By Ryan Morrice
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is in grave danger. Opinion polling now suggests somewhere between 51% to 58% of Scots would vote yes in another independence referendum. Polling also shows that most in the UK think this will happen in the next 10 years. Brexit has led Northern Ireland to remain in the EU’s single market and so its economy is now tied closer to the Republic of Ireland than the UK. And Wales, while less enthusiastic about independence than Scotland, still has seen support rise, with around 32% wanting independence.
One view—held by Boris Johnson and the current UK government—is that this is the fault of devolution. The Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998; the Scottish and Welsh parliaments were established a year later. The argument goes that these institutions allowed nationalist politicians to gain political footholds and sway people away from the Union. Hence why Boris Johnson said that devolution had been a “disaster” in Scotland.
This analysis has led the current campaign against the breakup of the UK to focus on emphasising the strengths of the Union while largely ignoring the devolved administrations in the process. This can be seen in Boris Johnson’s recent trip to Scotland, where he spoke about the strength of the UK as a whole in fighting the current pandemic. Or in the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK government’s post-brexit replacement for EU development grants), which is deliberately bypassing the devolved administrations so that the money can be seen to come directly from the UK Treasury.
However, this analysis on the cause of the Union’s current weakness is fundamentally flawed. If all that’s needed to rekindle support for the UK is more public messaging about why it’s great, then the country would have never reached the perilous state that it is in now. Scottish voters would have retained their rejection of Scottish independence following the 2014 referendum. Welsh voters wouldn’t even be thinking about it. There has never been a British government that didn’t love to praise the greatness of Great Britain. To believe that the positive case for the UK has not been made strong enough is naive.
The popularity of devolution and the independence movements has not been driven solely by nationalist politicians; it has been boosted to success by political and governance failures in London. A referendum to establish a Scottish Parliament in 1979 failed because of a lack of support. It took Margaret Thatcher to convince Scots otherwise. Had she not devastated Scottish shipbuilding and manufacturing industries without attempts to develop new sources of employment, and singled out Scotland by introducing her infamously unpopular poll tax there a year earlier than the rest of Great Britain, then the argument for devolution would have been fundamentally weaker. (Voters gave huge support for the Scottish Parliament in the 1997 referendum on the issue.)
A similar story has played out today. Scotland voted by a majority to remain in the European Union in 2014, while the UK as a whole did not. Now that Brexit has been implemented, Scottish fishermen have seen their livelihoods devastated by cumbersome red tape at Britain’s borders. Other small and medium export-focused businesses are struggling as well, as they lack the financial resources and know-how to deal with new customs requirements.
Meanwhile the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated to many Scots that the Scottish government is capable of better governance than the UK government. Nicola Sturgeon has been praised for a clear and well-communicated response to the pandemic, while Boris Johnson is seen to have led a government of U-turns. It may come as no surprise that a poll last November showed that 74% of Scots thought that Sturgeon had handled the crisis well, compared to only 19% for Johnson. In this context, the latest surge in support for Scottish independence can be seen as the result of voters preferring the perceived better performance of the Scottish government over the UK government.
Is there anything then that can turn this political drift around? While better governance from London would help, it is wishful thinking to rely on it. With the exception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown delivered a largely competent and successful run in government. Yet they still lost support in Scotland after they tailored their politics to England rather than appealing to voters in every nation in the UK. And as parties cycle in and out of power, it is inevitable that unpopular governments will come again—as what happened with the Conservatives rise to power in 2010. (The largest vote share they have held in Scotland in the past decade was 28.6% in 2017).
A better strategy would be to give the devolved administrations more power and not to ignore them. One example of this would be granting them full fiscal devolution, rather than their current system of funding which relies on a block grant from Westminster. This is anathema to the current government and most supporters of the Union. They worry that with more power, independence will become easier to achieve. And their worries are correct. But it would also reduce the benefits of independence. With more fundamental powers in their hands, there would be a lot less to gain and a lot more to lose—primarily the UK’s strong international influence and its strength as a world leader. And more importantly, with less influence over the affairs of the devolved nations, poor governance in London would be limited in scope to England, thus helping to avoid pushing away the other nations.
For this to happen there needs to be a change of heart in Westminster. Gordon Brown is the most prominent Unionist calling for reforms similar to this. But such talk is fruitless from a man who hasn’t held power in over a decade. Without change, it is likely that Scottish independence and the breakup of the UK will occur. Demographic shifts—young people in both Scotland and Wales support independence more than their elders—will push it in this direction.
In the next few years Scotland will remain in the UK. The current UK government has rejected any proposals to offer another independence referendum. The Scottish National Party have put forth a plan to fight the issue in the courts (the Scotland Act reserves constitutional matters for Westminster, but doesn’t explicitly reserve referendums on such matters). It is unlikely to succeed however, and if it does Westminster can still introduce new legislation to stop it. But in the long term, if support for independence stays strong or grows, pressure will rise for the UK government to allow another referendum. It would be embarrassing for a democracy to deny its citizens a democratic vote, especially in the face of strong support for it. As well, if Scotland decides to leave, many more in Wales and Northern Ireland may consider doing the same.
To allow the end of the United Kingdom would be a great tragedy. Not because an independent Scotland or reunited Ireland would be bad outcomes—far from it. But it would be a shame to allow the UK to fall apart when it has the potential to lead the world through the 21st century. The UK is still one of the world’s largest economies, meaning that even after Brexit, it is an international heavyweight in global economic affairs. Its strong military and influence in NATO means that it can continue to be a powerful force for global peace. And its criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs, as well as the granting of fast-track citizenship to Hong Kongers after China eroded their democracy, shows how it is a source of moral leadership for the world. To protect all of this, the UK government must reform the United Kingdom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.