On Monday in the House of Commons in London, the British government’s Bill to override the Brexit agreement it made with the European Union less than three years ago, passed its second reading.
If the government has its way, the Bill will enshrine in British law the principle that international agreements signed by the United Kingdom aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Instead of trying to negotiate a way forward with Brussels over improving the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has opted for a hard-right solution, one that he is hoping will placate Brexiteers who may have become disillusioned with all the shenanigans going on in Downing Street when the rest of the country was supposed to be in strict coronavirus lockdown.
For the day he promised to Get Brexit Done, he simply drew a customs line down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of England, Scotland and Wales, and hoped that the problem he created would simply go away. That oven-ready Brexit deal proved to be half-baked, unconsumable for businesses and manufacturers simply trying to get their goods across the Irish Sea.
After months of posturing and little real progress, the Johnson government has now simply decided it will enshrine into law the principle that you can ignore international law.
In Northern Ireland itself, the nationalist Sinn Fein party, whose whole raison d’etre is the reunification of the island of Ireland into a single state, has been basking in electoral success since May 6. It became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly — the first time that has happened since the six counties were carved off by Britain as the other 26 counties to the south became the then Irish Free State a century ago. It seems that it’s only a matter of time before there is a so-called border poll on whether Northern Ireland should reunify with the Irish Republic. That border poll — a once-off opportunity — is enshrined as a key element of the good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of political and sectarian violence there.
Surely, that’s not an international agreement the British would walk away from, is it?
Given this background, is it really a coincidence then that Scotland’s nationalists are now screaming for a second independence referendum.
On Tuesday, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon detailed plans to hold a second independence referendum on 19 October 2023. Sturgeon said she is “ready and willing” to negotiate the terms of a Section 30 order with him, which would give the Scottish parliament in Holyrood the power to hold another vote on separating from the UK. The 2014 referendum, which saw voters opt to stay in the UK by 55 to 45 per cent, took place after then prime minister David Cameron agreed to it — a so-called “Section 30” order.
But since Cameron’s successors — Theresa May and Johnson — have flatly rejected any suggestion that there should be another vote.
But Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party colleagues along with those in the Green party — won’t be deterred. “What I am not willing to do, what I will never do, is allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Boris Johnson or any prime minister,” Sturgeon said. “My determination is to secure a process that allows the people of Scotland, whether yes, no or yet to be decided, to express their views in a legal, constitutional referendum so the majority view can be established fairly and democratically.”
The question to be asked is the same as in the 2014 vote: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
And no sooner had Sturgeon unveiled her plans in Edinburgh than Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party in Wales determined to claim independence for the nation of 4.3 million, echoed calls for an independence vote there too. The Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price, called for the power for Wales to hold a referendum on the right of its people to be able to decide on their own constitutional future.
The Welsh calls were made following Westminster marking its intention to repeal the Trade Union Act 2017 passed by the Welsh Senedd in Cardiff, which Price says shows their “contempt not just for workers, not just for Wales, but for our democracy.”
In the Cardiff Senedd, Price pointed out that “Westminster wants it to be a relationship where they are in control and our Senedd is subservient; Where their Parliament is supreme and ours is subordinate” and called for “legally secure routes” for Wales to be able to decide the future of its own democracy.
But the conundrum facing Sturgeon — while the Welsh nationalists are eager to follow Edinburgh’s example, Plaid Cymru remains in a minority in the Cardiff legislature — is to ensure that the next referendum will be legitimate. She and her colleagues are eager to avoid a “Catalan” scenario, where two separate plebiscites organised in the northeast Spanish province have been declared illegal by Madrid and its Constitutional Court before they were ever held.
Outlining her bid to have an “indisputably legal referendum” she says the vote would be held “to ascertain the views of the people of Scotland as to whether or not Scotland should be an independent country.”
To achieve “legal clarity” over the Scottish government’s plans, Sturgeon said that Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, the Scottish Government’s most senior law officer, had agreed to refer the matter to the UK Supreme Court. She said the vote would be a consultative referendum as the vote on Brexit was in 2016. As a result, she explained, a majority vote would not by itself make Scotland independent, adding: “For Scotland to become independent following a yes vote, legislation would have to be passed by the UK and Scottish Parliaments.” She says that because her party won the 2021 elections to the Scottish parliament, she has a mandate to pursue a second referendum.
Yes, there’s a distinct lack of unity in the “United” Kingdom right now. The question is, would that dissipate if Johnson were no longer calling the shots?