Now the UK faces a second referendum on Scottish independence, and a more distant prospect of a reunited Ireland, it looks like the end times for Great Britain. Far from rejuvenating British national sovereignty, Brexit has brought nothing but discord and the end of the UK is a real possibility.
It’s not a surprise really, the June 2016 referendum has left British society deeply polarised and the withdrawal from the EU will reverberate for years to come. Everywhere the liberal left is in despair at the prospects, whereas the pro-European right has gone quiet with a few exceptions. The Conservative government has been working to reset the centre ground around British nationalism. Last year was one of those moments where decades happen in weeks.
It all looks so absurd in retrospect. David Cameron thought he could save face by holding an EU referendum. He never considered defeat a realistic possibility, and when the Remain campaign lost he had little to say. He just resigned and his legacy was dismantled in a matter of weeks. Theresa May would decide the hardest of all possible Brexits would be the best course for the future of the Tory Party. She put electoral strategy above and beyond economics.
Faced with this Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has laid her cards out on the table. A second referendum it is, and the Whitehall establishment has very little wiggle room. If the Conservative government moves to block the referendum, it will just undermine its own tenuous claim to legitimacy. In the end May would be left looking as though she only respects democracy for the English, but not for the Scottish people.
And yet May had the temerity to accuse Sturgeon of “playing politics”. It’s almost as if politics should be denuded of all content and reduced to endless managerial foreplay. This is precisely why people support Scottish independence. They want to break with the present state of affairs. Who can blame them? The United Kingdom long ago abandoned the social contract of 1945, the empire is dead and soon these islands will be wrenched out of the EU.
Though it is too easy to read the call for a second referendum as an attempt to scupper the Brexit process. The May government is about to activate Article 50 and initiate the negotiations with the EU. However, the SNP would stand to lose out more if it backed off on a referendum – even if it meant the UK, or just Scotland, stays in the single market. No, this is for real. And it’s probably too late for the Conservatives to buy-off Scotland with a soft Brexit.
Sturgeon has played her cards very well, and this manoeuvre couldn’t have been timed better. The SNP couldn’t afford to rush to a second referendum for fear of appearing hubristic, thereby startling the electorate and scuppering independence. When the Brexit vote came through, it was obvious that the case for Scottish independence was strengthened. These conditions are not favourable to national unity. Scotland is not an exceptional case.
Across the Irish Sea, Sinn Fein has emerged as the top dog in the Northern Irish elections. For the first time the republican and nationalist bloc has gained a majority of seats in the Northern Irish Assembly, putting the possibility of Irish reunification back on the table. If the republicans and unionists can’t reach a power-sharing agreement soon, the British government will revert back to direct rule as a temporary holding action.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is right to suggest that the new battle is to win over the Protestant community. Demographics mean the Protestant vote has to be persuaded that life in the Irish Republic will be better than in the United Kingdom. It’s not impossible, especially once Brexit starts to hit living standards. Much like the Scottish nationalists before Brexit, Irish republicans cannot act too soon to call for a referendum. If they do, they risk re-polarising the Irish North along sectarian lines. This would set back the cause.
Timing is everything. Within the Good Friday peace process, once the Northern Irish Assembly holds a referendum it can hold another vote after seven years. You can imagine it taking two, possibly three votes to finally settle the status of Ulster. This will be a slow process, the push towards Scottish independence is in a much more advanced stage, but it is plausible that we will see Northern Ireland secede in our lifetime.
In the meantime, Welsh nationalists have time to build up the groundswell for their own agenda. The English ruling class will endure the blows of its union being torn apart, while English society is left with austerity and a devalued pound. Arguably, once outside the two unions, the English left will stand a better chance against a smaller, local enemy rather than the conglomerated power blocs we’ve had for so long.
Of course, Scottish independence and Irish reunification will not save English society – only the English can save themselves. The English left has yet to get its act together, to build new institutions and alternative media capable of overcoming the mainstream consensus and the right-wing backlash to it. The break up of the Union is just the start of a whole series of struggles, old and new.
Photograph courtesy of First Minister of Scotland. Published under a Creative Commons license.