Brexit blues and the future of the UK

Brian O’Neill beat me to it.  George Osborne the thwarted crown prince of Tory politics called Theresa May  “ a   dead woman walking “ long before  she lost the third meaningful vote. He was right there and he may turn to be right now.  Amazing how defeated politicians  turn into prophets. If you think you can see the right route at the fork in the road you have a 50% chance of being right in advance and 100% if you get there. So as bets go, it’s a good one.

However there may be trouble ahead for the  obvious route.  The lively thinktank UK in a Changing  Europe has produced  a magisterial  review of Brexit and Beyond , written by some of the best scholars in the land. I recommend the lot. In the Union section it includes Northern Ireland  by our own excellent Kay Hayward.

There is I think a difference of approach between academics on the one hand and journalists and politicians on the other. The latter go on hunches and instinct that is more like the events of real life. Scholars rely on evidence which is ignored at your peril; instinct and speculation which so much part of raw politics is difficult for them to handle. Between the two, we may achieve moments of wisdom and insight.

I turn  first to Nicola McEwen on Scotland which may provide the earlier challenge to the Union. Her review identifies the seeds of a Union fight back.

“In the Holyrood elections of 2016,the SNP manifesto asserted the right to a new referendum on independence ‘if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people — or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.’

Within two months, the Brexit referendum produced that material change. 62% in Scotland voted remain.

In 2020, the second condition was arguably also met. By the beginning of the year, support for independence had increased to around 50%, primarily driven by Remainers. Against the backdrop of Covid-19, support has increased further. From June-December, 16 opinion polls carried out by six different polling firms all suggested majority support for independence, ranging from 51% to 59%. This is the most sustained support for independence ever seen. Scotland thus enters 2021- an election year — with its constitutional future once again at the forefront of political debate/

The SNP has been in power for 14 years. Every opinion poll suggests that it is on course for another convincing victory in the Scottish Parliament elections in May, potentially winning an overall majority. This would be a remarkable achievement in a five-party system, under an electoral system not expected to produce single party majorities. Five months is a long time in politics, and much can intervene to alter the course of public opinion. Internally, the party is struggling to contain factionalism. Externally, well: events, dear boy, events

The spectacle of the British Government saying ‘No’ could further expand support for a referendum, and perhaps for independence. In this scenario there will also be considerable pressure on an SNP-led administration to attempt to hold a referendum under devolved powers. By summer 2021, all the major parties will be compelled to engage with the question of Scotland’s constitutional future.

Brexit has undoubtedly raised doubts over the UK’s constitutional future, but it also creates new challenges for the independence project.

The SNP seeks an independence that would enable its reentry into the EU while maintaining close links with the rest of the UK in a ‘partnership of equals’. But Brexit means that, after independence and EU accession, the Anglo-Scottish border would become a border between the EU and a third country. It is reasonable to assume that Scotland would, like Ireland, secure a derogation from the Schengen Agreement to permit the continued free movement of people across these islands. However, the Scottish Government would have to demonstrate that goods and services entering the Scottish market complied with EU rules. Under any scenario, that would require a new system of border management, combining technological surveillance, office-based bureaucracy and at least some physical border checks. Independence could thus generate additional barriers to trade across the Anglo-Scottish border just as it opens up trade and mobility with the EU. The closer the alignment between the UK and the EU, the more feasible it would be to combine Scottish independence within the EU with fluid borders with its closest neighbour, with minimal need for customs and regulatory checks. However, the UK-EU Agreement is a thin deal. Avoiding tariffs and quotas on goods does not avoid new non-tariff barriers, including rules of origin requirements, sanitary and phytosanitary checks, customs’ declarations and the need to demonstrate regulatory compliance for goods and services traded across the border. All of this points to a tighter set of border controls between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the event of independence leading to Scotland’s EU membership. Maintaining such a system would require cross-border cooperation, with opportunities for partnership. But it could make it considerably more difficult to establish co-governance of shared services (for example, in energy, social security, research funding, civil aviation, etc) as was envisioned as part of the ‘independence-lite’ prospectus that underpinned the 2014 referendum”.


“Northern Ireland is all too easily in the blind spot of the UK Government when it comes to post-Brexit planning. Given its peripheral position, devolved institutions and small size, Northern Ireland was quite used to being far from the centre of decision making in Westminster. But the risks of this marginality are now exacerbated by the fact that the impact of UK Government policy could potentially be so different for Northern Ireland. Related to this, the UK’s decision not to extend the transition period went against clear requests from NI MLAs and business, conscious that 1 January would see a new regime come into operation for trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. Prospects for the post-Brexit NI economy have been further damaged by the lack of information and decisions from the Government regarding the implementation of the Protocol. Systems and schemes for customs declarations, for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls and checks, for rebate of tariffs, etc. were still in the process of design, testing and development as Northern Ireland exited the transition period. Finally, there is growing polarisation along two dimensions within Northern Ireland. First, Leave and Remain identities are very strong: nearly two thirds of respondents to the NI Life and Times Survey in 2019 say that they hold one or another of these identities, with around six out of ten on both sides saying these are very strong identities. (This compares to 56% of respondents who claim to hold Unionist and Nationalist identities, with around three in ten of them on both sides saying that these are very strong identities.)

Even if Remaining is hopeless, the means of rejoining the EU is quite clear for some — that is, via irish unification. This relates to the other point of polarisation within NI. Over the course of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we have seen a steady growth in the proportion of people in NI saying that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, and that it makes them more favourable to the idea. The overall trend is that nationalists are coming to (more than hope for) expect a united Ireland, and they are increasingly keen to see it. The unionist response, in contrast, is to see the Brexit debate as entirely separate from the debate on Irish unity.


Northern Ireland had to follow two sets of UK-EU negotiations during the transition period: those on the implementation of the Protocol, and those on the future relationship. Progress on the former became increasingly tied to progress on the latter. The UK-EU Joint Committee decisions on 17 December offered a few essential but highly limited mitigations for the movement of goods across the Irish Sea after 1 January. When the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was revealed, the reason for this strict interpretation of the EU’s customs and regulatory rules became clear. The hard Irish Sea border reflects the ‘hardness’ of the Brexit that the UK Government has negotiated. What this means for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union will depend less on the potency of Irish nationalism than on the priorities of the British Government. Johnson saw a hard Irish Sea border as a price worth paying for ‘restoring national sovereignty’. The TCA contains means and opportunities for future development and movement in the UK-EU relationship. If this is in a direction of further divergence, then the strain on Northern Ireland’s place in the Union will inevitably grow”.