Did electorate really vote for break-up of UK?

by David Hannay | 16.08.2016

It’s time to take the debate about the unity of the United Kingdom a bit more seriously.

During the pre-referendum debates the consequences of the vote for the future unity of the United Kingdom itself were generally treated, if they were considered at all, in a cursory and superficial manner. Brexiteers dismissed any such discussion as a mere extension of Project Fear and refused to engage. The complexities of the situation in Northern Ireland were such that virtually none of the protagonists was prepared to weigh them up; no representative of Northern Ireland (nor for that matter of Wales) was present on the platform at Wembley nor in the other national debates. If this was democracy British style, it was a pretty odd form of it.

Now all that has changed. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have voted to remain in the EU in proportions which have handsomely exceeded those in the overall vote in favour of leaving. These are simple democratic facts that cannot be wished away and which create a fundamental contradiction. To refuse even to consider the implications of those two votes, simply to charge ahead into the Brexit negotiations waving a fatuous banner inscribed ” Brexit means Brexit ” would be the height of irresponsibility. Saying that does not entail claiming that either Scotland or Northern Ireland has a veto over those negotiations. They do not. But they do have a right for their specific interests to be given full weight in determining the overall UK position.

The case of Scotland is, perhaps, the simpler of the two. The impetus the contradictory votes over EU membership have given to calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence is obvious. The likelihood that a Scotland that voted for independence would be welcomed in Brussels as an EU member, for all the grumbling from Madrid, have improved. But whether or not the Scots (in effect the SNP) decide to chance their arm again in the face of the considerable economic and other disadvantages of independence will surely be influenced by the nature and content of the UK’s relationship with the EU post- Brexit. A relationship which involves the loss of all the benefits for the individual of EU membership and, in addition, results in limits on immigration from the EU and in customs controls, non-tariff barriers and perhaps even, if the UK ends up with the WTO option, tariffs on trade between Scotland and the EU, could well tip the balance towards another independence referendum and make it winnable.

The equation in Northern Ireland is even more complex. If there were to be controls on immigration into the UK from the EU it is not easy to see how the Common Travel Area with Ireland can be sustained and controls between the two parts of the Ireland or between the whole of Ireland and the rest of the UK can be avoided. A customs border may be needed too. But reimposing that border is not just a minor, technical tweak; it would be a step fraught with adverse political consequences for the future of the province. And so would be the disappearance of the whole panoply of EU Justice and Home Affairs cooperation, including the European Arrest Warrant, which has done so much to depoliticise law enforcement cooperation between the two parts of the island. No doubt it is considerations such as these which have led the Northern Ireland First Minister who campaigned for Leave, to raise the alarm over the risks of Brexit.

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    Given the fact that remaining in the EU is, for the moment, not a viable option, the simplest way of minimising  the damage of Brexit to the unity of the UK Is to base any new relationship on maintenance of the EU’s four freedoms. To state flatly, from the outset, that this is unthinkable because the rather skimpy majority for leaving was heavily motivated by concerns over immigration, is to risk ending up with a judgement that controls on immigration are of more value than avoiding the break-up of the United Kingdom. Is that really the view of the electorate?

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    One Response to “Did electorate really vote for break-up of UK?”

    • I agree completely with David Hannay’s analysis of the likely impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and Scotland and the potential break-up of the United Kingdom is undoubtedly one of the tragedies of the referendum outcome. But I don’t agree that these issues didn’t feature in the debate. Nicola Sturgeon herself raised the issues for Scotland in one of the televised debates and John Major and a Tony Blaire eloquently rehearsed the potential consequences for Northern Ireland together. I heard both issues discussed on many occasions. It was clear to me during the debate that Brexit was largely an English Nationalist movement. The only conclusion I can draw from the vote is that the majority of English voters do not care about the integrity of the U.K.