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Opinion: Is the Brexit war over or has it just begun - what now for the Union?

UL’s Dr Owen Worth says the Brexit question may have been answered, but the greater concept at stake is the Union itself.

Dr Owen Worth

NIGEL FARAGE’S DECLARATION that the ‘war was over’ within hours of the UK/EU trade deal being reached was one that was seconded by many of the significant figures at Westminster.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, previously the Party’s chief cheerleader for a ‘People’s Vote’ repeating Farage’s choice of phrase and insisted that the question of EU membership would no longer be an issue for the Party.

The consensus within the Commons seemed to be for a new post-Brexit UK to emerge and find a new place in world politics.

Yet, whatever the wishful thinking of Brexiters might be, their actions have arguably left the UK in terminal decline as an entity. Divisions in society have been opened up as a result of Brexit and these have continued with the so-called generational ‘culture wars’ that have intensified with the emergence of Black Lives Matter and with the Statue protests in 2020.

However, it is the parts of the Union which Brexit has harmed which are of more significance.

The problem with Scotland

The Scottish elections in May are expected to result in a clear majority for the SNP who will try again to call another referendum on Scottish independence. Polls have suggested there is now a clear mandate for independence in light of Brexit.

Scotland voted to remain in the EU by a 62-38 split and support for independence is beginning to reflect a similar favourable split. It appears that the political sea change in Scotland has been such that it is increasingly difficult to make a case for any change back towards supporting the Union.

Whilst younger voters tended to be more lukewarm towards independence back in 2014, Brexit has significantly reversed this trend. At the very least, therefore, Scotland will be kept in the Union against their wishes if Johnson refuses another referendum, which appears likely.

Along with Scotland, the situation in the six counties appears to please no-one. Unionists have expressed anger at being sold out by Johnson over the Irish Sea customs border, whilst Sinn Féin and the SDPL have dismissed Brexit as a whole and have argued for the speeding up of the process of a United Ireland as a result.

Yet, it has not just been in Scotland and Northern Ireland where the Union appears fragile.

The largest growing political organisation in Britain last year was Yes Cymru, which campaigns for an Independent Wales. Aiding by the greater autonomy the Welsh government has had during the Covid pandemic, Yes Cymru has focussed on dispelling the long-standing Welsh myth that Wales cannot survive without England.

Recent polls have seen support for Welsh independence reach record numbers and are comparable to levels Scotland had pre-referendum.

In addition, in light of the Labour Party’s capitulation to the SNP in Scotland, the Welsh Labour Party are keen not to dismiss independence in the same way with Mark Drakeford underlining that Wales place in the Union should not be seen as a given.

How fragile is the Union?

All political unions depend on legitimacy to function for survival. The Brexit fallout has led to deep divisions that pit full brexiteers against united Irelanders in Northern Ireland, full separatists against those who want to abolish the Senedd and return to direct Westminster rule in Wales. 

We then have the majority of Scotland against the popular tabloid press in Fleet Street, who are now arguably levying the same arguments they accused remainers of using against Sturgeon and the SNP.

Within England itself, an increasing amount of those that Farage and Johnson relied upon for Brexit appear to favour English independence from the EU as opposed to any commitment to the UK, whilst in London support for a separatist city-state, based on a Singapore has even gained modest support post-Brexit.

As was seen with bodies such as Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union two decades ago, once the Union that binds them becomes strained the whole entity can quickly disintegrate.

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As we know from Ireland, the United Kingdom throughout its history has been fraught with injustices and instabilities but post-Brexit these are developing across its entire breadth.

If the United Kingdom does indeed disintegrate in the coming decade or two, the great irony will be that it was those who were so keen to flag the Union Jack as a symbolical weapon against the EU that would have effectively killed it off.

In any case, the structural tensions within the UK that Brexit has brought about will make any form of harmony impossible. A jingoistic 19th-century style divide and rule strategy of the sort that Johnson and Farage appear to support will just serve to widen these divisions.

Post-Brexit, the war for the territory currently known as the ‘UK’ might just be beginning.

Dr Owen Worth is Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick.

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