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It is too easy to assume that the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a secure nation. Understanding its history makes that unwise and shows a possibility that the constitutional shake up of the UK leaving the EU could exacerbate tensions within the UK leading to its break up.
That is not to say it will, nor to use the possibility as an argument against Brexit. Rather it is to consider these tensions and what they might mean for the future of the UK.
Wales was separate until 1284 when it came under the control of the English Monarchs. Scotland was independent until 1707, though their Stuart Kings had governed both Scotland and England as separate kingdoms from 1603. Ireland united with Great Britain in 1800 but the Irish Free State became independent in 1922, whilst the six counties of Ulster remained part of the UK.
The 20th century saw the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism and 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which were brought to an uneasy end by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In 1997 Referendums were held in Scotland and Wales, and a majority of voters chose to establish a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales. In Northern Ireland, devolution was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Scottish nationalists have campaigned for independence for many years but they failed to win the 2014 referendum (44.7% for to 55.3% against). Nevertheless, after the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership, the SNP has accused the Westminster Government of using Brexit as a pretext for a ‘power grab’, taking back devolved powers from the Scottish Parliament. SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford, a committed Christian, says, “I am in no doubt there will be a referendum (on independence) again in the next two years”. The outcome of that could depend on the tension between the SNP’s commitment to independence and how they use the devolved powers they already have.
Plaid Cymru’s 2017 election manifesto reiterated its ambition for Wales to become an independent nation but popular support has been less than 10% since 2011. Nevertheless, support for Wales as a part of a federal UK has support from non-nationalists. David Melding, a Conservative member of the Welsh Assembly, has argued for this and the Welsh Liberal Democrats also support the idea.
Northern Ireland’s future is a central issue in the Brexit negotiations because nobody wants to see a hard border between the six counties and the Republic. Trade between them is important for both and there are fears that a hard border once the UK leaves the EU could lead to an outbreak of violence from those who were previously active with the IRA. A recent poll found that a majority in Northern Ireland thought that Brexit made unification with the Republic more likely. So far the majority (49% to 44%) remain loyal to the UK but a ‘no deal’ Brexit causing a hard border could change that.
Devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland has prompted calls for similar devolution to an English Parliament or Assembly, to represent a distinct English ‘voice’. The case for this is not as popular as that in other parts of the UK and critics argue that it could tip the balance towards the break-up of the UK. Increased devolution to local government, including the creation of six ‘metro mayors’ with enhanced powers in their areas, may be as far this goes now.
We leave the EU next March. The terms of our exit are still to be agreed but the constitutional and political consequences for the UK, as well as its economic impact, could be significant for generations. I don’t recall this being discussed in the Referendum debate but it certainly should be in our prayers for wisdom now.