Misha Glenny is a journalist and a 2019-20 Berggruen Institute fellow.
LONDON — At the end of July, Boris Johnson celebrated his first year as Conservative Party leader and prime minister by hot-footing up to Scotland. He was in a controlled panic. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP), has received accolades for her approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her poll numbers continue to rise, as does support for an independent Scotland.
Brexit has been the main driver in support for Sturgeon. But her performance since COVID has further strengthened her position. Early on the pandemic, Sturgeon diverged from Johnson’s policy of trying to contain COVID and instead went for a strategy of elimination. The rate of infection and deaths from the disease in Scotland is today dramatically lower than it is for England.
When I was covering the wars in Yugoslavia as a journalist during the early 1990s, if anyone had suggested that Great Britain would be subject to similar centrifugal forces 30 years later, along with most others I would have laughed the suggestion away as plain ridiculous.
If anything, Britain looked stronger than ever during that decade. In 1997, fresh winds blew Tony Blair, wildly popular at the time, into 10 Downing Street. He quickly built on the painstaking diplomatic work of his predecessor, John Major, to secure the Good Friday Agreement, a remarkable accord that ended the 30-year low-level civil war in Northern Ireland, colloquially known as the Troubles.
In the same year, Westminster also passed legislation establishing Scotland’s devolved government and Parliament, and the electorate north of the border promptly voted in a strong Labour administration. Scotland’s new government was committed to the decentralization process, but fiercely unionist at its core.
This was the era of Cool Britannia: London eclipsed Paris, Berlin and all other claimants to become the most successful and most desirable of European capitals. Britain, with its close intelligence, security and cultural relationship with North America, was the critical link between the United States and the European Union, prized by both sides of the Atlantic divide.
Twenty-five years later and the likelihood of the breakup of Britain, brilliantly anticipated as long ago as 1976 in the eponymous book by Tom Nairn, the Scottish political scientist, has never been closer. Brexit has not only endangered the hard-won Northern Ireland peace process; polls in Scotland now indicate a clear majority for independence from the United Kingdom. That contrasts with six years ago when Scots voted in a referendum (known as IndyRef1) to remain in the union by 55% to 45%.
It was the referendum on Brexit in June 2016, two years after Indyref1, that triggered both a rapid growth of secessionist sentiment in Scotland and major changes in the complex political constellation of Northern Ireland. Both territories voted convincingly to remain in the European Union, but together it was not enough to overturn the 53% of the English and Welsh electorate who voted to leave.
This is key because it emphasizes that Brexit is at heart an English nationalist project, not a reflection of British nationalism. Within England and Wales, it divides big cities from provincial towns and rural areas. The very process of leaving the EU implies a challenge to the principles on which the union is based.
During the Yugoslav crisis, I noticed that once Croatia had reinstated the Sabor (parliament) as its primary political institution, both Serbs and Croats began to lose touch with each other’s political culture. Politika, Belgrade’s main newspaper, read increasingly like the foreign press to Croats. Serbs felt the same about Zagreb’s Vjesnik.
Read The Times or The Guardian today and it is almost impossible to find any news about Scotland that does not relate to British politics. Read The Scotsman or The Herald (printed near Glasgow) and everything is about the goings-on in Holyrood, the Scots’ Parliament, and Sturgeon’s government. Every year, Scots care less about what goes on in London and more about the politics of Edinburgh. A union consciousness is disappearing before our eyes. “I can barely remember where Downing Street is,” a prominent Scottish Tory recently told The Times, “except that’s where the union is being lost.”
The English political elite in Westminster has never fully grasped the implications of devolution. Despite Brexit’s divisive implications, the Conservative government has moved towards an ever-harder version of it since Boris Johnson became prime minister last July. Ruth Davison, the popular leader of the Scottish Tories, warned Johnson that this was playing very badly north of the border. He ignored her and eventually she resigned.
At first, Johnson’s plans were thwarted. Try as he might, he could not force Brexit through Parliament, which still had an anti-Brexit majority. This was admittedly wafer-thin, but just strong enough to act as a brake on Johnson’s aim to pull Britain out of Europe.
To get around this, Johnson called a general election last December. Campaigning on the slogan “Let’s Get Brexit Done,” he won a thumping majority of 80 seats. His success was chiefly down to disaffected Labour seats in the English Midlands and the north. These were primarily working-class regions that voted heavily for Brexit. They became known as the “red wall,” and in December’s election, convinced by Johnson’s promise to deliver Brexit, they swung behind the Tories in most cases for the first time since universal suffrage was introduced.
Dazzled by the extent of Johnson’s victory, few noticed the equally astonishing result in Scotland, where Sturgeon’s SNP won 48 seats. This marked the culmination of a remarkable rise for a party that in the 1990s still only returned two MPs to Westminster. In this latest vote, it humiliated the once-dominant Labour Party in Scotland, which now clings on to a single seat. The SNP also came close to wiping out the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems.
The rise of the Scottish independence movement has its contemporary roots in the loss of Britain’s empire. Scotland and England had different motivations for forming a union in 1707, and there was resistance in both countries. The Scots lost their political autonomy as all major decision-making was transferred to London. In exchange, Scotland gained tariff-free access to England’s huge overseas markets and also retained a separate legal and financial system.
David Hume and Adam Smith were the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment in the second half of the 18th century, which turned Edinburgh from a provincial outpost into one of Europe’s greatest intellectual centers. A particular strength was engineering, which enabled Glasgow on the River Clyde to become one of the most successful cities in Britain’s industrial revolution.
Scots began to dominate in London. Lawyers, politicians, doctors, engineers, civil servants (notably the colonial service), the military, novelists and journalists wielded a staggeringly disproportionate influence in London and the wider world. As a consequence, unionism was a mighty force in the Scottish identity.
At the same time, Scots cannily portrayed themselves as underdogs, permanently undermined by the machinations of “perfidious Albion.” One consequence was that Scottish participation in the slave trade largely went unnoticed until the last decade, when historians started to engage in detailed research. Much of Edinburgh’s magnificent architecture was the result of profits from slavery and other colonialist projects.
As long as Westminster provided the Scots with economic benefits, they were happy to allow Westminster to rule through the Scottish Office, as the department was known until 1999. But deindustrialization and breaking up the trade unions, which were the centerpieces of Margaret Thatcher’s program in the 1980s, began to change that. Scotland’s economy slumped despite the bonanza of North Sea oil. Where Norway used its good fortune to create the world’s richest sovereign wealth fund, Thatcher distributed the money as tax cuts (especially for the wealthy) and public sector bribes in the runup to the 1987 election.
What the Scots see as the theft of the oil revenues is an important moment in the rise of the independence movement. London was no longer guaranteeing the economic benefits as it had done in the first 290 years of the union. The quid pro quo was no longer working.
Thirty years after Thatcher, Sturgeon now believes she has a clear mandate to demand a second referendum, Indyref2, which she is likely to table after Scottish elections to the parliament at Holyrood in May next year. If the Scots do go for Indyref2, Johnson has said he will not permit it, as he has the final say over whether a referendum can be held. But in the current atmosphere, this would provoke a major constitutional crisis.
Scotland faces a serious dilemma. Even though it voted to remain, it left the EU along with the rest of the U.K. at the end of January. The U.K.’s population is 67 million. Scotland’s is a mere 5.4 million. It’s criminal justice, financial and health systems are separate from those in England and Wales, but its economy is deeply entangled with the rest of the U.K. Outside both the U.K. and the EU, it would struggle to survive.
Pro-independence voices argue it would be easy for Scotland to rejoin the EU once it was independent. But that is optimistic. Paris and Berlin would want to help Scotland — they harbor a deep resentment towards the British government for creating the chaos around Brexit. They were also impressed with Scotland’s repeated declarations of loyalty to Europe. But Scotland faces a high hurdle — Madrid. Spain’s position on EU enlargement is motivated above all by its policy towards Catalonia. Let Scotland in and that sets a precedent for the disintegration of Spain.
The relationship between Scotland and England represents a relatively simple binary — closer to Czechoslovakia than Yugoslavia. But Northern Ireland is a huge complicating factor. If the Scottish issue is defined by its unwanted isolation from Europe, Northern Ireland is defined by its land border with the EU, where the territory meets the Republic of Ireland.
In 1922, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties seceded from Britain to become the Irish Free State that finally became the Republic in 1949. Unsurprisingly, Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority vigorously resisted inclusion in this very Catholic entity, and were effectively given their own state in May 1921 in the form of the Six Counties or Ulster or Northern Ireland (depending on who was talking).
Since then, however, there has never been a sense that Northern Ireland’s position as a part of the U.K. would be seriously threatened. This was even the case during the Troubles, which began in 1968. True, the vast majority of Catholics voted for parties whose goal was reunification, either peaceful (Social Democratic and Labour Party) or violent (Sinn Féin), and many tacitly or actively supported the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) armed struggle. But the resources of the British state proved more than a match for the IRA, which over the 30 years of the Troubles was comprehensively penetrated by the intelligence services.
The Good Friday Agreement included a provision for unification. For the first time, this made possible a united Ireland by constitutional means. Paradoxically, though, the agreement made this outcome less likely because the deal distributed sovereignty with well-calibrated precision among Dublin, Belfast, London and, by dint of the U.K.’s and the Republic’s EU membership, Brussels. It was an admirably successful arrangement. It satisfied all parties and led inter alia to increased economic integration between the north and south. It allowed you to identify as British or Irish, or both or neither, while guaranteeing your rights to work and travel across the whole island.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic had previously been the theater of the most intense guerrilla activity, which pitted the IRA against the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It bristled with watchtowers, border posts, barracks and electronic surveillance. Following the agreement, it disappeared more or less overnight. Suddenly, you could drive around the whole island blissfully unaware whether you were in the north or the south. Intra-Irish trade rocketed, as did tourism in the north; there was a sharp increase in northerners applying to study at Trinity College, Dublin or University College Dublin, and curious southerners taking their degrees at Queen’s Belfast.
There is a tradition whereby no British mainland party operates in Northern Ireland nor maintains any representative offices in the province. Politics is dominated by sectarian parties. In the 1980s, the Ulster Unionist Party, which had dominated post-war politics, was eclipsed by Ian Paisley’s militant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which, on top of its adamantine commitment to the union with Westminster, also holds that the Pope is the antichrist. On the Catholic side, the Troubles saw Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, gain in strength against the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party.
This structure was untouched by the Good Friday Agreement. As its chief architect, Jonathan Powell, has argued, within its very deft sidestepping of communal issues lay its problems. The agreement, he has said, gave all parties sufficient leeway to carry on with their earlier behavior.
Every evening at 8 p.m., barriers still come down over the roads that cross the Peace Wall dividing Protestant East Belfast from Catholic West Belfast. Even the youngest generation of Northern Irish men and women can tell of the extraordinary mixture of fear and excitement they felt when first venturing into a stronghold of the other confession.
Nevertheless, everyone has embraced the state of peace, and the arrangement has always looked solid. As long, that is, as it remains underpinned by the joint complex sovereignty that EU membership implied.
Despite the absence of mainland parties, the Tories had built their 19th-century identity on a policy that their official name still reflects: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Indeed, in the run-up to the First World War, the Tories were often known simply as the Unionists because of their resolute opposition to “home rule” — devolved government — for Ireland.
It is one of several paradoxes, both of Brexit and of Conservatives’ shift to the right, that these avowed supporters of the union have set in motion tectonic forces that are now quite capable of shattering the shibboleth that generations of Tories have trotted out as the core of their political philosophy — the indestructibility of the union.
Johnson had to reach an agreement with the EU over Northern Ireland if he were to achieve Brexit. The EU insisted that its single market mechanism had to survive Brexit. That meant one of two things: Either Northern Ireland would remain de facto in the EU, with a border placed down the Irish Sea between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or the U.K. and Irish governments would have to impose a hard border between north and south.
Not only would that breach the Good Friday Agreement in spirit and letter, it would have restarted the civil war. Johnson chose the former. That meant selling the DUP and militant unionism down the river.
The DUP is perfectly aware of Northern Ireland’s gradual detachment from the U.K. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% to stay in the EU. Even in the DUP’s East Belfast stronghold, 49% voted to remain.
Furthermore, the English nationalist core of Brexit accentuates these tensions — in a recent poll, only 26% of respondents in England said Northern Ireland should remain part of the U.K. (Support for the union with Scotland was much stronger.) This is a huge change in the nature of British conservatism — the union has become at best irrelevant and at worst a burden to a party concerned only with England.
Loyalists in Northern Ireland find themselves in a minority. Meanwhile, moderate unionists are, for the first time, beginning to consider unification as the best way forward because their industrial and agricultural base is so wedded to Ireland and the EU.
In early September, Johnson threw another spanner in the works by announcing new legislation. The internal market bill, if it becomes law, repudiates some of the Northern Ireland protocol, the most delicate part of the withdrawal agreement that Johnson negotiated and signed in order to claim to the electorate last December that he “got Brexit done.”
This is a clear breach of international law that has drawn criticism from all five living former prime ministers, Tory and Labour, along with a host of senior Conservative Party figures and backbench MPs. Above all, the Irish government and political analysts in the north and south of Ireland are now warning that this could result in a complete breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement, which would represent a serious threat to peace on the island.
Once Northern Ireland’s constitutional position becomes even more tortured after Jan. 1 next year, when Britain’s Brexit “transition period” ends, the province will face another looming difficulty.
In the south, the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two parties who have led almost every government for the past century, is coming to an end. The insurgent party in the Republic is the southern branch of Sinn Féin. When Sinn Féin enters government in Dublin, as it seems bound to do in the next few years, it will start pressing for an all-Ireland referendum on unification (the prelude to the constitutional unification noted in the Belfast Agreement).
Theoretically, a substantial minority of Protestants could decide that the time has come to throw their lot in with the south. But because unity is being pushed aggressively by Sinn Féin, essentially a sectarian, cult-like party still run by the ghosts of the IRA army council, that push could just as easily result in a sharpening of communal tensions in the north. The worst scenario is a narrow numerical majority for unity — say 52% — which would make the convulsions following the Brexit referendum look pretty.
It’s the split among Protestants that’s now interesting: The younger liberals wonder whether EU membership and a liberal and tolerant culture in the south make the old unionism worth keeping. Home rule is Rome rule, their forebears thought — but that’s no longer true.
There is an opposite motion here, too: skepticism regarding unification has grown in the south. The relatively prosperous inhabitants of the Republic, happily enjoying the benefits of EU membership, look at the dowdy economy of the north, with its grumpy and potentially dangerous loyalist minority, and they wince at the prospect of integrating.
Boris Johnson promised he would “get Brexit done.” It is slowly dawning on him that this implies breaking up Great Britain. He may satisfy his English nationalist base, but he is likely to go down as one of the most disastrous prime ministers in British history.