Rather than pulling the four nations of the UK together as Global Britain, the UK’s decision to leave the EU is providing political oxygen to different movements who do not see their future as part of this union. How is the Conservative government handling these tensions at home? Is it creating a stronger United Kingdom?
The impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol has been profound economically, politically, socially and commercially. Some have begun to fear – wrongly – a growing separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. So says British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his Foreword to the recent publication The Northern Ireland Protocol – next steps, which sets out the government’s proposals for changes to this part of the EU-UK post-Brexit agreement.
Yet, only five years ago, as the results of the referendum were announced, Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister at the time, said that as a leader of unionism, she felt "We are now entering a new era of an even stronger United Kingdom,".
So, how has the UK moved from this hope of a stronger United Kingdom of four nations to a country where there is open speculation as to whether the Union can last?
Northern Ireland was always going to present difficulties
Leave supporters underplayed the consequences of Brexit in the referendum campaign of 2016. Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time, said: "There is no reason why we have to change the border arrangements in the event of a Brexit because they have been broadly consistent in the 100 years since the creation of Ireland as a separate state.”
But Brexit and the way it was implemented, by leaving the single market and the customs union, and rejecting a continued role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ), substantially changed the relationship: it reintroduced a hard border without a strategy on how to deal with Northern Ireland.
The UK and EU agreed they did not want a physical border between North and South, and that the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) should be honoured. They did not want to risk the physical border becoming a point of tension again, or creating additional economic problems.
Back to the Future
Boris Johnson’s solution was to effectively create a ‘border’ in the Irish Sea instead. However, businesses have hit major problems: over 200 UK businesses no longer supply Northern Irish companies and consumers. Trade with Ireland has reportedly been increasing, to the dismay of Unionists, who are committed to Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.
The Unionist community increasingly feels that the UK Government has not supported them, while at the same time, Republicans look to the possibility of a referendum on a potential unification, permitted under certain conditions by the Good Friday Agreement. The one thing it appears that both main communities can agree on is that they do not trust Boris Johnson to find a resolution - just 6% of the population have confidence in him, according to a recent opinion poll.
Another poll showed a majority believe that there could be a united Ireland within 25 years. The Northern Ireland Assembly (in suspension for some of this time,) is due to vote on whether to maintain major provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol in 2024: the implications of a vote against those provisions is adding further uncertainty and division to the situation.
The independence movements are stirring
So, how is the United Kingdom faring in its other nations?
In Scotland, fresh life was breathed into the independence movement after the UK vote to leave the EU: Scotland (like Northern Ireland) voted to remain. For the Scottish National Party (SNP), this has brought a material change in the constitutional position. The argument was made in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 that to remain in the EU, Scotland should remain in the UK. However, the UK has now voted to leave, against the expressed will of the Scottish people. Consequently, the only way for Scotland to have membership of the EU is through independence.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Act provided another point of tension between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, as the draft contained proposals to break international law (later withdrawn). The UK Government passed the United Kingdom Internal Market Act to stop potential regulatory divergence across the UK establishing new trade barriers. The Scottish and Welsh parliaments withheld their consent and consider this action from Westminster as yet another example of no respect for the devolved institutions.
An argument is now erupting over the UK Government’s plans for freeports where, according to press leaks, it is threatening to bypass the Scottish Government’s concerns and legal rights and impose its own model.
The Scottish Parliament now has a majority of members committed to independence (SNP and the Greens) since the 2021 elections. The Scottish Government is now also committed to bringing forward legislation during the course of this parliament. There is a clear understanding of the need to make this a legally robust referendum to reduce any obstacle to eventual EU membership. Boris Johnson has made it clear that he does not intend to grant such a referendum, so the stage is set for further tension.
Even in Wales, where historically support for independence has been consistently low (at about 10%), there is growing support. A recent opinion poll showed 39% of those surveyed expressing an opinion as being in favour, with significant support among younger voters. While Brexit may be part of the reason, the management of the COVID pandemic in Wales has been credited with giving greater profile to the Welsh Government and the Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford. Health is a devolved responsibility and he (like Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland) has been viewed as competent in this crisis – unlike Boris Johnson. Even some Labour Assembly members are now talking more enthusiastically, if not of independence, then of ‘radical devolution’.
Is England changing?
And what of England – for so long viewed as a synonym for the United Kingdom? The Conservative Party Manifesto of 2019 had promised ‘full devolution’, but the focus has now shifted to the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, based on gradually increasing powers to the growing number of city mayors in England, rather than rethinking the balance of powers between the four nations.
The Labour Party recently published an internal research paper (Remaking the British State: For the Many, Not the Few) on national constitutional reform – partly to provide answers to the growing calls for independence – to provide its own future vision.
It is clear that change is stirring and Brexit has put the question of a United Kingdom or “Little England” firmly on the political agenda.