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Is it too soon to write obituaries for the UK?

Boris Johnson poses for a photograph in front of a union flag. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

MAURICE SMITH assesses what Brexit and the latest political developments mean for the future of the United Kingdom.

Number 10 Downing Street. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire – Credit: PA

Imagine the United Kingdom as a soap opera – one of those dramas where the main characters are in a permanent state of dismay, and always seem to ready to walk out… forever.

Apparently we have reached just such a moment, here and now. The script writers are preparing their drafts. Brexit is happening. The Scots are talking the talk, and the Irish – who walked a century ago – might be returning for the ones they left behind.

The ingredients of melodrama are plain. Bad Boris has taken charge, so Nicola is ready to flounce off muttering about the broken promises of 2014. Arlene backed Boris but now she wonders why she ever trusted him or his predecessor, Theresa. Over the border, Mary Lou is all set to move in and that might upset, well, nearly everyone.

In the parlance of these times, the Great British Break-up seems oven ready. The arrival in Downing Street of an essentially English Tory in Boris Johnson, reinforced with an impervious majority in December, runs counter to the prevailing political winds of Scotland and Ireland.

Nigel Farage in the parliament chamber at the European Parliament in Brussels. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire. – Credit: PA

While Johnson and his Leave cronies connived to achieve Brexit back in 2016, voters in Scotland backed Remain by a margin of 62% to 38%. Northern Ireland voted in similar vein (56% to 44%). For more than three years both electorates have watched in dismay while the real Brexit battles were played out in England.

In Northern Ireland there has been the added piquancy that Leave was promoted by the region’s biggest party, the DUP, even though a majority of voters opposed it.

So now, as the smoke of battle clears and the Westminster benches fill with newly-elected Tories, are we set for Scottish independence and a united Ireland?

Can it all be so simple?

To many in Scotland the Brexit vote and its aftermath has been like watching a slow-motion train crash occurring in another country rather than their own.

The endless obsession of the London media with the minutiae of Brexit has seemed quite alien to a nation already beset with its own, different constitutional debate.

The Scottish referendum debate of 2014 certainly had its echoes in Brexit. The sight and sound of rival demonstrators trying to disrupt news bulletins, the vacuous rhetoric of “taking back control” and vainglorious declarations of “independence day” have heightened many Scots’ sense of just how different the various nations and regions of the United Kingdom have become.

Indeed, all across the UK, questions of national identity are being increasingly asked, as people assess whether they consider themselves British, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or, perhaps, European. Such questions predate the referendum, but Brexit has certainly had a catalysing effect.

The very idea of Britain, and what it stands for, is now up for debate. As Diarmaid MacCulloch, the English historian and academic, asked at a event this week, what is the purpose of Britishness, now that Protestantism and empire have gone? The man on the street might not put it the same way, but the same questions are now being asked all over Britain. Debates that might once have seemed niche and academic are now mainstream. So where will the politics lead?

It is simple to conclude – on either side of the border – that the diverging paths taken by Scotland and England can lead only to divorce. To many, the only questions might be how and when it will take place.

But this is no black and white fissure. The rhetoric between Edinburgh and London may have ramped up a little – one side drumming its fingers while the other rules out even the remotest chance of a sit-down chat. This relationship carries many more shades of grey. The assumption that all this spells Scottish independence is too glib and quite lazy. Separation is not inevitable, although neither is reconciliation.

North of the border, the woman at the crux of the question is first minister Nicola Sturgeon. An unrepentant Remainer, she has been consistent in her critique of Brexit, and particularly her hostility towards Johnson’s style of politics. Sturgeon’s party has been in power at Holyrood since 2007 and is favourite to remain the biggest party at the Scottish parliament after its next elections in May 2021.

The early stages of the Johnson government have not indicated any thawing of relations between nationalist Holyrood and Tory Westminster. Sturgeon’s demand for a new referendum on Scottish independence to be held this year has been rejected flatly by Downing Street, whose permission is required for such a poll to go ahead.

The Tories say the SNP asserted that the 2014 poll was a “once in a generation” vote. Nationalists argue that Brexit has changed all that, as it represents a material change: the ‘no’ side had promised that a vote against separation would guarantee Scotland could stay within the European Union, a prospect destroyed two years later.

It is difficult to find anyone but a zealot who might believe a fresh ‘IndyRef 2’ vote will take place during 2020. Sturgeon has insisted “anything is possible”, but appears to have shifted emphasis towards using the 2021 election to test public opinion. “I never thought there was any purpose to an independence referendum. I thought any talk of it was dangerous for the SNP,” says long-standing observer James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University.

He points out that the independence case initially led the SNP’s December election campaign, but failed to capture the imagination of an electorate whose attention was taken up more with Brexit. “They switched to the Remain argument towards the end of the campaign and the result was a good result because of that switch. It was the Conservative Party that talked the most about independence in the end.”

And talk about it they continue to do. Scottish Tories have spent several years – and several election campaigns – loudly accusing the SNP government of being “obsessed” with independence, rather than “concentrating on the day job”: running Scottish education and health. This cacophony was raised initially by Ruth Davidson and is being echoed by the man elected last weekend to replace her as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Jackson Carlaw.

Mitchell believes that noisy campaign has been unsuccessful, despite the profile earned by Davidson during her eight years as Scottish party leader. Latterly the line of attack appeared less credible as Davidson – a Remainer who famously attacked Johnson at a public debate at Wembley Arena in 2016 – found it increasingly difficult to defend Tory policies in Scotland.

“The Conservatives have managed to tap into the ‘unionist’ vote in Scotland, especially while the Labour vote has shrunk. But have they managed to convert any of that into support for Tory policies? That has been Ruth Davidson’s failure – they needed people to support their policies rather than defining themselves against the SNP,” points out Mitchell.

There is every chance that the Conservatives will be the second party in the Scottish parliament next year. But they could still be as many as 20 points behind the SNP. And even in a sensationally good poll, Carlaw would have to form a coalition with other parties – Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green – to form a government. Certainly Labour and Greens would reject that option, leaving the SNP with a minority administration at worst.

Meanwhile, Downing Street’s attitude towards Scotland varies widely. A few weeks ago, the newspaper lobby was briefed that Johnson planned to “love-bomb” Scotland, visiting the country more often, perhaps even taking over some major infrastructure spending, and banging the drum for his government’s role in backing various projects north of the border.

Simultaneously, the relationship witnesses numerous petty rifts. Johnson wants it to be underlined that the UK government, and not Holyrood, will be responsible for the COP26 United Nations conference on climate change which will welcome heads of state to Glasgow in November. There have even been hints that the conference might be switched “to an English city” if the estimated policing bill is not reduced. There have been similar tensions, played out in the newspapers, over two drugs conferences – seemingly identical but organised by each administration – scheduled later this month at the same venue on different days.

Such skirmishes have their parallel in Ireland. The fate of erstwhile premier Leo Varadkar during recent elections betrayed a naive view of Irish politics by gleeful pro-Brexit Tories, who had come to see him as an obstacle rather than the leader of a smaller neighbour enjoying the backing of the EU during its post-Brexit trade negotiations.

Yet the elevation of Sinn Féin to an unprecedented position within Ireland arguably presents a far greater threat to British interests – or at least unionist ones – on the island. Sinn Féin may not form a minority government in Dublin – its rivals remain determined to prevent that – but the fact that it might even be contemplating power should be enough to remind Downing Street that the break-up of Britain remains a real potential consequence of Brexit.

Sinn Féin unequivocally seeks a united Ireland; more so than any other political party. While the Republic may have a majority in favour, support is much less full-blooded than in the past. In the north, the Catholic nationalist community might soon out-number others, but support for unification is by no means a certainty.

Life has moved on since the partition of Ireland, whose centenary will take place next year. Then, the compromise was to separate north and south, initially to facilitate Irish home rule. The predominantly Protestant population of six counties within Ulster preferred to stay British. Today, with the Catholic church less influential in the south, the sectarian lines are a little less distinct. There is anecdotal evidence too that some northern Catholics are less keen on unification, and also that the idea seems less attractive to Dublin, where the north is seen as a major potential economic burden.

A poll for the Belfast Telegraph this week underlined just how unpredictable politics can be, and how voters can sometimes confound received wisdom. The study of 2,000 people in Northern Ireland found support for a united Ireland at just 29%, with 52% backing remaining in the UK. The rest were undecided, or declined to answer.

Just months ago, Julian Smith was sent to Belfast as the new secretary of state, his brief to break the impasse that had seen Stormont closed for three years in the wake of a bust-up between Sinn Féin and the DUP. Smith is recognised generally as having charmed the various parties into finally agreeing a settlement that saw the resumption of a power-sharing assembly. His reward last week was to be fired by Johnson, apparently for rousing the sensibilities of the Tory right over whether military transgressions in Northern Ireland might be subjected to the law.

Smith was the Tories’ fourth Northern Ireland secretary since the Brexit vote in June 2016. His replacement, Brandon Lewis, is the sixth since the Tory-led coalition took power less than a decade ago. The sense of indifference is palpable to many in Belfast and elsewhere: do the Tories care about Ireland, north or south, beyond Brexit?

The political website Slugger O’Toole has rated Smith as fourth in a league table comprising the last 21 secretaries of state; quite an achievement considering his mere six months in the job. His contribution towards reinstating Stormont won him a place just behind Mo Mowlam, Willie Whitelaw and Sir Patrick Mayhew – venerable company in the pantheon of what has been an often-thankless posting.

But where does this all leave the much vaunted break-up of Britain?

If Downing Street’s response to Sturgeon’s referendum plea is to be a mix of hostility and indifference, will Scots – or at least those who support independence – rise up against London rule? Right now, public opinion seems evenly divided, with opinion polls recording roughly 50:50 for and against, after the removal of a substantial number saying they “don’t know”. Is that enough to trigger an SNP campaign? Some activists want Sturgeon to wait, presumably so that the negative effects of Brexit kick in and boost support for independence towards 60%, perhaps higher.

That calculation assumes that a largely pro-Remain electorate will turn towards a second breakaway – Scotland from the UK – in response to Brexit. There is a counter-argument that voters who didn’t want change in the form of Brexit, are unlikely to respond by voting for a step beyond in the form of Scottish independence. “It could go either way. There is a sizeable body of opinion that is not strongly committed one way or another,” believes professor Mitchell.

“People are saying ‘not yet’ and ‘not now’. Even if the SNP had a very explicit reference to a referendum in their manifesto, it doesn’t mean that there would be one now.”

So if current circumstances are not enough to convince people to back its single unique policy, why is the SNP still most likely to be the biggest party, poised to win its fourth successive Holyrood election in 2021? “The main reason they continue to do well is partly the same as 2007 and 2011,” believes Mitchell. “The public likes the SNP because they are seen as caring for Scotland. And there is a sense of competence about their management of government.”

He points out: “In policy terms we have a very timid first minister. They are not doing anything radical in government. Instead they are all about management. They run scared of taking any changes in the short term, for example with the NHS in Scotland, which desperately needs reform.” And in politics, of course, some things are easier to manage than others. Next month the trial of Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, on sexual assault charges, begins in Edinburgh. No-one has yet dared predict its impact might have on the fortunes of the SNP, whatever the outcome.

In Northern Ireland, first minister Arlene Foster may be feeling similarly timid, for different reasons. She awaits the outcome of the public inquiry in the so-called “cash for ash” scandal, which is not expected to show her or the DUP in a good light. Her party was enthusiastically pro-Brexit even though the Northern Ireland electorate was not. The subsequent wrangling over soft or hard borders, and the potential for a customs line to be drawn in the Irish Sea is damaging to a party whose raison d’etre is the survival of the Union.

The rise of Sinn Féin on both sides of the border carries risks for the DUP too, with the increased threat of a Border poll – something Brandon Lewis would be obliged to consider, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, if and when he and his advisers came to believe there might be a majority supporting unification.

“Is that more likely than it was?” asks John Garry, professor of political behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast. “It is certainly more salient as an issue. Julian Smith managed to keep everyone pleased; there was something approaching consensus, so his departure so soon has been disappointing.

“People may interpret that to mean loyalty to the prime minister is more important than achieving something here. It is rare that the various actors are agreed about that.”

Even in Leave-voting Wales, the situation is being watched closely, and not only by Plaid Cymru. The Welsh position since devolution has always been about edging towards greater autonomy, especially each time there has been some advance in Scotland. Since 2014, Welsh politicians have been wary of slipping behind in terms of devolved powers. As the debate pushes in very different directions regarding Scotland and Ireland, many Welsh politicians – even those who are against a full break from Westminster, do not want to be left too far behind. Indeed, anyone looking for evidence that similar centrifugal forces are at work in Wales, as elsewhere, need look no further than a YouGov poll from earlier this month, which suggested that support for Welsh independence had risen by 5% since the general election, now standing at 27%. Of all options, including more or fewer powers for the Welsh Assembly, however, the status quo was the most popular.

During the Scottish referendum campaign of 2014, a majority of English people appeared to back the continuation of the UK in its current form. But there is some evidence of attitudes hardening since the Brexit vote two years later. The annual ‘Future of England’ survey found in 2018 that most Conservative supporters would accept Scottish independence (79%) or the collapse of the Northern Irish peace process (75%) as the price of achieving Brexit. For them, leaving the EU was more important than saving what Theresa May had described at the time as “our precious Union”.

For all these reasons and more, the break-up of Britain is certainly closer than it has been for generations, but a lot must happen before Scotland departs or Ireland re-unites.

Traditionally the Conservatives have been firmly in favour of no change on these matters, and certainly the party north of the border remains resolutely against any. But attitudes do shift – the Tories were against devolution happening under the Blair government in the late 1990s, yet ironically the proportional representation system which was introduced saved the party in Scotland, where it had been left with no Westminster seats in 1997.

But Boris Johnson blows hot and cold on the Union. When he is not promising to “love bomb” his Scottish neighbours, he is threatening to trample all over devolved government, with rumours of reining in Holyrood’s powers, or reputedly nicknaming Sturgeon as “Jimmy Krankie”. An uneasy relationship could be getting much worse. His warm words about Northern Ireland are undermined by his actions, from a Unionist point of view, when it actually comes to negotiations about a customs border in the Irish Sea. He no long needs the DUP to bolster his party in the Commons, as did his lame duck predecessor Theresa May. The question is whether, in the long run, his party in England may be quite prepared to let Scotland and Northern Ireland go in pursuit of a ‘perfect Brexit’.

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