Enough time has passed since the earthquake of the referendum that the new order can begin to be seen. A much underreported development in this regards the Union. It is not that it won’t come apart on the back of Brexit; that was already obvious. It seems, rather, that the very opposite is the case: it is looking not merely like Brexit won’t break the Union, but that it may be its saviour.
This can be demonstrated by nation; we will start with Northern Ireland. It isn’t going anywhere. 57% oppose having a referendum on leaving the UK, and even if such a referendum were held, 74% would vote to remain in the UK – barely different from 3 years ago, and crushingly high for the separatists. To put it another way, the Union commanded overwhelming support in Northern Ireland before the referendum and Brexit has not changed that.
The only thing that could upset this is a hard border with Ireland, but our open border with Ireland predates the EU by decades – having been agreed in 1923 – and is supported by both governments, so there’s little chance of a hard border emerging. Indeed, with Ireland growing steadily more anglophile and the EU steadily keener to punish Ireland for its liberal economics, as Westminster reclaims its place as Northern Ireland’s greatest fiscal benefactor, there’s every reason to believe Northern Ireland could soon become more unionist and less dysfunctional than ever before.
Welsh nationalism has also been weakened by the referendum. Plaid Cymru broadly supports overturning the referendum result, despite Wales voting Leave by a 5 point margin, with only Tory Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan, Labour Cardiff and the Plaid heartlands on the Welsh west coast bucking the trend. Among Remainers overturning the result is unpopular, and among Leavers it is positively toxic, putting Plaid firmly on the wrong side of public opinion. Plaid has also fallen out with Welsh Labour over their sensible support for upholding the referendum result, a falling out that saps Plaid’s influence in the Welsh Assembly.
This has already damaged Plaid: where earlier in the year they were over 20% in Welsh polls, even overtaking the Conservatives in April; their numbers have plummeted to 13% in post-referendum polls, behind even the chaotic, but unionist, Welsh UKIP at 14%. The Conservative and Unionist Party, meanwhile, has surged 21% to 29% since the referendum. While the Conservative surge may be short-lived – though May’s support for policies very popular in Wales may make it a new norm – it is clear that Plaid has been much weakened by the referendum, and the disconnect between them and their people that it revealed.
Finally there is Scotland, where the greatest danger to the Union lies. The posturing of the SNP leadership, especially Nicola Sturgeon, filled the news after the referendum, and it briefly seemed like it even meant something. The narrow ‘Yes’ lead lasted all of two weeks, however, and ‘No’ has returned to polling around 8 points ahead once more. Given a second loss on their core issue within a few years would damage the SNP irreparably, they most certainly won’t risk one while their side remains behind.
More than this, however, the EU referendum has dealt a body blow to the SNP. In an immediate sense, their desire to overturn the referendum is toxic to the 2/5ths of Scots who voted Leave. Worse, Sturgeon greatly overplayed her hand in presuming to have a veto on the result when she had no such power, and obsessing over it long after that was clear. It has made her look first arrogant, then grasping and obsessive, out of touch with the concerns of Scots more worried about their dire education, growing deficit and creaking health service. Her party, meanwhile, has shown a stunning breakdown of once renowned discipline, with pragmatists like Alex Neil vocally disagreeing with Europhiles like Alex Salmond about how to react to the referendum. Such indiscipline in the SNP has been rarely seen since their civil war in the 1980s.
Taking a longer view, the picture is even worse for the SNP. Their vision of an independent Scotland rested on two pillars: high oil prices and EU membership. The prior is gone, and – with the advent of fracking – it is unlikely to return. The second – always tenuous – is now impossible: even if the SNP could convince Scots to agree to Schengen and the Euro, their accession would be vetoed by at least 4 EU members with secessionist movements of their own. The SNP’s dream of an EU petro-state Scotland was always unrealistic: now it is impossible. What is there left to do for a party whose raison d’être is gone but decline?
The Conservative and Unionist Party is resurgent in Scotland, and as the recent Scottish elections will testify, the SNP has passed its peak. It will not come quickly, but the SNP is on a death spiral and Brexit will hasten their fall.
Brexit has not merely failed to plunge us into a new great recession, it may well have confused and crippled secessionists across the UK. The referendum was a national awakening for the entire United Kingdom, reminding millions in every corner of UK of our shared values and culture, our priceless freedoms and democracy, the common institutions and the patriotism that bound us together through the ages, and drawing the internal contradictions and emptiness of the secessionists into the light. As Brexit reforms the UK into a prosperous, global, sovereign democracy, it seems set too to make us a more perfect Union.
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