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The Future of the Union

Published: 1 February 2021

Will Brexit lead to the break up of the UK? Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon, University of Cambridge discuss in their contribution to UK in a Changing Europe's 'Brexit and Beyond' report. 

Where have we come from?

Tensions about the relationships between the UK’s component parts have never been too far from the surface during the political crisis triggered by Brexit. How to avoid the re-creation of a customs and regulatory border on the island of Ireland became a major source of friction during the Article 50 negotiations. Meanwhile, the question of what happens to powers that were formerly exercised at the EU level, but which fall within devolved competence, has been a recurrent source of disagreement between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

Voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland supported Remain by clear majorities, while majorities in England and Wales voted to leave, which led to speculation that Brexit might lead to the break-up of the UK.

Where are we now?

There are still major differences between the UK Government and the devolved administrations over key issues arising from Brexit. The Internal Market Act passed by Boris Johnson’s Government — which seeks to prevent the emergence of unwanted barriers to trade within the UK — is seen as undermining devolved powers by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Plans to replace EU structural funds by directly allocating money from the centre through the ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, with no involvement for the devolved authorities, are also highly controversial. Some progress has been made with negotiating UK-wide policy frameworks in areas of former EU competence, but these have not yet been agreed in sensitive policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries.

Recent polls have reported the emergence, for the first time, of a consistent pro-independence majority in Scotland. The Scottish National Party is on course to win a majority at next May’s Scottish Parliament election, with the call for a second independence referendum likely to be the centrepiece of its programme. There has also been a small rise in support for Welsh independence — albeit from a low base. In Northern Ireland some polling since 2017 suggests that support for unification is close to 50%, although this is not a consistent finding across all polling methods.

These trends can be attributed partly to the aftermath of Brexit, but also to the perception that the devolved Governments — particularly in Scotland and Wales — have responded to the Covid-19 crisis more effectively than its UK counterpart has done in England. In Northern Ireland continuing uncertainty over the past few years about what impacts Brexit will have on trade across its land border with Ireland and sea border with Great Britain have accentuated growing tensions between the local parties.

Where are we heading?

The Prime Minister believes that another Scottish independence referendum could open up a profound constitutional crisis, but a UK refusal to agree to one even if pro-independence parties retain their majority after next year’s Holyrood election may well lead to the same place. The spectacle of the British Government saying ‘No’ could further expand support for a referendum, and perhaps for independence. In this scenario there will also be considerable pressure on an SNP-led administration to attempt to hold a referendum under devolved powers. By summer 2021, all the major parties will be compelled to engage with the question of Scotland’s constitutional future.

The prospect of conflict over Scotland has set in motion an intense debate at the heart of British Government about the strategic approach to the Union that is now required. The possibility of a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future has not figured in London’s thinking to anything like the same degree. Yet the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement leaves Northern Ireland within the EU’s regulatory orbit and may well stimulate further debate about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

Should a Labour Government be re-elected in Wales next May, it is likely to have to balance its proUnion position against its fear that the authority of the devolved institutions may be undermined by a Johnson-led Government.

In England too, the demand for another referendum in Scotland will reverberate loudly. There are signs that the tacit consent of the English for the asymmetric union is wearing thin — especially among the inhabitants of cities and regions furthest from London which feel they too get a raw deal from the British state, and a significant number of people more generally who feel that England is at a disadvantage in the post-devolved UK.

Referendum or not, there will be a greater need for close co-operation between the four governments within the UK after Brexit. A review of the system of intergovernmental relations, which is seen by all sides as not fit for the challenge of common decision making, has been ongoing since 2018. Following several delays, the UK Government is now committed to concluding this ‘at pace’. Reaching agreement on a set of arrangements that commands the confidence of all governments within the UK is an essential first step in rebuilding some of the trust that has been badly damaged by the events of the past few years.

Three features of the UK’s fractured and conflictual territorial politics are likely to be particularly prominent in the coming period.

One is that, for the first time since devolution was introduced, British politicians are going to have to engage with its complex realities and the wider challenge of articulating a vision of the nature and purpose of the UK’s asymmetrical system of governance. Significant differences about the merits of devolution, the right of the Scottish Parliament to demand another independence referendum and the case for decentralising power in England currently lie just under the surface of British politics. They will be immensely disruptive when they come to the fore.

A second is that debates about Scottish independence will have profound effects on other parts of the UK — very likely instigating a much wider conversation about whether the Union can only survive if further reforms are undertaken.

And third, Britain’s political and administrative elites can be expected to become increasingly inwardlooking as the implications of the possible dissolution of the UK dawn.

A fracturing of the domestic union as it departs the EU is a significant obstacle to the idea of a confident and outward-facing ‘global Britain’.

This was originally posted in 'Brexit and Beyond', a report by UK in Changing Europe examining the opportunities and challenges that have resulted from the UK's decision to leave the European Union. 

Photo by Aleks Marinkovic on Unsplash

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