It was reported over the weekend that a former president of the European Council has warned that a â€˜no-dealâ€™ Brexit threatens the breakup of the United Kingdom. Like most independentistas, I tend to see that as a positive outcome rather than a negative one. There are a few â€˜butsâ€™, though.
The most obvious danger to the continuation of the UK is the possibility of a second independence referendum in Scotland. But what would â€˜independenceâ€™ mean in such a scenario? Many are assuming that it would lead to Scotland remaining in the EU whilst the rest of the UK departs, and there is little doubt that Scottish accession to the EU would be fairly straightforward to negotiate and agree, given that the country is already adhering to all the relevant EU rules and regulations. However, thereâ€™s no guarantee that supporters of independence would want that outcome; the analyses of voting in the referendum suggest that a significant proportion of those choosing independence donâ€™t want to be in the EU either. More significantly, what would be the relationship between a Scotland in the EU and the remainder of the UK? For all the reasons rehearsed time and again in relation to Ireland, there can either be regulatory alignment or there can be a hard border; there cannot be no border between the EU and non-EU regulatory regimes. In short, Scottish independence post-Brexit either means setting up a border between Scotland and England, or else it means accepting the UK (i.e. England) regulatory regime, a decision which in turn rules out membership of the EU. Iâ€™m not at all sure that a border would be an attractive proposition to the Scots, nor am I convinced that accepting rules laid down by England with no input to drawing them up is an attractive proposition either.
The second danger to the UK is the possible reunification of Ireland. The demographics have been moving slowly but inexorably in that direction for generations, and itâ€™s entirely possible that Brexit might provide the final bit of extra momentum to give a majority vote in favour. However, it seems unlikely that any majority would be overwhelming, and if thereâ€™s one thing that we should have learned from Brexit it is that trying to implement significant constitutional change on the basis of a slim majority in a one-off referendum is not exactly a recipe for reconciliation and unity. I tend to agree with the Brexiteers that the idea that Brexit and borders would necessarily reignite violence in the north of Ireland is overplayed by some (although the particularly crass remarks by Rees-Mogg about imposing border checks â€˜just like during the Troublesâ€™ last week seem almost designed to encourage that result), but I wouldnâ€™t be so confident about a narrow majority in a referendum being used to shoehorn die-hard unionists into the Republic. History isnâ€™t terribly promising on that score.
Letâ€™s assume, however, that Iâ€™m being unduly pessimistic on both scores, and that an independent Scotland joins a reunited Ireland as member states of the EU, overcoming all the far from trivial obstacles to such an outcome, and that they both become visibly successful states. Where does that leave Wales which, by its voting habits to date, has more or less proclaimed that weâ€™ll take whatever weâ€™re given? Itâ€™s easy to assume that observation of the success being enjoyed by near neighbours in Scotland and Ireland coupled with the economic damage of Brexit would lead to a growth in support for independence. But I suspect that it will not be anywhere near as simple as that. Wales is much further back in the process; that final push generated by Brexit is nowhere near enough for a country which has come to believe the lie that it is too poor and dependent on others to ever take responsibility for its own future. There needs to be a desire to take responsibility before the debate can really focus on the details such as how and when. The default position looks like greater integration not greater self-responsibility.