The Unravelling of the Union

by Jack Walters

Little over six years ago, on the morning of the 19th of September 2014, the future of the United Kingdom appeared safe as Scotland rejected the once in a generation chance to leave the UK by a nearly ten per cent margin.

However, today, as Boris Johnson travels up to Scotland, the existence of the United Kingdom has never looked under more threat. The last three opinion polls placed support for Scottish independence at new highs and even suggested that Scotland would vote to repeal the Act of Union by the reverse margin of the vote in 2014.

Now the Prime Minister's premiership will not only be remembered for Britain's departure from the European Union and the government's response to Covid-19 but also the state of the Union. In fact, Robert Shrimsley of The Financial Times argued that Boris Johnson helped to revitalise support for Scottish independence. Shrimsley added: "Scots then saw Mr Johnson topple Theresa May because her approach prioritised saving the Union above a hardline Brexit."

Nevertheless, Boris Johnson is not the sole architect of the political fight to keep the Union alive. As Stephen Daisley put in The Spectator yesterday morning, Tony Blair is also to blame for the 'nodded through devolution after allowing himself to be convinced that it was an administrative change, rather than an unravelling of the United Kingdom.'

Daisley also levels blame at David Cameron, the Prime Minister who successfully delivered the ‘No’ vote in 2014, of risking the future of the United Kingdom because Cameron 'conceded a referendum and transferred not one, but two tranches of powers - making him arguably more culpable than Blair.'

Unfortunately, despite notable ‘Yes’ campaigners describing the vote as a once in a lifetime opportunity, the question of Scottish independence was not put to bed in 2014. Scotland will have to have a 'final say' about independence at some point in the next decade, especially if the SNP storms to victory in next year’s Holyrood elections. However, key to a second success for the 'No' campaign will be a more positive message than the 'project fear' of 2014. Former Scottish Secretary, Douglas Alexander, told Unionists earlier this year that "turning up with facts is like turning up to a knife fight with a teaspoon." Instead, he wants Unionists to give a passionate and emotive case in favour of the Union.

Polling expert, John Curtice's assessment is that: "once the debate becomes fully engaged, those on the unionist side will point out how the UK has been able to come to help avoid the worst of the economic damage of coronavirus.'

Equally important will be the fallout from the Russia Report that, according to The Daily Telegraph, said that the Kremlin did not try to meddle in the 2016 referendum on EU membership but did play an active role in interfering in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

However, the rise in support, especially after the Brexit vote in 2016, has had repercussions in other corners of the Union. Over the past decade, the English electorate has put up with a surge in nationalist support from their Celtic cousins, even in Wales where support for independence is at a record high. I would suggest that there is clear evidence of English indifference towards the Union.

Many English voters do not understand why the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish would even consider leaving the UK. In the Lord Ashcroft polls conducted last October, less than ten per cent of those polled thought that England was the primary beneficiary from Scotland and Northern Ireland's position in the Union. By comparison, a majority of the respondents stated that Scotland and Ulster benefited the most from the current constitutional settlement.

What is more, a vast majority of respondents stated that they consider England as 'subsidising' the Celtic corners of the United Kingdom. One significant difference did emerge from the poll, however. While just 16 per cent stated that they were 'not happy' about this in the case for Northern Ireland, over ¼ of respondents stated they did not approve of this when applied to Scotland. With such views so widespread in England it will come as no surprise in May support, amongst English respondents, for Scottish independence grew by four percentage points to 30 per cent, and support for the Union fell by two points to 44 per cent in an unabashed sign of growing English indifference to the Union.

The frustration and division between England and Scotland are also fuelling a surge in support for an idea completely unheard of to the ears of British politicos, English independence. YouGov and Panelbase asked English respondents whether they supported the idea of England departing from the United Kingdom. To the surprise of many people, it placed unweighted support for independence between 27 and 34 per cent. The only recent poll that included an option for English independence was in 2007, which placed support at just 15 per cent.

This means that support in England is higher than in Wales for independence. Last month, almost the same question was asked, by YouGov, to Welsh respondents and just 25 per cent of those who answered stated a desire to leave the United Kingdom.

But let us not forget Northern Ireland. A nation which is so often characterised as being divided by Unionist and Nationalist, which is almost certainly caused by sectarian lines. Just last year, Lord Ashcroft's poll suggested that, for the first time, support for Irish unification narrowly led over support for the Union in Ulster. While a majority of polls do indicate narrow support for the Union, Ashcroft's polls will undoubtedly concern the Democratic Unionist Party. Arlene Foster's party no longer commands a majority of the eighteen Ulster seats in Westminster and given The Economist added more fear to Unionists by claiming that changing demographics, that place Northern Ireland on course for a Catholic majority next year, increase the chances of a United Ireland, the fight for the Union must now take place on multiple fronts.

After a decade in which the harmony within the United Kingdom has deteriorated, it seems that the Twenties will be the decade that decides the UK's future. If the Scots, who will have the first say on the matter, opt to leave the United Kingdom then I see a possibility that people in all corners of the British Isles, including England, will eventually call for independence themselves.

However, if the Scots decide to vote the same way as they did in 2014, then the question marks over the future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain are, for a generation, put to bed. The only fear for Unionists then is whether or not the people of Northern Ireland will, almost a century after Irish secession for the United Kingdom in 1922, support Irish unification.

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© The New Briton 2020