The Union is already sacrificed on the altar of Brexit

The emotional rupture is complete and the legal rupture will follow

January 24, 2020
Nicola Sturgeon gives a speech in Edinburgh the day after the election. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images
Nicola Sturgeon gives a speech in Edinburgh the day after the election. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images

Next week will mark the end of two unions. The first, the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU. The second, the United Kingdom itself. That is no unfortunate coincidence. The second is predicated on the first, and both are coming.

In each case, the effects will take a while to manifest themselves. We won’t notice any changes from Brexit for the first 11 months, and then likely a number of highly damaging consequences in quick succession. The break-up of the UK, meanwhile, will take place over years or generations. Scotland will be the first to separate. Wales and Northern Ireland may not in our lifetimes. Indeed, none of them may ever do so legally or constitutionally. And yet all will emotionally.

The evidence for the split has been accumulating since the Brexit referendum, and perhaps for a long time before that. In recent days, the Scottish Parliament, Senedd and newly gathered Northern Ireland Assembly have all voted against giving assent to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This is not mere symbolism. It matters. The directly elected legislatures of the three parts of the UK that are not England have all rejected the most significant constitutional change since Irish independence. The legislation they have opposed will have a profound impact on Britain’s politics, culture and above all, its economy. It has been granted assent by just one of the UK’s four elected parliaments. That is the House of Commons, a chamber constituted 82 per cent from England: an English parliament in all but name, and in all ways that count.

Britain has always fudged its national settlement. A political and emotional story which began with England’s conquest of Wales in 1284 has never been completed or resolved. The UK had no modern revolution, nationwide civil war or external coloniser to force it to define itself afresh. Every change, from England and Scotland’s 1707 Act of Union to 1990s devolution, has represented a slow, incremental addition to a centuries-old palimpsest. The UK is neither centrally governed nor federal, and sticks with the compromise. But a compromise can be a euphemism for a lie. Brexit has shown that devolution, in its current form, is not working.

That is no more strongly illustrated than in the Sewel convention—the 1999 constitutional rule which suggests that the UK parliament will “not normally” legislate on a devolved issue unless the devolved legislature has given its consent. Brexit touches on a number of devolved issues. Agriculture and fishing will feature prominently in the forthcoming trade negotiations. The Sewel convention, like Britain’s unwritten constitution, has shown itself to belong to an era of gentlemen’s agreements and fair play. The conduct of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings has demonstrated the uselessness of non-binding rules. If it cannot be struck down by the Supreme Court, it is up for grabs.

Just before Scotland’s 2014 vote on independence, the UK government panicked it would lose and scrambled together a front-page “vow” to increase the power of the Scottish Parliament. That vow proved worthless. Never mind that the elected representatives of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people want to veto a massive transformation to their economic and political status: because they have no legal or constitutional power to do so, the UK government could not care less.

The government’s contempt may be lawful—but it comes at a price. The first cost is political. The Conservative and Unionist Party has done more to dismantle the Union in four years than it ever did to build it. The most eye-catching example is the new economic border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement. Its brutal dismissal of the Democratic Unionists when they outlived their usefulness offered final proof that the Tories privilege our separation from the European Union far above the cohesion of the British one. 

But the far more significant cost is emotional. Gradually, it is occurring to unionists around the country that the Conservatives just aren’t that into them. The government should beware its complacency. In recent referendums, 62 per cent of Scottish voters backed membership of the EU; just 55 percent backed membership of the UK. They are linked. One of the main issues in 2014 was an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU. The British establishment declared that Scotland’s only route to remaining was by rejecting independence. As it turned out, the reverse was true. Whereas six years ago Spanish ministers loudly proclaimed they would never allow Scotland to seek independent membership alongside the rest of the UK, now the signs are that an autonomous Scotland could all but inherit the UK’s membership and would be welcomed in Brussels with open arms.

A new Scottish independence referendum, like Brexit, will dominate our political landscape for years to come. They derive from the same source: popular mandates. Brexit was initiated by voters in a referendum in 2016, and rubber-stamped, under the peculiarity of our electoral system, in the general election last month. Scottish voters, meanwhile, have endorsed the Scottish National Party in the last five national elections—four of them taking place since the independence referendum. If that is not a mandate for the SNP’s principal policy, it is hard to see what could be. If we must obey the so-called will of the British people in order to implement Brexit, we must obey the will of the Scottish people to determine their own future. In its fixation on the question of independence, the UK government denies what this really is: a question of democracy.

All roads to independence lead through Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon always said that the 2014 outcome would endure for a generation barring significant constitutional change, and Brexit is that. But not just that. It is a project by the English establishment, for the English establishment, against everything and everyone else. Scottish voters will eventually have their say. And yet the die has already been cast. Even if they remain, the United Kingdom will not undivide itself. That, perhaps more than Brexit, will prove the Conservatives’ legacy.