Divided we Stand, Divided we Fall?: The Impact of ‘Brexit’ on the UK’s Territorial Governance

By Paul Anderson PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations

In February of this year I wrote a post for this very blog asking the question: Would a vote to leave the EU constitute a threat to the future of the Union? The results are in, and well, as I very much predicted, England and Wales have voted to leave the EU; Scotland and Northern Ireland have voted to remain. The constitutional edifice of the UK is well and truly cracking.

From all four nations in the UK, Scotland has shown most enthusiasm for the ‘remain’ side, with all 32 council areas, that’s 62% of the Scottish electorate voting to remain. Northern Ireland comes second with nearly 56% of the population voting to remain, markedly in front of both England and Wales where 53.4% in the former and 52.5% in the latter voted in favour of leaving the EU.

The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has not only been vociferous in her opinion regarding Brexit, but consistently challenged David Cameron to ensure that a majority vote in all four nations would be required for Britain’s secession from the EU to take effect. Mr Cameron, of course, refused to entertain the idea, but I imagine at some point today the idea of ‘double majorities’ will cross his mind. Alas, too little too late.

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Source Scottish Government

The SNP has made its position very clear on a second independence referendum (Indyref2), arguing that a significant ‘material change’ would have to ensue for the option to be considered. Brexit was, of course, touted as such a ‘material change’ and with all Scottish council areas voting to remain in the EU, independence is back on the cards. The constitutional quagmire in Scotland becomes even more convoluted when one considers the arguments put forward in 2014 for Scotland to remain part of the UK: a NO vote for independence, it was argued, was a vote to remain in the EU. And yet, for many Scottish voters this morning, Scotland is, in the words of Sturgeon, being ‘dragged out of the EU against its will’. This is, argued the first minister, ‘democratically unacceptable’.

While it is fair to say independence is on the cards, the road ahead is long. Nicola Sturgeon has already announced that an Indyref2 is ‘highly likely’ . The momentum, it seems, may be in the SNP’s favour, and despite Sturgeon’s reputation as a cautious politician, if the opinion polls show an increase in support for Scottish independence, it may well be that the UK is broken up much sooner than thought.  The nationalist juggernaut continues to dominate.

If constitutional politics looks set to become more complicated in Scotland, the UK’s relationship with Northern Ireland just got a whole lot messier. The erection of a hard border and passport checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland seems a reasonable event, yet one that will indisputably overshadow the hugely successful peace process instituted in 1999. Sinn Fein have already called for a border poll on (re-)unification with Ireland, paving the way for more uncertainty, not only in constitutional terms, but in relation to the economy and markets, and the ever-important social union with the UK. For decades, politics in Northern Ireland has been marred by violence, yet despite the success of the peace process, the settlement remains as delicate as ever. A nightmare scenario of a return to the troubles cannot be easily dismissed, particularly when the EU is recognised as a crucial component in facilitating peace. Opinion in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the majority vote for remain, is divided, with seven regions voting ‘leave’ and the remaining eleven voting to remain. The immediate reactions from party representatives on both sides of the divide suggest a prolonged period of political sparring lies ahead, yet one only hopes that democratic debate and discussions, rather than violence, prevail.

The electorate of the UK has spoken. Yet, while 52% of the electorate has voted to leave the EU, the diverse results across the UK are a cause for concern. David Cameron has already tendered his resignation, deciding to step down in October to pave the way for a new Tory, and no doubt Eurosceptic, prime minister. His position in the history books of British politics is secure, yet being remembered as the premier who instigated the UK’s secession from the EU (and quite possibly the dissolution of the UK), is an accolade Cameron will not want to promote. Constitutional issues will continue to dominate relations between Scotland and the UK, and Scottish independence may well be the final destination in the nation’s constitutional journey. Only time will tell.

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