingly similar.

        People can wail into the wind all the want – the fact remains that legally speaking the UK needs to approve any referendum. Failing to do so will not make it a pariah any more than other nations who have done similar.

        1. If Scotland were to elect, by a clear majority, pro-independence candidates and parties to Holyrood, and Westminster then refused a Scottish government request for an independence referendum, the union between England and Scotland would become one based openly on coercion rather than consent.

          How many English people really want that? The authoritarian-nationalist-populists who form the backbone of the Brexit movement in England identify, in many cases, as English more than as British. Some have said publicly when asked that they would be willing to see Scotland go, if that is the necessary price for Brexit. They may wave the Union flag, but they don’t consistently distinguish England from Britain and the UK. Vote Leave’s failure to consider, let alone plan for, the consequences of Brexit for the union, the border in Ireland and the peace process there is evidence for that. Conversely, pro-British sentiment in England is strong on the liberal-left, among people who see ‘British’ as more inclusive and multicultural than ‘English’, and such people are unlikely to want a union with Scotland based on force.

          Scotland has a high international profile, higher than that of many independent nations. Many Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and, above all, Canadians have Scottish roots and are proud of them (CANZUK anyone?). The Scots are also likely to enjoy the support of the Irish diaspora, not least in the USA, in any conflict with England. In continental Europe Scotland is known and much admired, if in a sometimes rather romanticised way. The Scots have soft power, and they will use it against a UK government that is looking very isolated internationally.

          I also think that you greatly underestimate the political-cultural differences between Scotland and England, but I’ll leave it to the Scots to enlarge on that!

    3. Perhaps you are overlooking the example of Southern Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Subsequent to a referendum result overwhelmingly supporting independence there would be no moral basis for any kind of armed intervention by England, and, unlike in the case of Southern Rhodesia, international recognition of Scottish independence would be rapidly forthcoming.

  7. I like to remind those people who think that the
    United Kingdom is a fixed entity that the UK I was born into is not the same UK that my parents were born into. For them it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

  8. I do wonder to what extent the UK government thought it could make the Irish government bend to its wishes over Brexit negotiations. EU support of Ireland has enabled a small country to stand up to UK pressure.
    How events work out next year could have a significant impact on the confidence of Scotland and possibly others to move to the EU where they could potentially have a much greater degree of sovereignty than at present.
    Whatever the economic arguments for retaining the Union the mantra of “Taking back control” can be a trump card in more than one situation.

  9. Already the cracks in the UK are showing, e.g. the MHRA (UK drug licensing authority) is now including the remit of “GB” licences for medicines, which for decades have always been “UK” – because, post-transition, NI will have continuing (although limited) access to the EU procedures.

  10. Simple (but not simplistic) arguments are always best, if they contain hints of irony then I am the more drawn to them. A lovely, persuasive argument even for an ardent Englishmen, (I am not, but they exist) after all it was predominantly the English who started this – well pretty much all of it really.

    How ironic, don’t you think, that the very people who asserted they wanted to take back control should now lose the last vestiges of what they used to control. Yes, I thought so too.

  11. A very good post. The other mistake by the Tories was “the will of the people” argument. Makes for a great sound bite but will bite you in the posterior as soon as others, in this case Scotland’s people want to express their will. The real risK ,should the economy in London and the SE take a turn for the worse post brexit , is that both areas which finances the rest of the UK wake up and exercise their will and seek to rejoin the EU as opposed to stay in Great Britain.
    It would then be a case of whose will does the body politic then respect?

  12. Although the Conservatives have not won an election in Scotland since 1955, subsequent Tory governments cannot be said to have lacked consent, even if grudging. However, if a SNP government were to win office next May on an explicit pledge to put the future of the Union to a referendum, and if a UK government were to block or obstruct the holding of such a vote, the UK Gov would forfeit consent in Scotland. For the government of a democracy, it would be neither stable or sustainable to try to rule even a portion of its territory in the absence of consent.

  13. The sad thing is the inordinate amount of effort that goes into the overall processes relating to redrawing national/international boundaries and revising legal, governance, trade structures etc. That effort is diverted away from pressing problems like coronavirus, climate change, poverty etc etc. How do we let ourselves get distracted like this?

    1. Because its becoming more and more apparent that the best way for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to protect themselves from those things is to be independent, rather than being forced to follow an increasingly far right Westminster.

  14. “How ironic, don’t you think, that the very people who asserted they wanted to take back control should now lose the last vestiges of what they used to control. Yes, I thought so too.”
    Beautifully expressed, Graeme Land! It’s what is called the nemesis of history.

  15. I don’t see why you are so sanguine about the breakup of political unions. They come and go, but there is a lot of strife for the people caught up in the breakup of one. You have spent the last four years of your life documenting the practical challenges of the UK trying to remove itself from one relatively light touch union.

    The Tories do have a problem with supporting Brexit but opposing independence. I notice that arguments in support of one can be applied to the other: ‘sovereignty’ is always a good thing; fears about Brexit/independence are never based on critical thinking but on ‘project fear’ and so forth.

    However, doesn’t the issue apply just as much to supporting Scottish independence but not Brexit? If the UK messing around with trade deals with the EU is a bad idea, then how will this work with Scottish trade with the rest of the UK, particularly if it joins the EU? The idea of a hard border with England would be a sickening act of destruction. And that is just one thing – there are issues with independence that were never an issue with Brexit, such as currency issues.

    Note that Irish reunification is different – a border is removed and along with them trade barriers and costs associated with them.

    1. There was no possibility of trade barriers or additional costs associated with trade between the North and South of Ireland before Brexit.

      The UK has messed up any reasonable deal with the EU because of their political red lines and fantasy over taking back control when in reality they are giving up any power and influence thay once had over the EU.

      The UK is now a far weaker International player in the world without the backing of the EU. That is a failure in my eyes.

  16. May I add a word about Wales, please?

    In the 1960’s Welsh self-government was a minority interest, and even Welsh devolution just squeaked through in 1997 (as the author is well aware, I’m sure).

    Back when I was a kid one never saw Y Ddraig Goch (the Welsh dragon) on a flag or as a symbol, yet now I am 60 these symbols are very common, either flapping on a pole or on garden gates, house walls or public buildings. The Cardiff Nightingale is called Calon y Ddraig (‘heart of the dragon’).

    That Welsh people now consciously adopt a symbol that had fallen almost into desuetude only a generation ago suggests, perhaps, a reaction against social developments elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

    This occurred to me whilst having my tractor tyre repaired last week – I idly looked up and there, on the road elevation of the tyre workshop in Anglicised Pembrokeshire, someone had had made and affixed there a delicate wrought iron ddraig goch.

    Why would we be doing such things, I wonder?

  17. It’s the conventional wisdom that it was EU membership that made possible the Belfast (“Good Friday”) Agreement. However, I wonder how many who make this assertion have bothered to read the document. If they had, they’d know it makes only one passing mention of the EU.

    EU membership helped a bit, although not nearly as much as the common language the UK has with Ireland, and the many close ties between the two countries, but the Agreement was much more to do with exhaustion, the growing abhorrence of the futile carnage, and the efforts of thoughtful politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea. Remember that we’d both been members of the EU for a quarter of a century before the Agreement; such membership was neither necessary nor sufficient to stop the violence. More important, there’s no good reason why Brexit should lead to its resurgence.

    1. May I ask if you live in Ireland, please?

      If you pass through Llandovery, a peaceful market town in the old Border Marches, you may see a statue erected to commemorate the bloody execution by the English of a lieutenant of Owain Glyndwr in the 1400 rebellion.

      It was put up in the 2000’s. Some 600 years after the event. And is is, today, referred to as a ‘freedom fighter’.

      Now proceed to South Armargh and erect a border post….

      1. No, but I used to. Are you suggesting that such posts, of the kind that are found all over the world, for example along the US-Canadian border, which is “hard”, would lead to violence? If so, would it be because the locals are uncivilised, or that terrorism had come back?

        The point is that irksome customs controls would be no justification for violence, as I’m sure you agree. However, if it became the conventional wisdom that they were, that would give a green light to the terrorists. What we accepted in 1440 isn’t necessarily okay today, is it?

        1. Yes, I think the evidence is that an attempt to reinstate the border status of the 1970’s in areas like South Armagh will lead to violence.

          The evidence further suggests that that violence would escalate, because that’s what happened it the recent past.

          I struggle to see that the UK will be allowed to test this thesis, but the next week or so will see.

          1. The recent past hasn’t been violent. Remember the Belfast Agreement is 22 years old, and a lot has changed since then. In any case violence was reduced before 1998.

            What do you mean by “violence would escalate”? Who would do the escalating? Violence isn’t like rainfall; it requires human agency and intention. Who do you think the terrorists would be, and what should we do to stop them?

          2. UK experience in the 1970’s and 1980’s demonstrated that violence escalated by ‘tit for tat’ attacks. Surely you must recall that process? the shorthand Press phrase for which was ‘the endless cycle of violence’.

            The fairly well-known Panorama documentary about the escalation of the Troubles showed just how easily control of an entire province like South Armagh could be lost. Whole towns were bomb-scarred, entire districts no-go areas for the Ulster Police and British Army alike, whilst the Irish Army refused to intervene/co-operate, so that, in the end, helicoptering units in and out of the border areas was the only practical method of transport.

            My Irish vet tells of her grandfather, who had a shotgun hung across his fireplace. It took pride of place because it was used in both the independence war and in the subsequent civil war.

            Advising patriots/terrorists to be reasonable is unlikely to be effective in such a volatile situation.

          3. Fyi, “South Armagh” isn’t a province, but part of one the six counties that make up the province of Northern Ireland.

            I’m not proposing that terrorists be advised about anything: they should be arrested and prosecuted, just as we (try to) do with murderers and rapists. After all I wouldn’t be told to “be reasonable” if blew up a border post in Maine, even if I claimed that I was motivated by some grievance going back generations. You refer again to distant – this time even more distant – events, without considering the possibility that things have changed. It’s one of the stereotypes about Ireland that people there are hamstrung, indeed obsessed, by the past, or rather a version of the past, and are somehow condemned to relive it. You seem to be attached to this notion, but remember how much has changed in Ireland since the 1970s and 1980s. It’s now actually part of the 21st century rather than the poor, socially illiberal society of your vet’s grandfather time. Borges said that “forgetting is the only vengeance and the only forgiveness”. There’s a lot of wisdom in that.

          4. Happily the issue isn’t going to be tested as the UK has stood by the NI Protocol; the practical border is now at the water’s edge.

            Irish reunification now being a certainty, Scottish independence begins to hove onto view.

            Once that happens, it may be only a matter of time before Wales will wish to leave the rump, and rejoin the EU with the rest of the Celtic fringe. I won’t see it, but my kids will.

            It would have been simpler if England had voted to leave the UK in the first place.

            (I can see, now, why Llandovery erected that Owain Glyndwr statue in 2000 – ‘the past is never dead, heck, it isn’t even past.’)

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