“The concept of having a united group of fiercely patriotic nations under one national government is remarkable, but also fragile”
In a 2017 speech, former Prime Minister Theresa May touched on the core of her Brexit strategy when she confidently stated: “it’s why we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do. Because it is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead.” May’s promise to preserve the Union, a collection of distinct nations — England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — is borne from the very foundation of her political party: the Conservative and Unionist Party. As the name suggests, the Conservatives were founded on the belief that ensuring the survival of the Union was paramount, and was the basis of every momentous decision they made. In fact, both May and new Prime Minister Boris Johnson label themselves “one nation Conservatives.” Despite May’s dedication to this basic principle, throughout the Brexit process, the Conservatives have morphed into a different party. Boris’ rhetoric is less absolute. In fact, the current UK Prime Minister once wrote that “allowing the Scots to make their own laws, while free-riding on English taxpayers … is simply unjust.” According to a June YouGov poll of Conservative Party members, 63 percent would want Brexit to happen even if it meant Scotland leaving the UK, with 59 percent saying the same regarding Northern Ireland. It now appears that Johnson’s Conservative Party cares very little about preserving the Union, and instead more interested in protecting short-term political interests.
In the aftermath of Brexit, talk of secession from the Union has taken the form of whispers in Northern Ireland and shouts in Scotland. Fundamentally, outside of England, an increasingly frustrated populace is becoming keener on holding their own referenda, this time to leave the United Kingdom and remain within the European Union.
The concept of having a united group of fiercely patriotic nations under one national government is remarkable, but also fragile. By flirting with a No-Deal Brexit, and even by supporting the very concept of Brexit to begin with, PM Johnson and the Conservatives are risking the future of the United Kingdom.
PM Johnson is less overt in his unionist messaging than former PM May. He frequently employs his “get on with it [Brexit]” phraseology as a mechanism for uniting the country, despite great division over the fundamental concept of Brexit. He is simply hoping that moving forward with Brexit will unite the country, while failing to acknowledge that many are anti-Brexit and do not support his irresponsible approach to the issue. Polling across the United Kingdom spells potential trouble for its future if the catastrophic effects of Brexit are actualized. In Scotland, support for independence hovers between 50 and 60 percent. In Northern Ireland, a majority now support unification with the Republic of Ireland with a poll showing 51 percent in favor. Even polls in Wales show support for independence up to 33 percent in support of secession if it meant staying in the EU.
Of the nations within the United Kingdom, Scotland would likely be the first domino to fall. Having previously held a referendum on UK membership in 2014 in which Scots voted to “remain” 55 percent to 44 percent, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for another. Her new argument is that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and therefore it is unjust to force Scotland to stay aboard a sinking ship. This argument is built off of Sturgeon’s long-held belief that Scotland should become independent and free from the chains of London decision-makers. Since the Brexit referendum, support for independence has increased substantially, providing Sturgeon the backing to continue her campaign for a second post-Brexit referendum. However, Johnson has said he will block Scotland from holding another referendum, because democracy seems to only matter when it favors the Conservative agenda.
Another alarming development of a Tory-led Brexit is the possibility of Northern Ireland choosing to reunify with the Republic of Ireland, which would reverse over a century of division between on the isle of Ireland, and possibly re-ignite sectarian conflict. Northern Ireland has been a consistent sticking point in the Brexit negotiations. The primary element that has been scrutinized the most has been the Northern Irish backstop proposal by PM May. The backstop would ostensibly keep Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market until a further agreement could be put in place. Brexiteers, including prominent Conservatives such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, claimed this to be ‘Brexit lite’ and not delivering upon the referendum. Another is the possibility of a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, which would not only negatively affected the Northern Irish economy, but also harken back to a time of sectarian conflict. These possible outcomes would be direct results of a Conservative Brexit, one that does little to consider the implications to the people of Northern Ireland.
If a hard Brexit does occur and a majority paves the way for reunification, the dormant conflicts that manifested during the Troubles in the latter half of the 20th century could once again spark, leading to violence and political chaos. There is already a rise in violence in Northern Ireland. Throughout the Brexit process, one key Northern Irish player–the DUP–has played a large role in the Brexit saga, as they are in coalition with the Conservative minority in the Commons. The DUP is right-wing and, as the name suggests, unionist and pro-United Kingdom. The DUP is also pro-Brexit and anti-backstop, thus complicating the negotiation process. DUP leader Arlene Foster has even said the “Union is our guiding star.” This staunchly unionist position is likely to be challenged by nationalists and others who view the DUP’s attachment to Britain, even as Britain metaphorically nears the cliff’s edge, as dangerous. Brexit could be the spark that leads to Northern Irish political upheaval and division, which could lead to reunification or even violence between political factions.
Ultimately, if the Conservatives wish to uphold the very core of their party identity, they must re-evaluate their Brexit approach. Contrary to Johnson’s belief, Brexit will divide the Union, and possibly break it up, rather than conserve it for generations to come. If Brexit is to occur, with or without a deal, the Union of the United Kingdom is likely to be called into question, and the Conservatives will be to blame.