It might very well be that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as a singular political entity and, quite possibly, the end of the Acts of Union that brought England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together over these past three centuries.
Now before the diplomatic dispatches and alarmist headlines are written, while the probability is remote, it’s not beyond the bounds of political possibilities given the dismay — (shouldn’t that be diss May, I ask myself) — that exists across the four disparate corners of the UK over Brexit at the moment.
Yes, there are but weeks to reach a deal on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union (EU), and it is becoming increasingly clear that even if Prime Minister Theresa May ends up with a deal — the smart money is split between no deal or a so-called “blind Brexit”, where everything is left hanging and undecided for down the road — the PM will not be able to get the deal through parliament. And the regional parties representing Scotland and Northern Ireland have agendas that run diametrically opposed to May and any prospect of a Brexit deal.
Let’s look at Northern Ireland first.
Ever since the June 2016 general election called by May, she has had to rely on a confidence and supply deal with 10 members of parliament from the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) of Northern Ireland to govern. The DUP supported Brexit, but breaking from the EU was rejected by 55.77 per cent of voters in the British-governed province. And a main cause of that pro-EU support came from the hard-earned peace deal that saw normality restored to the province after three decades of bloody political and sectarian violence that killed and injured thousands.
As far as the majority in Northern Ireland are concerned, closer integration, freer trade, freer movement of people, the elimination of border searches, patrols and intimidation by security forces ended with the border to the Irish Republic to the south being eliminated. Crossing that border now is no different than driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.
That peace was down to the Good Friday Agreement, and the peace dividend wasn’t just economic — chemotherapy services were joined, so too tourism, social programmes, welfare projects. Peace grew because neighbours mingled instead of being fenced off.
That’s one of the reasons why the Irish border issue is so critical now to these Brexit talks. That normality needs to be protected — and there are dark forces that would take advantage of any return to a hard border of customs, searches and checks.
But the DUP controls May. She has no wriggle room when it comes to Northern Ireland.
While it makes most sense for all the island of Ireland to remain in a customs union and keep things largely as they are, that’s completely unacceptable to the DUP. Its core tenet is that Ulster is as much a part of the UK as is Lancashire. And any Brexit deal that singles out Northern Ireland for special treatment or conditions in any way, is unacceptable.
Because of the intractable DUP, the border issue is so intractable. It has gone so far as to suggest that the Good Friday Agreement can be changed. No, it can’t — and it has been accepted by referendums on both sides of the Irish border. That Good Friday Agreement, however, does allow for a vote on a united Ireland at some unspecified date down the road when conditions are right. Given the economic and social upheavals Brexit is bringing about — that vote seems close at hand. Who knows, but the July 2021 date that marks the 100th anniversary of the truce in a war of independence, may be an apt time for such a vote?
And then there’s Scotland.
It already has had one referendum on independence in September 2014, with voters rejecting the go-it-alone option. Since then, support for an IndyRef2, as it’s called, has waned, but now seems to be growing again. Why? In the Brexit referendum, Scotland voted by 62 per cent to 38 to Remain. Now that it seems as if there is to be all sorts of chaos and crippling economic fallout from Brexit, the Scots in an independent frame of mind would prefer to see their nation remain in the EU. And more and more are agreeing with them.
At last week’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) annual conference, there was a very loud and very clear message sent south to May that the SNP would be rejecting whatever she did or didn’t get from Brussels at the end of the negotiations.
In Wales, where Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, has struggled to become mainstream, it nevertheless sends four of 40 MPs from the principality to Westminster. While Welsh voters did opt to support Leave by 52.5 to 47.5 per cent in the Brexit referendum, the party says that its support is growing because of voters disaffected by the Brexit chaos and who are swayed by the arguments made by Scottish nationalists for going-in-along and remaining in the EU. Either way, the four MPs will be looking long and hard at the Brexit deal — if any — brought back to the Commons by May’s negotiators.
But leaving the Irish, Welsh and Scots aside, there is also a political reality that there is a growing little England movement swelling within the ranks of May’s own deeply divided Conservative Party. It will oppose any deal that fails to break as completely as possible and as hard as possible from the Brussels straitjacket it so despises.
Its key rump would be the 50 or so members of the European Reform Group (ERG) led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and with former foreign secretary Boris Johnson as its main spokesperson. Indeed, in Rees-Mogg’s own words, to be born British means “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. The Scots, Irish and Welsh within his disunited realm might very well disagree.