A tale of two unions James Bartholomeusz, Policy Officer at the Project for Democratic Union on how Brexit could break up the United Kingdom itself As with coalition politics, the British have never traditionally been fond of referenda - yet both have been very much in vogue over the last few years. In May 2011, voters resoundingly rejected the proposal to change the country’s electoral system, and last September the five million citizens of Scotland decided by a marginal 55.3% to 44.7% to remain part of the British union. Now, due to the Conservative general election victory, the country is committed to an in-out vote on its EU membership before the end of 2017. As David Cameron’s negotiations with his European counterparts begin, the last few weeks have seen the launch of several competing in and out campaigns. The public debate in the UK is embryonic (largely because no one, including the government, seems to know what is on the table for renegotiation) and predictions on the outcome are at this stage very provisional indeed. The consensus, however, is that the consequences of Brexit would be seismic - and those consequences include the strong possibility that the British state itself would splinter apart. One of the most important trends in British politics over the last decade has been the divergence of the English and Scottish nations. Scotland was granted devolved powers in the late-1990s as part of the Blair government’s programme of constitutional reform, with the aim, in the words of one Labour minister, of “killing nationalism stone-dead”. The effect was rather the exact opposite. In the 2007 Holyrood election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) finished in first place; in 2011, capitalising on its opposition to the austerity policies of the new coalition government in Westminster, it was able to form Scotland’s first-ever majority administration. The SNP led the out campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum, propelling support for independence from 28% five years earlier to the final 44.7%, and despite its narrow defeat party membership and popularity spiked directly after the vote. The 2015 general election cemented the SNP’s monopoly over Scottish politics: it claimed all but three of the country’s 59 Westminster seats, reducing the Labour Party from 41 to one in the former heartlands of unionist socialism. The SNP exhibits the oxymoronic tendency of many contemporary separatist movements in Europe: a commitment to national independence combined with pro-EU internationalism. Like its fellow-travellers in Catalonia, the SNP wants to see Scotland as a member-state separate from the UK, free to speak with its own voice in the Council of Ministers and enjoy the direct benefits conferred on sovereign states by EU membership. It is a member of the European Free Alliance (EFA) of separatist parties, and its MEPs sit as part of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. The SNP’s ultimate ambition might be to throw off the yoke of Westminster, but its nationalism is anything but inward-facing. It wants an independent Scotland to play an active role on the European stage. The concurrent trend in England, meanwhile, has been the surge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). An organisation that began as a single-issue eurosceptic campaign has, over the course of the last five years, transformed into the hard-Right receptacle of English discontent with both the European Union and the British establishment. Advocating much stricter immigration controls and immediate withdrawal from the EU, UKIP achieved first place in the 2014 European elections, ahead of both main parties and the pro-European Liberal Democrats. A year later, it finished with 12.6% of the vote in the general election, a 9.5% increase on 2010. Compared to the SNP, which has become the new political establishment in Scotland, UKIP has negligible formal influence on British politics. Nevertheless, Nigel Farage’s party has the Conservative government in an arm-lock over Europe. It was fear of rebellion and possible defection of his eurosceptic backbenchers that first forced Cameron into committing to an EU referendum in the Tories’ 2015 election manifesto, and when the party unexpectedly finished with a parliamentary majority, the new government was obliged to launch a renegotiation of Britain’s membership with the EU institutions and other member-states. For a party holding only one of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, UKIP has been astoundingly successful in taking ownership of the Europe debate and influencing government policy. The question of Europe, then, is a prism through which to view the present state of the United Kingdom. On the one hand, a progressive-nationalist movement is leading Scotland, rejecting the continued austerity regime imposed by Westminster. On the other, a conservative-nationalist force is taking root in England - the only nation of the UK without its own devolved administration - filling the void left by a London-based political elite that seems increasingly detached from goings-on in the rest of the country. Even without Brexit, the contradiction will have to be resolved at some point in the future. If, however, the UK votes to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum, this will mean the end of the British union. Firstly, we can expect no slackening in support for Scottish independence before the EU referendum; as has already been proven since May, a Conservative majority in Westminster means an even more strident form of austerity politics than was seen under the coalition, which provides the SNP with increased strategic ammunition against the ‘imperialism’ of rule from London. Secondly, if Britain wakes up the day after the referendum to find that it has voted itself out of the EU, it is very likely that the English will have carried the result - in line with the SNP’s stance, the vast majority of Scots are expected to vote to stay in. The choice facing the Scottish people, then, will be this: do we submit to the English and allow ourselves to be severed from Europe, or do we remain part of the EU by sacrificing our membership of the United Kingdom? The answer to that question is surely obvious. A Brexit vote in the EU referendum will swiftly be followed by a second referendum on Scottish independence, with the result virtually guaranteed as a yes to Europe and a no to England. It is, of course, a point of discussion as to whether swapping the remote rule of Westminster for the remote rule of Brussels is strictly consistent with the SNP’s populist rhetoric, but the party currently possesses the momentum to bracket this issue until their goal of independence has been realised, just as they have been very successful in unifying a broad church - incorporating a range of opinion from neoliberal to democratic-socialist - under the banner of independence. What matters is that a second referendum would mean an end to the 300-year-old British union, with Scotland ‘subbing in’ for the UK as the 28th member state of the EU. Even if Britain leaves the European Union, it is clear that ties cannot be cut completely. The two still share a geopolitical space, and although there might be some degree of enmity on both sides, London and Brussels cannot avoid cooperating on certain issues. The acceptance of Scotland into the EU would, however, raise a number of thorny questions. Would Scotland, making up only around 8% of the total UK population, be entitled to successor status to Britain on the European level? Would it fall to Holyrood to replace Britain’s contribution to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)? What would become of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which is located in Faslane in Scotland, given that the SNP is opposed to nuclear weapons and that there is no place on the English coast that can host it? And with free movement of people between Scotland and the rest of Europe, would the UK be obliged to set up border controls north of Hadrian’s Wall? These questions will become mere technicalities, however, if Scotland proves that is possible to prosper in Europe as a small state, formally independent but punching far above its weight as part of the EU bloc. Its biggest short-term advantage would be the windfall of capital relocation from England, with firms seeking to remain in the single market with minimal geographical, linguistic and legal upheaval. Scotland would join Ireland as an Anglophone hub with an educated workforce and high standard of living, and would presumably adopt the euro at some point down the line. (Edinburgh, after all, has its own financial sector, which could well displace the City of London as Europe’s financial hub in the event of Brexit.) Moreover, Scottish success would give spur to other separatist movements across Europe, proving that the framework of the European Union can reconcile national independence with international solidarity. And what of the rump United Kingdom? Locked out of the EU, it is clear that Britain would be ignored in the transatlantic alliance and diminished on the world stage. Nor would the question of the British union be fully resolved by the departure of Scotland. Following the Scottish example, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP’s sister party in EFA, Plaid Cymru, could in the future lead an independent Wales into EU membership. Concurrently, with tensions reigniting in Belfast, and Britain and Ireland on opposite sides of the EU divide, the question of Northern Ireland’s status would be raised once again. Peace, stability and prosperity - the founding principles of the EU - would certainly not be watchwords of a Britain outside Europe. It will be some time before the exact contours of the referendum become clear. We can be certain, however, that when Brits go to the polls it will not only be their place in the European Union at stake - it will be the future of the British state itself.
We can be certain, however, that when Brits go to the polls it will not only be their place in the European Union at stake - it will be the future of the British state itself


2015 UK general election results