Theresa May is making final preparations for her resignation on Friday as UK Conservative Party leader. While she will stay on as prime minister until at least July, her time in office is ending with a lousy legacy.
With the gun soon to be fired on the formal selection of a new Conservative leader, and by extension prime minister, once she resigns on June 7 attention is rightly turning to the massive agenda s/he faces.
Firstly and foremostly, this comprises tackling the troubled Tory legacy of May and David Cameron which has seen the shambles over Brexit, but also wider political drift, and the possibility of the United Kingdom itself unravelling.
This leaves a huge in-box and the tragedy is that this sorry political inheritance was by no means inevitable, and stems in large part from May and Cameron’s own unwise decisions in office. On Brexit, for instance, the EU referendum Cameron called was not one of necessity, and this was compounded by his astonishing failure to allow the Civil Service to conduct — prior to the 2016 plebiscite — any planning in the event of a ‘Leave’ win.
Should the leave vote ultimately lead to the United Kingdom leaving the EU under the next prime minister, which still appears likely barring a so-called people’s ballot which reverses the decision, it would increase the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum.
Calling a referendum in these circumstances proved to be a reckless gamble that destroyed his premiership. And in the last three years May has failed to pick up the pieces and secure a domestic consensus around an EU withdrawal deal, exceptionally difficult as that task would have been for any politician to achieve in fairness to her. Yet, not only has her EU withdrawal bill been defeated by historic margins in Parliament. In addition, her failure to educate the public on the complexity and trade-offs involved in the UK’s exit from the EU has led to sentiment shifting toward ‘solutions’, such as a no-deal Brexit with the harm this could cause the economy, advocated by Nigel Farage’s populist Brexit Party which won the largest share of the vote in European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom last week.
Yet, the referendum vote is not just having potentially big implications for the longer-term future not just of the EU, but also the United Kingdom itself. On the latter front, for instance, the UK’s current constitutional settlement has now become further destabilised with significantly increased likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum, and also the possibility of greater political uncertainty in Northern Ireland too.
Unlike England and Wales, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016. This is a point constantly emphasised by parties such as Sinn Fein and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) which favour the further fragmentation of the United Kingdom.
Take the example of Scotland which in 2014 held an independence referendum, the aftermath of which has been an emboldened SNP. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Leader, has previously argued that the United Kingdom should only exit the EU if all four constituent parts (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) individually voted to leave, an exceptionally unlikely scenario as she well knows.
Should the leave vote ultimately lead to the United Kingdom leaving the EU under the next prime minister, which still appears likely barring a so-called people’s ballot which reverses the decision, it would increase the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Leader, has sought to the lay the ground for such a post-Brexit plebiscite, and given the strong attachment that many Scottish people have to the EU, it appears more likely than in 2014 that the country could vote for independence.
In Northern Ireland too, where all parties except the Democratic Unionist party campaigned for a remain vote in 2016, the results are having destabilising effects. Already, some Sinn Fein politicians have called for a poll on a united Ireland, with Northern Ireland proposed to be joined up with the Republic of Ireland, justified in part — it is argued — by the fact that support for the EU is considerably higher in Northern Ireland than the UK average.
For those who continue to favour a strong United Kingdom, these developments are immensely concerning, and the end result is likely not just to have ramifications for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also the rest of the world too. For the fact that a weaker United Kingdom would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage would also adversely affect its ability to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile.
Potential Scottish independence
Take the example of potential Scottish independence which would undermine the UK’s influence in multiple ways, including its voice in key international forums from the United Nations, G7/8, G20, and Nato. As former Conservative prime minister John Major has argued, the union would be perceived to be harmed “if a chunk of it voluntarily chose to leave … In every international gathering that there is, the voice of Britain … would be growing weaker because we would have had a political fracture of a most dramatic nature ”.
Perhaps most prominently, the break-up of the union could be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), and/or other UN members, to catalyse a review of UK’s membership of the council. To be sure, reform of UNSC is overdue, however, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided upon less favourable terms for Britain than might otherwise be the case.
Budgetary cuts forced by the loss of Scotland’s tax base could also impact the UK’s sizeable annual overseas aid budget, which promotes massive goodwill abroad. The United Kingdom is one of the world’s largest providers of international aid after the United States, and is one of the few G7 states to adhere to an internationally agreed target of spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. Moreover, a UK Parliamentary Committee has rightly warned that losing the Scottish tax base could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.
Taken overall, the new Conservative leader will have to tackle as best s/he can May and Cameron’s lousy legacy. Key tasks will be resolving the Brexit shambles in the national interest, and also preventing the break-up of the United Kingdom. Failure to achieve these goals would mean that the nation would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage, adversely affecting its ability to bolster international security and prosperity.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.