In Scotland and Northern Ireland it poses existential challengesby Jim Gallagher / February 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Nationalisms disrupt multinational unions, and not just European unions. Brexit is a nationalism that matters not just for devolved powers in the UK, but for the stability of the union too. It is English but not UK nationalism, and so in Scotland and Northern Ireland its challenges are existential. The Scottish National Party are now at Refcon 1, with Nicola Sturgeon edging daily closer to calling a second referendum on independence. Northern Ireland’s administration collapsed for its own reasons, but Brexit and its consequences make building a new government much harder.
Nowhere is the issue clearer than in Scotland. Though the SNP lost, the 2014 referendum still established the party as the overwhelming force in Scottish politics. After 10 years in office, and with all but three of Scotland’s MPs, SNP politicians are used to dominating the political agenda and have been preparing for the next shot at independence whenever they and public opinion are ready. So Brexit was an unwelcome shock. Not only has the SNP been a pro-European party for over 20 years (the European Union provided a useful safety net for independence) but Brexit has put Scotland’s relationship with England back on the agenda today, not at the time of the party’s choosing.
This is perhaps why Nicola Sturgeon was initially flustered. In the 2014 referendum, guaranteed EU membership was part of the case for Scotland staying in the UK. And now only 38 per cent of Scots voted Leave, compared to 53 per cent in England. So her immediate reaction was that a referendum was “highly likely.” But then she seemed to vacillate. If the UK—or even just Scotland—remained in the single market, Indyref2 could be avoided. This was a twin-track approach: always aiming for independence, but prepared to defer another referendum if she could make headway with the UK government.
Little progress emerged from the discussions between the governments. For six months Westminster had nothing to say, and then Prime Minister Theresa May announced she wanted the UK out of the single market and the customs union too. This looked like a fait accompli to the devolved administrations: all were pro-single market, and Northern Ireland pro-customs union. The Scottish government’s single-market-for-Scotland-only plan is still formally on the table (although few seem to regard it as…