It’s more than five months after the Brexit referendum, and no one knows what will happen next.
The prophets of doom have been confounded—economically, at least. The markets are buoyant, with the FTSE soaring past 7,000 points in October and remaining above from pre-Brexit levels at present. Exporters are welcoming the falling value of the pound. The referendum result has been good for investors and has improved the balance of trade—so far.
Politically, Brexit represents a more complex problem. Support for the campaign to leave the European Union was uneven, and the results provided yet another example of the growing disparity in political cultures within the three nations and one province that make up the United Kingdom. The overall result favored leaving the EU by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent—a narrow, if decisive, majority. This result was almost exactly matched by national opinion in England and Wales, where, respectively, 53.4 percent and 52.5 percent of voters supported the campaign to leave. By contrast, an emphatic majority of voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland opted to remain within the EU (62 percent of Scottish voters; 55.8 percent of Northern Irish voters). These results have reignited the debate about Scottish independence and raised new questions about the future of Northern Ireland, while making possible significant changes in relations with the Republic of Ireland. Support for the Conservative party is approaching a record high in England, despite a surprise victory for the Liberal Democrats, fighting on an anti-Brexit platform, in last week’s Richmond Park by-election, and despite the delays caused by the government’s current appeal against the High Court decision that a final decision on Brexit must be taken by Parliament. The Brexit debate is accelerating the evolution of disparate political cultures within the “home nations,” and almost certainly signals the end of the United Kingdom in anything like its present form.
The prospects for Scotland seem clear. Despite the fact that a number of senior Scottish National Party politicians have admitted that they voted to leave the EU, recognizing that rule from Brussels would hardly be an improvement upon rule from London, the Scottish government campaigned to remain. In late October Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of the devolved Scottish Parliament and leader of the SNP, which controls 54 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons, emerged from frank discussions with the recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, promising a second referendum on Scottish independence. While fulfilling a central part of the manifesto on which recent SNP electoral successes have been based, Sturgeon’s call for a second referendum is likely to prove a mistake. Current polling suggests that nationalists would lose this vote, sentiment that can be explained by the fact that such a vote would take place in a very different economic environment than that of September 2014, with the collapsing value of oil, which has fallen from around $100 to $50 per barrel, raising serious questions about the economic viability of an independent Scotland.
But voters don’t always make rational judgments, and, if the SNP can take advantage of the outrage with which Scottish media greeted the UK result and the “hard” Brexit to which British negotiations may try to lead them, then they may indeed get the outcome for which they hope. This success would bring another set of problems, some of which have already been considered. If Scottish voters opt for independence before Brexit, it is likely that their new government would need to make the case that their membership should continue within the European Union. The difficulty is that the European Union has not anticipated this kind of situation; EU member states could only support this argument if they sidestepped the fact that their relationship is with the United Kingdom and admitted that its constituent nations should be treated as separate but co-equal parties to these agreements. This recognition of constituent regional sovereignty would hearten secessionist movements elsewhere and horrify those member states that suppress them—and, consequently, this recognition of regional sovereignty is extremely unlikely to happen.
On the other hand, if Scottish voters opt for independence after Brexit, it is likely that their government would need to apply for membership in the European Union in the same way as all other candidates. To be successful, Scotland would need to agree in principle to join the Eurozone and commit to meeting its criteria for membership, and its application would need to be supported by all existing EU states. And it is unlikely that other member states with similar secessionist movements, such as Spain, would want to set precedents by validating the secessionist claims from within a disintegrating former partner—though they may in due course come to view the Scottish situation entirely differently after the fact of independence. After all, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon’s appeal for sympathetic consideration by member states and EU institutions was given no more than a cautious welcome, though the reception of Scottish interests has improved with time. It remains to be seen whether Scottish nationalists can capitalize on the collapse of a British political culture, but it is possible that they enjoyed their best chance for independence in September 2014.
The situation is more complex in Northern Ireland. While every Scottish constituency voted to remain within the European Union, constituencies in the province returned results that more or less equally reflected existing affiliations of orange and green. With constituencies that returned some of the UK’s strongest results for leave (North Antrim, 62.2 percent) and remain (Foyle, 78.3 percent), Northern Ireland remains a deeply polarized society. Here, the Brexit results mapped onto the older political binary. As might be expected, the Nationalist parties campaigned to remain within the European Union, though some nationalist voters preferred to vote leave. Unionist parties tended to support the campaign for Brexit, while understanding that this would encourage Scottish nationalists and consequently invite another destabilizing discussion about the future of the UK, though many Unionists, especially supporters of the UUP, voted to remain.
But here again local needs trumped national debates. In North Antrim, the constituency that returned one of the UK’s strongest results in favor of Brexit, religious opinion has long influenced political judgment. During the campaign, prominent Protestant preachers in the constituency identified the European Union as a key institution in their prognostications about the end of days: The referendum offered their listeners the opportunity to escape the totalitarian government of the Antichrist. As so often in the history of Northern Ireland, and as this religious rhetoric suggests, political debate reverts to a zero-sum equation. But neither side has a monopoly on apocalyptic scenarios. Nationalist politicians raise fears of passport controls on the border, with the problems for security and movement that entails, despite the fact free movement between the two jurisdictions has been facilitated by a Common Travel Area since 1923, and despite the fact that a 1925 agreement forbids either country from regarding British or Irish citizens as aliens, though questions remain as to whether these arrangements will conflict with EU law after Brexit.
Of course, senior members of Sinn Fein greeted the Brexit result with a call for another referendum on the future of the Irish border. Neither they nor the Scottish nationalists want to be pulled by English and Welsh voters out of the European Union. But while Scotland could in principle set its own independent agenda, Northern Ireland nationalists are committed to reunification with the Republic, and it is not clear whether their call for reunification would be successful among Northern Irish voters—nor whether a result in favor Northern Ireland leaving the UK would be facilitated or even welcomed by the government of the Republic, which is currently discouraging discussion of a border poll.
Political life in the Republic of Ireland would certainly be complicated by moves toward Scottish independence and a Northern Irish vote for reunification with the south. Brexit presents the Irish government with a real economic and political dilemma, which their slow recovery from recession only makes more urgent. The UK is, of course, a principal market for Irish exports: bilateral trade accounts for more than €1 billion per week, and in some sectors, such as agri-food and drink, according to 2015 figures, UK markets consume up to 41 percent of Irish exports. At the same time, in the aftermath of one of Europe’s worst examples of recession, Ireland has felt the full force of reconstruction, swallowing its pride in exchange for an unwelcome austerity-driven recovery plan to inch its way back towards stable profitability. It remains to be seen whether the longer-term impacts of this bitter medicine will reinvigorate the skepticism and frustration that led Irish voters to reject the Nice and Lisbon treaties that facilitated EU expansion and reform—before, as their government encouraged them to do, they voted again in re-run referenda to ratify the treaties.
So, while no one knows what will happen next, here is one possible scenario. The High Court decision will be upheld, and Parliament will have the final say on Brexit. But this reversion to representative democracy will make no real difference to the process: Labour MPs, recognizing that seven in ten of their constituencies voted in support of the government’s action, will be unable to mount any effective resistance. The British government will then invoke Article 50 and begin the process of exiting the European Union before the Scottish government can table a second independence referendum or make sufficient advances in negotiations with EU member states and institutions to have them recognize its legal capacity to “inherit” UK membership. Against the wishes of its devolved government, Scotland is pulled out of the European Union along with the rest of the UK. Its independence referendum comes as too little, too late.
Nonetheless, Scottish independence is supported by a narrow majority of voters, and the SNP government in Edinburgh resists calls for a reconsideration of this result in a second round of polling by using the same kinds of arguments that are currently being advanced by the Conservative government in London in support of the rather narrow majority in favor of Brexit. The political cultures of Scotland and the rest of the UK are divided, but the division in England and Wales becomes less pronounced with the loss of more than 55 SNP and Labour MPs. The loss of this bloc of opposition allows English politics to continue its drift to the right, while political opinion in Wales moves slowly toward greens and nationalists as Labour, traditionally strong in the principality, appears to be an increasingly spent force.
Scottish politics, meanwhile, lurches further to the Left even as its government, using a currency it cannot control, begins to shrink welfare provision for its citizens, and as disappointment about the reality of independence begins to breed regret and recrimination. In Northern Ireland, politicians in the governing coalition opt for their traditional strategy of fomenting a crisis in order to leverage greater largesse from Westminster and, as usual, succeed in achieving their goals. But there is no border poll: Northern Ireland voters remain largely content with the economic status quo, and the region’s software and manufacturing businesses begin to benefit from improvements in exports of goods and services associated with the decreasing value of the pound. The Irish government, still disputing the European Union’s imposition of a €13 billion fine on Apple, and more determined than in recent years to assert its decision-making status, finds that its voters remember why they once rejected the Nice and Lisbon treaties, and begins to wonder whether its future isn’t actually in pursuing closer relations with the residual United Kingdom.
Five years pass. Scotland is still outside the European Union, with contractions in its economy breeding frustration with the nationalist government and making the fulfillment of the euro admission criteria ever more unlikely. Member states are reluctant to increase the pressure on resources entailed by the continual propping up of the euro and the impending accession of Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and, perhaps, Turkey. The rest of the UK, long accustomed to being half-in the European Union, would now prefer to be half-out. Its economy continues its post-Brexit referendum expansion, and regains its status as the second-largest European market. Member states find a way of recognizing a “special status” in an offer of associate membership that UK voters, supporting pro-EU politicians in a general election, find too attractive to refuse.
The Irish government, responding to the challenge of moving from being a beneficiary of EU funding to becoming a net contributor, pursues ever-closer cooperation with the UK, a position that both Unionist and Nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland can spin to their benefit. The new debate concerning the advantages of a loose federal organization of the isles, justified on the basis of economic cooperation, seems now to include an end to centuries of religious and political conflict, but it’s a hard sell in Scotland. With worries about diminishing national wealth, the effect of import duties on their £50 billion of annual exports to the rest of the UK, and decreasing prospects of EU membership, many Scottish voters would like to return to the UK but have nothing to which to appeal but the residual unionism of English conservatives and the less predictable and more pragmatic responses of politicians in Wales and Northern Ireland, and they cannot engineer another referendum.
Two things might happen. The federal solution could prove successful. Towards the end of her second government, and with a constitutional dexterity that has not been characteristic of many 20th-century Westminster governments, Theresa May could propose a federal relationship between England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, facilitate the return of the Scots, who would retain a nominal independence, and cement a special relationship with the Republic. With the Irish and Scottish land borders becoming effectively meaningless, there could re-emerge a polity that embraces the geography of the old United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland without its problematic centralization. Or, in a more likely scenario, economic realities will prevail. English elections continue to signal a rightward drift, and the economy continues its gradual improvement. Welsh voters don’t like it, but combine their sentimental nationalism with a hard-headed recognition of the uncertain prospects of small nations in a sometimes unfriendly European Union, and prefer the devil they know. The pragmatism is familiar: After all, the Brexit results in both countries cut across party political lines. In Northern Ireland, an ambiguous settlement continues to link the province to England and Wales for as long as Stormont politicians can turn crises into dividends, even as north-south economic and cultural connections make the border increasingly irrelevant.
Whatever happens, Europe will covet the wealth of this very substantial market. English voters may opt to leave the EU, only to discover that Europe wants them to return. Scottish voters may opt to leave the UK, only to discover themselves excluded from the European Union they never wanted to leave.
Of course, none of this might happen. Muddle and ambiguity might continue for some time yet. It’s a very odd referendum when no one really knows what will happen next.