As Britain hurtles towards a no-deal exit from the European Union (EU), PM Boris Johnson’s take-no-prisoners tactics could backfire badly. At stake is the future of the United Kingdom as an entity. The UK comprises four nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each has a different history and a complicated relationship with one another. Brexit could rupture at least two of these relationships.
Scotland voted to remain in the EU by a large majority (62%) in the 2016 Brexit referendum. In sharp contrast, England voted to leave (53.4%). Calls for Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom are growing louder. In the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, 55% of Scots voted to stay in the UK. The mood has changed dramatically after Johnson took office as prime minister last month. A recent opinion poll showed a majority (52%) of Scots would vote to leave the UK if a new referendum on Scotland’s independence were held today.
The UK was created by a Union of England and Scotland in 1707. Till then the two were separate kingdoms with separate laws, educational systems and legislatures. Has the Union run its course? Before Brexit, the Scots believed independence would be economically damaging to Scotland. But if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the consequences on Scotland’s economy would be severe. It has benefitted from being a part of the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc. The choice therefore is stark: the UK or the EU?
Emotion comes into play as well. The English and Scots simply don’t like each other very much. They have fought brutal wars and retain their independent legal and educational systems.
Even more dire from England’s point of view than Scotland exiting the UK is the status of Northern Ireland. It is the single biggest cause of a potential no-deal Brexit. Johnson wants the Irish backstop removed from the withdrawal agreement signed by the EU and his predecessor, former PM Theresa May.
The Irish backstop is a UK-EU compromise: Britain stays in the customs union with the EU in exchange for a border without checks between Northern Ireland (a part of the UK) and the Irish Republic (not a part of the UK but an enthusiastic member of the EU). Johnson and other hard-core Brexiteers dislike the idea of the Irish backstop because it involves Britain staying in the EU customs union. They want a clean break. The EU in turn insists on Britain remaining in the customs union if it wants to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
A united Ireland is the ghost that frightens the British more than Scottish independence. Colonial Britain deceitfully “populated” the northern part of Ireland with English Protestant migrants from the 1600s. Ireland’s Catholic majority was gradually whittled down. The UK of Great Britain and Ireland was formed by the Acts for Union 1800. A year later, in 1801, the independent Irish parliament was abolished. It was not until a series of battles between colonial Britain and Irish patriots that Ireland gained full independence in 1922. But not without a parting kick: six counties of Ireland opted to stay with Britain, carving Ireland into Protestant Northern Ireland and Catholic Irish Republic.
Over the decades, the population of Catholics in Northern Ireland has increased to well over 42%. Sectarian strife between Protestants and Catholics and terror attacks in Britain peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, an uneasy peace prevails though Northern Ireland’s legislature has been non-functional for nearly two years. Brexit has raised the prospect of future unification between the two Irelands. It is a prospect Britain dreads.
That is why the Irish backstop is such a tinderbox in the Brexit debate. Were Scotland to seek independence from the UK and the two Irelands to seek a merger, that would spell the end of the UK. As Jonathan Gorvett wrote in Foreign Policy, quoting Jon Tonge, a professor of British and Irish politics: “Ask me if the UK will still exist in its current form in a generation, and I’d have to say—that’s a very tough call.”
For India, dealing with a shrunken Britain has some merit. It enhances India’s bargaining power on two key issues: immigration and trade. For all the hype surrounding the number of Indian-origin ministers in Boris Johnson’s cabinet—Priti Patel, Alok Sharma and Rishi Sunak—the fact is that all three were in Theresa May’s cabinet as well (Patel though was dropped in 2007 after she met Israeli diplomats without government authorisation). Indeed, May’s cabinet had several Indian-origin ministers. Johnson’s Indian connection by marriage (now impending divorce) to Marina Wheeler is overplayed. Johnson may not be a brazen racist or an Islamaphobe, despite his Turkish ancestry, but he is not above making racist, Islamaphobic and homophobic remarks.
If Johnson persists with his no-deal Brexit and the EU doesn’t blink (it won’t), Britain will probably head later this year into its third general election in four years. The way Scotland and Northern Ireland vote in that election will be watched carefully. After Brexit, the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will face its moment of truth.
The author is an editor and publisher