By Philip Johnston
9 October 2018
Will independence from the EU break apart the UK?
When the Battle for Brexit is over, will the Battle for Britain begin; or more accurately, the Battle for the United Kingdom? Will the political forces unleashed by the referendum of June 2016 tear apart one of the most successful and enduring unions the world has seen?
There seems no obvious reason why they should. After all, the UK existed in one form or another for 266 years before we joined the Common Market, if we date it from 1707 and the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments – or 370 years if we take James’s accession to the throne as James I and VI as our starting point.
It is a union that has lasted, apart from the rupture with Ireland in 1921, for more than four centuries – a tumultuous historical period during which the frontiers of continental Europe were reset countless times by war, revolution and insurrection. Its immutability has been our mainstay as a nation. But for how much longer?
The signs of incipient breakdown are there. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, told the SNP’s conference in Glasgow that a second independence referendum could follow once the shape of the Brexit deal is known, possibly before the next Scottish parliament elections in 2021.
Some accuse her of dithering, not least because she said after the EU vote in 2016 that another Indyref would be held about now, but that was before the Nationalists took a bath electorally at the snap general election last year, losing 21 seats at Westminster.
None the less, the protracted and, at times, shambolic Brexit negotiations have encouraged Scottish separatists to believe that a second independence referendum could be won. Once the Brexit deal is concluded, they want Ms Sturgeon to set out a timetable for a re-run of the 2014 plebiscite which the Union side won by 55 to 45. Since a majority of Scots wanted to stay in the EU, there is good reason to believe another would be much closer.
That is not just the view of Nationalists, either. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, told the Tory conference not to lose sight of the fact “that the Union that’s most important to us is our own [and] there are those who are working day by day to break it up – and who believe that a chaotic Brexit will help.”
The SNP will do their utmost to bring down Theresa May because their best chance of another independence referendum – which needs Westminster support – is to hold the balance of power supporting up a Labour government in a hung parliament. Their big problem is that the polls suggest there is still a majority in Scotland against independence and they will not risk losing again. So they have every incentive to oppose anything Mrs May achieves in the hope she is toppled.
What about another constituent part of the Union, Northern Ireland? The whole Brexit fandango has been wilfully complicated by the Irish border question. The Democratic Unionists, whose 10 MPs are propping up Mrs May’s government, will not support anything that treats Ulster differently from the rest of the UK when it comes to the customs union or the single market.
Perversely, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, who was in Brussels for talks with Michel Barnier yesterday, is ready to veto a deal that breaches her red line “for the sake of the Union”. Yet in doing so she risks a so-called chaotic Brexit which might then hasten a breach with Scotland.
The answer to this conundrum now being mooted is for the entire UK to stay in some sort of customs arrangement for a specified period while Northern Ireland also remains aligned to the EU’s single market. But if that happens, Ms Sturgeon wants the same deal for Scotland, effectively keeping it in some EEA-style relationship with the EU.
This is beginning to make the Schleswig-Holstein question – the 19th century’s intractable territorial puzzle – look like a picnic. Moreover, the threat this poses to the Union is obvious, even if some refuse to see it or believe it will all work out in the end. Might it not be better, therefore, to anticipate the appearance of these cracks and try to fill them in before they destroy the entire edifice?
It is hard for politicians grappling with Brexit to commit to yet more upheaval, but the cross-party Constitutional Reform Group thinks they must if the Union is to be saved. Chaired by the Marquess of Salisbury, a former leader of the Lords, its members have spent three years working up proposals for a new Act of Union and a private member’s Bill is being introduced into the House of Lords on Friday intended to “stabilise and strengthen” the relationships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland…
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