Let’s do a thought experiment. We’ll begin by making two speculative stipulations.
First, assume that Boris Johnson comes out of the United Kingdom’s Dec. 12 general election with a comfortable Conservative majority. Thus empowered, he pushes his new European Union withdrawal agreement through parliament without any material amendments and the U.K. then leaves the EU at the end of January.
Second, assume that a reasonably comprehensive free-trade agreement is negotiated during the ensuing transition period. Consequently, economic disruption is contained well short of the calamity scenarios that have been liberally bandied about over the last several years.
So would everything calm down? Would that be the end of the excitement?
Rather than conclusively resolving things, a successful Brexit might set the stage for further developments. It could even be the precipitating factor in the demise of the U.K. as we know it.
The origins of the U.K. can be traced to Elizabeth I dying without an heir in March 1603. To prevent a succession crisis, James Stuart was offered the throne. Although the son of the beheaded Mary, Queen of Scots, James was also Elizabeth’s most plausible Royal relative. So James VI of Scotland became James I of England in what was known as the Union of the Crowns.
For James, this was like winning the lottery. England was much richer than Scotland and he was anxious to merge his two kingdoms into a single entity.
That, however, didn’t happen until 1707, when the parliamentary acts enabling the Treaty of Union caused the two to be united. Nearly 100 years later, in 1801, a similar arrangement with Ireland came into being, thereby creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
It was in the early 1920s that the first chink in the U.K.’s armour materialized. And it came as a result of the rise in Irish nationalism, the political partition of the island and the creation of the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). Henceforth, the U.K. was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Then came the return of Scottish nationalism.
Long muted, Scottish nationalism experienced a substantial upsurge in the last-third of the 20th century, culminating in the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in 1998 and a full blown independence referendum in 2014. And while the referendum turned thumbs down on independence by an approximate 55-45 margin, the result was perhaps less definitive than the top line suggested.
For what it’s worth, polling indicated that the pro-independence side won all age cohorts under 55. Also, part of the anti-independence vote was generated by fear of consequences, including loss of automatic EU membership.
Now stir in the fact that Scotland overwhelmingly favoured Remain (62-38) during the 2016 Brexit referendum and you have a recipe for a different result in the event of an independence rerun – a rerun that the Scottish Nationalist Party passionately wants. You don’t have to be well disposed towards their cause to accept that they have a point.
If Brexit goes through, it’ll constitute a highly material change in circumstances. The U.K. on offer during the 2014 referendum simply wouldn’t be the U.K. in place after Brexit. Yes, the 2014 vote was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation affair, but sometimes radical changes justify repeating a question.
The other fault line resides in Northern Ireland. It also decisively voted Remain (56-44).
Although there are exceptions to the rule, political identity in Northern Ireland has historically correlated with religious background. Catholics tend to be nationalists who believe in unification with the Republic of Ireland whereas Protestants tend to be unionists who see themselves as an integral part of the U.K.
And despite being a majority, Protestants have long felt threatened by demographic patterns whereby a higher Catholic birthrate gradually erodes their relative position. Psychologically, Brexit could tip the balance.
Looking at the Brexit referendum statistics, a substantial number of unionists would obviously prefer to remain in the EU. However, if Brexit becomes a reality, the only route to staying in the EU entails joining the Republic of Ireland. Added to the demographic trends, this could make a decisive difference in the not very distant future.
History is forever generating ironies. But the idea of a Conservative U.K. prime minister being the inadvertent catalyst for Irish unification is surely a choice one.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.