Brexit Could Be The End Of The United Kingdom

Brexit seems like it's inevitable at this point, and that could set in motion a series of events that would mean the end of the United Kingdom.

As the United Kingdom heads into a six-week election period that will decide the fate of Brexit, Nicholas Kristof ponders whether it will lead to the end of not only the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union but of the United Kingdom itself:

Economists largely agree that Brexit will cause both trade and G.D.P. to suffer. One study estimates that Britain may already be 3 percent poorer simply because of planning for Brexit. Another puts the long-term decline at 3.5 percent; a different one estimates a 6 percent drop in the medium term. As The Economist magazine noted, Johnson’s Brexit plan would be even worse for the U.K. economy than that of his predecessor, Theresa May.

Johnson’s Brexit would leave Northern Ireland more integrated with Ireland than with the rest of Britain. And as religion becomes less important on both sides of the border, pressure for Irish unification will grow. One recent poll found a small majority in Northern Ireland in favor of leaving the U.K. and merging with Ireland — although the brakes may come from an Ireland wary of inheriting the weaker Northern Ireland economy.

“Paradoxically, Mr. Johnson and Brexit may have done more for a United Ireland than the I.R.A. ever did,” Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote in The Financial Times. Powell warned that Johnson’s plan may “mark the end of the union, leaving a Little Englander government ruling a Little England.”

In Scotland as well, a poll shows a plurality now in favor of independence, and there are already calls for a new referendum on independence.

“The best future for Scotland is one as an equal, independent European nation,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland. “That is a choice I’m determined to ensure is given to the people of Scotland.”

Pragmatism may restrain Scots in the end, for Scotland presumably would then be out of the European Union and would find itself creating a border with England as well. It’s far from clear that the European Union would welcome Scotland back, for fear of encouraging separatists in places like Catalonia.

Even Wales seems fed up. One survey found that 41 percent of people in Wales would favor separation if they could remain in the European Union.

NBC News hit the same notes in a report last month:

The United Kingdom has 215 nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and has been Washington’s best friend for decades.

Less than 100 years ago it ruled over Canada, Nigeria, India, Australia and more, covering almost a quarter of the world’s territory and population.

Yet in recent months there has been growing alarm that the U.K. is in danger of breaking apart. Nothing like this has happened before — not to a modern democracy with such geopolitical and historical standing.

The U.K. is unusual because it comprises four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Were one of these to leave the U.K., many would see it as a dismal end to centuries of British history, further diminishing its role as a cornerstone of the Western postwar alliance.

“We should be genuinely worried. There’s no doubt about that,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair told NBC News in an interview.

The United Kingdom has 215 nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and has been Washington’s best friend for decades.

Less than 100 years ago it ruled over Canada, Nigeria, India, Australia and more, covering almost a quarter of the world’s territory and population.

Yet in recent months there has been growing alarm that the U.K. is in danger of breaking apart. Nothing like this has happened before — not to a modern democracy with such geopolitical and historical standing.

The U.K. is unusual because it comprises four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Were one of these to leave the U.K., many would see it as a dismal end to centuries of British history, further diminishing its role as a cornerstone of the Western postwar alliance.

“It’s incredible to me,” he said. “The factors at work here have come into play, not through some act of God, but because people created them.”

In fact all five of the U.K.’s living former leaders warn that this is no longer some vague hypothetical; the possible roadmap to disintegration is now clear. Scotland or Northern Ireland — or both — could conceivably hold referendums to leave the U.K. within the next five to 10 years.

“We should be genuinely worried. There’s no doubt about that,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair told NBC News in an interview.

The NBC report, which is too lengthy to fairly summarize, goes on to detail the situation on the ground in each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and finds that support for some sort of independence in the event of a break with the European Union to be growing. It’s strongest, not surprisingly, in Scotland, which has already had one bite at the apple of independence but also exists in Northern Ireland thanks to the border issue. The support for independence is smaller in Wales, in no small part I’d imagine because it is entirely unclear how an independent Wales would be able to effectively govern itself. Even England appears to be rethinking its position in the U.K., especially considering the fact that it is the only constituent member of the U.K. that doesn’t have an independent Parliament.

To put things in perspective, Northern Ireland has been a part of the United Kingdom since England annexed Ireland in the mid-1600s, Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since the Union Treaty of 1707, and Wales has been joined to England since at least 1535 and has been more or less cleaved to England since 1282. More recently, the open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland has been one of the primary factors that has kept the peace there for the past two decades.

As noted, the prospect of decoupling from the United Kingdom has not gone over well in any of thee areas. Scotland and Northern Ireland where all areas of the country where support for the “Remain” side in 2016 Brexit referendum, as this map created based on the results of the vote shows: (Blue represents Remain, while Red represents Leave.)

As the map shows, the vast majority of England voted in favor of Leave while the majority of Scotland and Ireland voted for Remain. Remain also had strong support in and around London, and on the southwestern coast of the island, which roughly corresponds to the location of Wales.

As noted, each of these constituent countries of the United Kingdom has at least talked recently about independence in the wake of Brexit, which Scotland being the loudest in that regard. In fact, a recent poll in Scotland showed a majority supporting another independence referendum in the event Brexit becomes a reality. Since it appears that Brexit is inevitable it’s likely that we’ll see another push for Scottish independence in its wake. Additionally, talk of independence or joining the Irish Republic has become far more common in Northern Ireland as the reality of Brexit gets closer. Losing some or all of those parts of the United Kingdom, the loss of Wales seemingly being the least likely, would be the biggest diminution in the power, influence size, and status of the “United Kingdom” since the British Empire broke apart after the end of World War II. Indeed, if all of this comes to pass, one has to wonder if it would even make sense to refer to the “United Kingdom” by that name anymore.

What would such an England amount to? Well, it would have far less influence on the world stage than it does today and would likely become far more dependent on the United States than at any other point since the beginning of the “special relationship.” Additionally, detaching from the European Union would not mean the end of the United Kingdom’s need to have a good relationship with its European neighbors. Indeed, it would likely make the need for such a relationship even stronger, something that would work to the advantage of the E.U. in any trade negotiations.

One has to wonder if the narrow majority that voted to leave the E.U. thought about all of this, or much of anything for that matter when they made what seems to be an increasingly unwise decision.

FILED UNDER: Brexit, United Kingdom
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The GDP of a separate Scotland would be about that of Greece; that of a separate Northern Ireland roughly that of Estonia. A separate Scotland would be a fairly prosperous European country but falling fast due to the decline of North Sea oil production. The per capita GDP of a separate Northern Ireland would be lower than that of Estonia.

    Reunifying Northern Ireland with the Republican of Ireland would present enormous challenges. The per capita incomes of the two countries are substantially more different than were East Germany and West Germany at the time of reunification.

    People may consider these various factors and reach different conclusions. Mine would be that a United Kingdom breaking into its four constituents parts is unlikely even after Brexit.

    And then there are the run-on effects. If the United Kingdom splits up, what about Spain, France, and Germany? Spain is already teetering on the brink and there are separatist movements in both France and Germany.

    ReplyReply
    4
    3
  2. An Interested Party says:

    Those who voted to leave remind me of Trump supporters…they’ll get the radical change they claim they want, but, in the end, they may well be very unhappy with the consequences of that choice…

    ReplyReply
    5
    1
  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    although the brakes may come from an Ireland wary of inheriting the weaker Northern Ireland economy

    Nearly 30 years after German unification the Ossties are still the Mississippi of Germany. Irish unification will be as heavy a lift.

    It’s ironic that one of the bragging points of the Brexiters was that leaving the EU would return the UK to the glory years of the British Empire. Now it could likely lead to that empires final disintegration.

    ReplyReply
  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Dave Schuler: Scotland also has an intellectual culture of engineering and science which IMHO the Brits don’t really have. England is still the home of the “amateur who gracefully improvises through difficulties while dropping bon mots in Latin”. (Hence why Dunkirk is still such a popular identifying point.) Actually studying, hard work, careful planning, etc. results in being jeered at as a “swot”–sufficient for the vulgar classes for making money but not something for those like Alexander de Pleffl Boris Johnson or other Eton boys.

    From what I’ve experienced, England still has a hard-boiled class system which also includes geography. One of my father’s post-docs (from Edinburgh) told my father he had decided to look for a job in the U.S. rather than back in Britain because he knew his accent was enough to keep him out of even being considered for certain academic positions.

    ReplyReply
  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    The British voters were fools. The UK had an enviable position between two economic superpowers, the US and the EU. They were tight with us while having all that EU membership brought. Now the US is in decline and Europe alternately pities and despises them. They’re going to the pipsqueak at the international table. And what did Brits gain?

    That’s the problem with @Dave Schuler’s analysis above. Of course an independent Scotland won’t make economic sense. What has sense ever had to do with anything?

    ReplyReply
  6. grumpy realist says:

    Actually, what we’re seeing in the EU is sort of the reversal of the Nation-State concept: the possibility of countries fragmenting back into regional areas all under the aegis of higher organisations (countries, EU).

    Considering that we had quite a long time, historically, when countries like Germany and Italy and France and Spain were divided up into smaller units/kingdoms, I’m somewhat bemused by the horror with which certain politicians are treating the whole situation. You’d sort of think they had never heard about the Holy Roman Empire or the Catholic Church. Federalism on multiple levels in Europe really isn’t something totally novel!

    ReplyReply
  7. Barry says:

    @Dave Schuler: “The GDP of a separate Scotland would be about that of Greece; that of a separate Northern Ireland roughly that of Estonia. A separate Scotland would be a fairly prosperous European country but falling fast due to the decline of North Sea oil production. The per capita GDP of a separate Northern Ireland would be lower than that of Estonia.”

    Charles Stross (the Scottish SF writer) opposed the Scottish Independence Referendum back a few years ago, on the grounds that it’d lead to a 10-20 recession/depression.

    He now supports it because the alternative is the same economic sh*tshow, but under a fascist-light Brexit government.

    ReplyReply
  8. JohnMcC says:

    @grumpy realist: Dr Timothy Snyder (‘Bloodlands’) makes the point that Europe actually doesn’t have a long history of stable nation-states at all. The significant movers of the EU are empires that lost wars and had to live on somehow. (He says it much better than I; you should at least look at some of his you-tubes.)

    ReplyReply
  9. Michael Cain says:

    @Barry: Scottish fossil fuel production is falling rapidly. Politics around climate change was likely to cause that anyway. Scotland has enormous renewable potential from wind and tides; England (used intentionally) is having the same cost problems with new nuclear everyone in the world seems to be having; Scotland could easily find itself in the position of exporting large amounts of electricity to England post-separation. Even more likely to be true if England makes a big push on electrifying transportation.

    ReplyReply
  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    What would such an England amount to? Well, it would have far less influence on the world stage than it does today and would likely become far more dependent on the United States than at any other point since the beginning of the “special relationship.”

    You mean… it would become… almost… kind of like… a colony?

    ReplyReply
  11. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Spain is already teetering on the brink and there are separatist movements in both France and Germany.

    Care to enlighten me? Have I missed separatists in my own country?

    A separate Scotland would be a fairly prosperous European country but falling fast due to the decline of North Sea oil production.

    Even excluding oil GDP per capita would still be around that of Italy. So not exactly a horrible prospect. The real issue would be future trade disruptions.

    ReplyReply
  12. grumpy realist says:

    A very good analysis of the cliff that the U.K. is now barrelling towards at high speed, totally oblivious of its problems.

    (Basically, neither Johnson nor Farage know exactly how long getting a FTA together will take. The present kick-the-can-until-the-end-of-2020 isn’t going to help matters.)

    I’m starting to wonder if Brexit will ever take place. Each time they’ve gotten an extension, they squander the time in political shadowboxing. Then, a few weeks before the deadline, everyone panics and realises exactly what dropping out of the EU without any preparation would mean and manages to get enough support together to request another extension.

    And am wondering if any British politician knows enough of the situation to realise exactly how totally up the creek without a paddle they all are. No one in the government seems to understand exactly how much work has to be done before a separation is possible.

    I think the E.U. should just state: “we’re kicking you out December 1, 2020. Whatever the situation is at that point, we don’t care. No more extensions. Whatever state the negotiations are at that point, that’s what the deal with the U.K. will be.”

    ReplyReply
  13. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    I’m starting to wonder if Brexit will ever take place. Each time they’ve gotten an extension, they squander the time in political shadowboxing. Then, a few weeks before the deadline, everyone panics and realises exactly what dropping out of the EU without any preparation would mean and manages to get enough support together to request another extension.

    From my Twitter feed:

    “The year is 3019. The British Potentate, as every year, comes to Brussels to plead for a ‘Brexit Extension’. No one knows what exactly that is. The origin of this strange ceremony is lost in the mists of time, but it’s considered to be great fun and draws tourists to the city. “

    ReplyReply
  14. Kevin Beach says:

    “One has to wonder if the narrow majority that voted to leave the E.U. thought about all of this, or much of anything for that matter when they made what seems to be an increasingly unwise decision.”

    Of course they didn’t. Brexit is the wish of a few hundred very rich people, who want to continue dodging taxes when the EU’s anti-tax-avoidance rules come into force next year. They include the owners of much of the British media, which has consistently conned “the people” into believing that the EU is damaging their country.

    Brexit is rabble-rousing on steroids. Nobody can give a truthful, rational reason for it, based on objectively confirmable facts.

    ReplyReply

Speak Your Mind

*