Brexit and the United Kingdom: Break-up or Make-up?

On this day in 2014 the results of the Scottish referendum were announced. The people of Scotland decisively voted to stay in the United Kingdom. In the years following the ‘Yes’ campaigners, along with Welsh nationalists and those in Ulster who want to unite Ireland have attempted to conjure up a plan to break our Union. What is their ammunition for this? It is Brexit. They see Brexit as an opportunity to terminate three historic unions: the Anglo-Welsh Union of 1536, the Act of Union 1707 and the incorporation of Ulster into the Union in 1801. However, Brexit will make the Union stronger still. It will take back sizeable control from Brussels that can be reinstated in Westminster and also devolved to Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Stormont. On the British mainland on the northern side of the Berwick border, and the Welsh side of the River Severn, the nationalists’ parties have slumped. Even in Ulster, there are far greater issues on their stance on the Union than the current political climate. Much of this is historical and based on denomination.

Scotland is the only Celtic nation to have had a referendum on independence. However, since the September 2014 vote and the Brexit vote in 2016, the people of Scotland have shown a significant shift away from Scottish independence. This shift is despite Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement at the SNP’s Easter conference that ‘it is time for Scotland to become independent’, and that the job of SNP activists was to ‘get support for independence surging’. Unfortunately, for the ScotsNats, they have failed. In August 2019 the independence rally in Aberdeen only managed to see 5,000 in attendance according to Police Scotland, in comparison to 2013 this is minuscule as attendances of 20,000 or more were common. Nonetheless, the collapse of the nationalist vote is even more telling at the ballot box. Just a year after Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom half of the Scottish people elected SNP members to the Commons, Unionist parties held just three of the fifty-nine Scottish seats. Since this point, the electoral successes of Sturgeon’s party has plundered in Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels from the great heights of 2015. Today they are in minority rule in Holyrood, lost twenty-one seats to the Tories in 2017 and without making significant gain in elections this May saw the nationalist vote stagnate at under 40%.

Recent polls also illustrate that support for sham Scottish independence is in decline. Since the vote in 2014, only five of the fifty-six polls show support for independence, and since Boris Johnson ‘grabbed the ball from the back of the scrum’ and took the keys to Downing Street, two polls have pointed to a united United Kingdom and just one to the contrary. The poll commissioned by Survation half a decade after the initial referendum indicates that support for the Union has grown from 55% to 59%. When dissecting the result, 36% of those who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014 now would vote ‘No’. Is this because they have changed their mind? Or is it because they know that Brexit is the only way to take back control of Scottish law-making powers to Holyrood?

Welsh independence is often an understudy to the gains of Scottish and Northern Irish groups. Many people would be surprised to know that Plaid Cymru, founded in 1925, predates the Scottish National Party by just under a decade. They also had electoral successes before the Scots. The Carmarthen by-election of 1966 precedes the SNP’s success in the Hamilton by-election a year later. However, in more recent times, Plaid have failed to match their Scottish counterparts. They have never taken control of the Assembly and despite propping up Labour in 2007 their representation in the Senedd has declined from 17% in 1999 to 12% in 2016. In a YouGov poll commissioned just days after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, Plaid fell into a dismal fifth place, with the Tories shocking everyone in the first place, Labour chasing closely behind and the Brexit Party comfortably in third.

What is often ironic is that the so-called Party of Wales overlooks the voice of Wales in 2016. 52.5% of Welshmen and women voted to leave the European Union. Even taking the Brexit issue into account, the Welsh people reject a Wales outside of the UK, but inside of the EU. In polls conducted in September 2019 if a hypothetical scenario where this can happen the Welsh people responded with 59% of them remaining in support of the Union. However, Spain would veto Wales rejoining alone in fear of it sparking concerns for their Catalan and Basque groups. Therefore, the polls to take a more significant look at are the ones referring to an in/out referendum. In these support for Wales remaining about of the United Kingdom are around 2/3. Outside of elections the support for Welsh independence remains small. In this year’s protests in Cardiff, Caernarfon and Merthyr failed to average attendance above League 2 football clubs. At the Merthyr rally this month the attendees also showed the true colours of Welsh nationalism, when BBC commentator and former Wales back-rower brought up rugby matches between Wales and England, in which the crowd booed the ‘English’. Welsh independence is isolated to a small group who base their dislike on Westminster on envy of England. Considering, the polls and the small attendance at protests, the likelihood of Wales ceasing to be a part of the United Kingdom are slim.

Northern Ireland, unlike her Celtic cousins, has an extremely different history on independence. Except for the sectarian politics of Glasgow, Ulster is the only corner of the United Kingdom that sees a religious background influencing voting more than any other factor. The historical relevance of religion in Ulster dates back to the planters and is even today symbolised by the celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne in 1692 between Williamites who were Protestants and Jacobites who were Catholics. This sectarianism is also why Ireland failed to identify with ‘Britishness’ of the 18th century. Linda Colley’s ‘Other’ often referred to Catholic or French powers and as the Irish people were 3/4 Catholic only Protestants like Arthur Wellesley could genuinely see themselves as British. In 1795 and 1798 Ulster entered a civil war, and 50,000 Irish combatants and civilians died. The Orange Order who fought for the Protestant cause was even revered on our side of the Irish Sea.

However, fast-forward to 2019 and religion still plays an integral part in identity and politics. Support for Brexit is divided by religion with a majority of Protestants, who identify as British, backing Brexit, and Catholics, Irishmen and women instead wanting to Remain. However, it is not Brexit that threatens St Patrick’s saltire that has flown on the Union flag since 1801; it is changing demographics. The Protestant population of Ulster is diminishing, and it appears unlikely that any measure will be able to reverse it. In April of 2018, the BBC published an article that claimed that a Catholic majority would be possible in Northern Ireland by as early as 2021. This is the crux of why of all the component nations in the United Kingdom I believe Ireland would be most likely to leave. When comparing the Census of 2011 to the 2016 Labour Force Study, we see a significant switch. In 2011 Protestants had a 3% lead over Catholics at 48%, but in 2016 Catholics on 44% had a 4% lead. This also appears to be irreversible as Protestants are dominant in the over 60’s age group, but among schoolchildren, 51% were Catholic with just 37% as Protestants. Northern Ireland has always had a volatile political situation over a border poll, and in the two polls of 2019, there have been conflicting responses. The Irish Times showed that 58% supported the six British counties of Ulster remaining in the UK, but Lord Ashcroft’s polls of this month show a lead for the nationalists of 1%. Given what appears to me as the irreversible trend in demographics of Northern Ireland and the close relationship between religion and voting, Ulster is the only part of the United Kingdom that I concede may have a nail-biting referendum campaign. I believe that Scotland would vote quite similar to that of 2014 and Wales would be a comfortable win for the Unionists.

While nationalist campaigners continue to campaign for an imitation of independence, their constituents continue to reject it. The critical thing to remember is that Brexit is not going to break apart the Union. If anything by taking back control, it almost appears futile to hand it back to Brussels. Instead, the Union, for now, is safe in Wales and I hastily add in Scotland. Despite this, the greatest threat to the Union is on the island of Ireland, and it surrounds the changing religious dynamics of Ulster. While I remain confident that Unionists could win all three referendums if held tomorrow it would be the one in Ulster that I would be most apprehensive of hearing the result for.

By J Walters

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