With Brexit mandate in hand, U.K.’s own union faces new strains

Why We Wrote This

Brexit was all about getting out of a controversial union with Europe. But the effort to “go it alone” may end up further fraying the ties that bind the members of the United Kingdom.

Jane Barlow/PA/AP
A campaign bus for the Scottish Nationalist Party travels along the Pass of Glen Coe during its tour of Scotland in the final week of the general election campaign on Dec. 9, 2019.

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Last week, the U.K.’s pro-Brexit Conservative Party swept in England and made gains in Wales. But Scotland and Northern Ireland were a different story. Nationalists in both places see Brexit as a made-in-England rupture with Europe that has also shaken loose the already strained bonds of the U.K.’s multinational construct.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of Brexit has raised hackles in Northern Ireland, which, unlike Scotland, has a legal right to self-determination. Unionists there see the exit terms as a perilous step toward Irish unification. 

In Scotland, where Conservatives trailed the Scottish Nationalist Party, talk is of “IndyRef2” to follow the 2014 referendum in which voters rejected independence.

One symbolic Conservative loss came in Stirling. Robert the Bruce, who led a victorious Scottish army against England here in 1314, is reputed to have said that “He who holds Stirling holds Scotland.”

Vince Conlan, a Conservative supporter there, wants the Scottish Nationalist Party simply to govern. “There’s enough to worry about without ripping the union apart,” he says.

But Kathleen Jamie, a well-known poet, says Scotland is an outward-looking nation at home in Europe. “Scots are hard-headed. ... And we’ve got an eye for the main chance,” she says.

Last week’s decisive victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson has snapped years of debilitating uncertainty over the United Kingdom’s wayward path out of the European Union. The constitutional setup within the U.K., however, may be on a rockier road after an election that deepened its post-Brexit fissures.

In England, Mr. Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservative Party swept the board, winning a clear parliamentary mandate for the U.K. to leave the EU on Jan. 31. The Conservatives also made gains in Labour-dominated Wales. A majority in both nations voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland, in contrast, voted to remain. And nationalists in both places see Brexit as a made-in-England rupture with Europe that has shaken loose the already strained bonds of the U.K.’s multinational construct. Further constitutional challenges to London’s writ are inevitable, raising the possibility that Brexit – a nationalist project – could be the undoing of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Johnson’s handling of Brexit has raised hackles in Northern Ireland, which, unlike Scotland, has a legal right to self-determination. Under the terms of Mr. Johnson’s exit deal, Northern Ireland will remain in a customs union with the EU, a compromise designed to avoid a return to land border checks with the rest of Ireland, an EU member. For Unionists who fear any weakening of political ties to Britain, that compromise is seen as a perilous first step toward Irish unification, the goal of the Nationalists who fought to end British rule in Northern Ireland until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. 

Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea in Scotland, the talk is of “IndyRef2,” another self-rule referendum. The bruising battles over Brexit are eclipsed by the bigger question of Scotland’s place in the union. 

A Scottish mandate?

Here in Scotland, the Conservatives trailed far behind the Scottish Nationalist Party, which won 48 seats out of 59 Scottish seats in Parliament, making it the third largest party. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon hailed the result as a mandate for the party’s goal of holding a second independence referendum, five years after Scotland voted to remain in the U.K.

“It’s very clear that Scotland wants a different future to the one chosen by much of the rest of the U.K.,” Ms. Sturgeon said on Saturday. “Scotland showed its opposition to Boris Johnson and the Tories, said no again to Brexit, and made very clear that we want the future of Scotland, whatever that turns out to be, to be decided by people who live here.”

That decision isn’t imminent; Mr. Johnson has ruled out another referendum. And there is little appetite among Nationalists for a Catalan-style campaign in defiance of London, so the SNP is likely to bide its time and build its case for cutting ties to post-Brexit Britain.

Moreover, Ms. Sturgeon concedes that not all ballots cast for the SNP favored independence. Analysts note that SNP ranks include “double leavers”: Leave the EU, leave the U.K.

But it was still a bad night for parties who support the 312-year-old union with England. Labour, once dominant here, is down to one seat in Parliament. The Conservatives lost half their seats, holding six. Another four went to the Liberal Democrats.

The remainder went to lawmakers – who took their seats today – committed to self-determination for Scotland’s 5.4 million population.

“The U.K. is breaking down. The constitutional order is breaking down,” says Simon Pia, a lecturer in journalism at Edinburgh Napier University and a former Labour spokesman.

A symbolic advance

One Conservative loss came in Stirling, a symbolic advance for Nationalists. “He who holds Stirling holds Scotland,” an adage attributed to Robert the Bruce, who led a victorious Scottish army against the English here in 1314. Stirling’s hilltop castle, captured and surrendered many times in subsequent wars with England, looms over the city of 94,000. 

“I think we’re in a state of turmoil and uncertainty,” says Kerry Kennedy, an SNP voter who works for Scotland’s national soccer team. She had ducked into a mall decked in Christmas decorations to avoid pelting rain. “If the SNP has power then we can get another referendum.”

Ms. Kennedy, who is 28, says she voted for independence and would do so again. Her generation split on the constitutional question, while older voters were more likely to reject independence. Nationally, voters split 55% to 45% against independence. In Stirling, the “no” margin was higher.

Vince Conlan, a 64-year-old Army veteran sitting with a fellow veteran inside the mall, was among Stirling’s “no” voters. A Conservative supporter, he wishes the SNP would give up and focus on governing Scotland. “There’s enough to worry about without ripping the union apart,” he says.

The 2014 independence referendum was framed as a once-in-a-generation vote. That was two years before Brexit, though, and nationalists say the break with Europe has shattered the consensus that Scotland is better off in the U.K. as a member of the EU. By electing a Conservative government bent on Brexit, England is fueling independence, they argue.

“We’re a tin can tied in the tail of a very strong dog, and we’d prefer not to be,” says Kathleen Jamie, a poet whose words adorn a rotunda at the site of Robert the Bruce’s victory in nearby Bannockburn. 

Brexit lessons cut both ways

The SNP argues that Brexit will lead to reduced trade and economic growth for Scotland. And while immigration was a winning card for the Brexit campaign in England and Wales, it has far less traction in Scotland, which depends on EU migrants for key industries. Non-citizens were eligible to vote in the 2014 referendum, as were 16- and 17-year-olds. 

Ms. Jamie says Scottish nationalism is not about blood and soil, but inclusion and pragmatism in a small, outward-looking nation that feels at home in Europe. “Scots are hard-headed. ... And we’ve got an eye for the main chance,” she says.

From this vantage, Brexit is a baffling family feud. “Little England has been knocking chunks out of each other. And for what?” she asks.

But while the SNP insists Brexit means Scotland has to be consulted again on its future, Unionists argue it shows just how arduous it is to redraw political, legal, and economic ties. 

Lorraine O'Sullivan/Reuters
The first ballot boxes are opened at the count center in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dec. 12, 2019.

Take the Irish border question that bedeviled Brexit negotiations. Were Scotland to break with the U.K., it would confront similar difficulties at its southern border with England, where Roman emperors built stone walls to ward off invaders. Critics say the SNP has also failed to show independence would bring net economic benefits.

Its pitch is reminiscent of how Brexit was sold, says Murdo Fraser, a Conservative Scottish MP. “You see so many parallels ... where essentially what you’re asking people to do is make themselves poorer in exchange for having some degree of greater national sovereignty,” he says. “The rhetoric is so similar.”

Analysts say SNP leaders won’t want to risk a 50-50 divide they might lose. The weight of opinion hasn’t yet tipped either way, though how the U.K. fares outside the EU is important, says Mark Diffley, head of polling at Progress Scotland, a nationalist-leaning think tank. “If Brexit gets done and the sun doesn’t stop shining then it’s entirely possible that support [for independence] could drop off a bit,” he says. 

If nationalists don’t see a path to a clear-cut referendum victory, Ms. Sturgeon may be open to alternatives to full independence, a stance that could be more palatable to Mr. Johnson, says Mr. Pia.

Since U.K. constitutional reform in the 1990s, Scotland has exercised full powers over health, education, and other public services. Were the U.K. to offer greater devolution, this could be a third option in a referendum, says Mr. Pia, who voted “no” in 2014 but has since reconsidered.

The next flashpoint

The next flashpoint could come in 2021 when Scotland holds elections to its Parliament in Edinburgh. A clear win for the SNP would strengthen its case for another referendum, says Mr. Fraser, a former deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives. He has proposed a quasi-federal arrangement, including a reformed U.K. upper house in which regions and nations are represented, to keep the union together, including in Scotland.

“I think there are certainly those who are pro-independence who might well settle for something less than independence,” he says.

A key constituency that rejected Scottish independence in 2014 was younger urban voters, many of whom feared being shut out of the European bloc.

On a recent morning, Ben Palmer, a 42-year-old landscape architect, nursed a coffee in a cramped Edinburgh cafe. He voted “no,” and wishes the U.K. could stay in the EU. So far, he’s still not persuaded that Scotland needs to go it alone. 

“There are so many global issues now, like climate change, and the more divisions there are the harder it is to resolve these bigger issues,” he says.

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