Brexit Institute News

Farewell Disunited Kingdom?

Paul Copeland (Queen Mary University London)

After three and a half turbulent years the UK has finally left the European Union. There will be relief on both sides that the UK’s dramatic withdrawal process has come to an end and that a new relationship between Britain and its neighbours can begin. Both the leave and remain sides have found negotiating the UK’s departure from the EU to be less than satisfactory, not least because more recent opinion poll data suggests that remain would win a second referendum.

Not only is Brexit a shock to the European integration project, but the UK’s relationship with the EU will continue to dominate domestic politics for the foreseeable future. In short, a near 50 per cent of UK exports are destined for the EU and the UK needs to have a trading relationship with it.

Even when a new trading arrangement between the two sides is agreed, it is highly likely that political debate in the UK will continue to rumble on and aim to amend or radically redefine the UK’s relationship with the EU. The UK has an identity crisis and this manifests itself by a troubled relationship with its neighbour. Until there is a genuine political debate and unity around a shared vision of the UK’s political economy, the squabbling will continue and the EU will remain a scapegoat for the failings of Westminster.

But there is a more troubling political problem brewing at home, although the majority of Westminster is refusing to publicly, at least, acknowledge it. This problem relates to the integrity of the UK as we know it. The United Kingdom of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain within the EU and Brexit has fuelled calls for a separation from London.

For Northern Ireland, the fact that Boris Johnson’s deal allows it to diverge from UK regulations and establishes a border in the sea between Northern Ireland and the UK hardly reinforces a belief that London cares much the Province. So much for the Conservative and Unionist Party; So much for theuntied aspect of the United Kingdom.

During the 2014 referendum campaign on Scottish independence the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that the only way for Scotland to remain in the EU on its current terms would be by being part of the UK. If an independent Scotland wished to joined the EU, it would have to apply to become a new member state. There would be no opt-outs, such as those secured by the UK not to join the Euro. There was also no guarantee that Brussels would allow an independent Scotland to join the club, although the latter point may have been scaremongering. Scotland decided to remain within the UK, but then two years later the UK voted to leave the EU, without the consent of the Scottish people.

Why were these issues never fully debated and discussed during the 2016 referendum campaign? They were discussed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they failed to feature in the London-focused national campaign. Westminster simply wasn’t interested in listening to the complexities of Britain leaving the EU, the consequences this could have on separatist tendencies within the UK, and how a vote to leave the EU may break-up the four nations.

The current government’s solution to this problem is to simply ignore the issue. Scotland and Northern Ireland should keep calm and carry on. They shouldn’t be causing political upset and distraction during Brexit, despite the fact that neither voted for it. They should put their nationalism aside for the greater good of the UK. This is political arrogance and ignorance on an epic scale. It is English nationalism that got the UK into this mess in the first place and other parts of the UK need to be more like England if the UK is to move forward in a united sense. What this reveals is that the United Kingdom is in fact, England and not four nations.

At some point, the frustration in Scotland and Northern Ireland will bubble over and the UK in its current territorial configuration will cease to exist. Brexit is the beginning of the end for the UK and who will Westminster blame for this? Probably the EU: It blames it for everything else.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Paul Copeland is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University London

Photo credit: the English flag, under Pixabay Licence