The EU referendum is about more than the EU

Published: 22 June 2016

As the EU referendum grows ever closer, the result grows more uncertain. But it is not just the result that remains in doubt. Questions about what happens after the vote remain unanswered – and, indeed, unanswerable. Much of the campaign has, understandably, focused on the external elements: the UK’s relationship with the EU and beyond, and the impact of both upon the economy. Limited time has been given to the ramifications of the vote for the relationships between the component nations of the UK. And though this seems as parochial as the “North-East Man Lost at Sea” Titanic headline, there are clear signs that, whatever the result, the UK’s internal dynamics will be subject to significant pressure. 

It seems unlikely that the UK will collectively vote the same way. Scotland and Northern Ireland appear likely to vote to remain in the EU, while England (and, increasingly, Wales) look narrowly in favour of a leave vote.  This presents two possible scenarios: first, that voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland are over-ruled by a UK-wide majority and have to leave the EU against their express wishes.  Second, the reverse of that scenario: England and Wales narrowly vote to leave, but the overall UK result is a victory for remain, passed by support in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In this scenario, the likelihood of internal constitutional crisis is greatest: England, the dominant component nation in the UK, would be forced to remain in the EU.

In either scenario, the UK’s internal relationships would be under pressure. It is quite clear that a UK withdrawal from the EU would constitute a ‘material change’ in Scotland’s position in the UK – especially if that withdrawal comes against the explicit vote of the Scottish electorate – a ‘material change’ which would possibly be the precursor to a second independence referendum.  However, for the SNP and pro-independence supporters, this is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’d possibly increase support for a referendum, and it would appear that such a referendum could be justified.  However, achieving a vote for independence in this circumstance would appear to be much more difficult.  The premise of the SNP’s independence white paper was that an independent Scotland would be a member of the EU, but equally, that England would be too. If an independent Scotland were to re-join the EU and England was out of the EU, you would then have a ‘hard-EU’ border between the two nations, with implications for the common travel area.  A similar issue – less hypothetical – exists in Northern Ireland, which currently has an open border with the Republic to its south. Should the UK leave the EU, this would become a hard border, with implications for travel, inter-community relationships and the peace process itself.  Further, the prospect of another Border Poll giving Northern Ireland the opportunity to remain with the UK or to join the Republic has been mooted.

These are the unintended consequences of a referendum designed to alleviate the internal tensions within the Conservative party.

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