In September, I was invited to take part in an episode of ‘Unfashionably Internationalist’, a podcast about political issues around the world. The series is hosted by Phil Doré, a Green Party campaigner and former national organiser of Wales for Europe. I was invited to speak about the Internal Market Bill, currently making its way through Westminster, and its consequences for Ireland. I was also joined by Neil Schofield-Hughes, a retired civil servant and current chair of Cardiff for Europe. The discussion was wide-ranging, covering issues such as trade, customs, devolution, the border, the peace process, and the Withdrawal Agreement between London and Brussels. While this discussion touched on many issues, it swiftly shifted focus to the break-up of the Union. A number of developments this year have spurred the debate about the constitutional futures of Ireland and Britain. Before analysing these developments, it is worth reviewing the present state of the Union.
Let’s start with Scotland. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI reported that support for independence in Scotland has risen to 58%, the highest level of support for independence on record. Those hoping that this result is an outlier will be disappointed. Since June, every poll on this issue has indicated majority support for independence in Scotland. That’s ten consecutive polls and counting. Furthermore, 64% of respondents to the most recent poll indicated that Scotland should be granted an independence referendum within the next five years should the SNP win a majority of seats in next year’s Scottish Parliament election. That outcomes seems likely, as support for the SNP currently sits at 58% in the constituency vote and 48% in the list vote. It appears that the winds of change are picking up and blowing in the direction of Scottish independence.
The issue of Welsh independence is also receiving greater attention. The most recent poll on this issue from YouGov, conducted in August, reported 32% support for independence in Wales, up from 27% in January. While these findings clearly do not suggest that there is currently majority support for Welsh independence, they do indicate a positive trend in that direction. Further analysis of the data may provide hope for Welsh nationalists. When asked to indicate their support for or against independence on a ten-point scale, 46% of respondents were anti-independence (0-3), whereas 23% of respondents were ‘indy-curious’ (4-6) and 31% were ‘indy-confident’ (7-10). This indicates that there is a substantial body of voters who may be persuaded to support Welsh independence in the future.
There is further evidence of increasing support for independence in Wales. YesCymru, a non-party grassroots campaign group for independence, was officially launched in 2016. According to YesCymru, the organisation reached over 7,000 members in September of this year, up from 4,000 in March, and they are aiming for 10,000 members before the end of the year. Not only are more people indicating their support for an independent Wales, many are getting involved and actively campaigning for this outcome. These developments should not be disregarded. Support for Welsh independence is comparable to support for Scottish independence ten years ago. While we are unlikely to see Wales strike for its freedom anytime soon, it’s certainly one to watch.
The situation in Ireland is very different to Scotland or Wales but it is just as relevant. While the final outcome of the dispute between London and Brussels over the Internal Market Bill remains to be seen, it seems that there will be checks on goods entering the north of Ireland from Britain, as per the Irish Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement. In other words, there will be an economic border down the Irish Sea. Despite protestations from political unionism, there exists much greater public support for this outcome than the alternative – a hard border in Ireland. In a recent poll by LucidTalk, 55% of respondents indicated support for an Irish Sea border whereas 38% indicated support for customs checks at the border in Ireland. The remaining 7% were undecided. While interesting, these findings are largely academic as plans for expanded infrastructure at ports in Belfast, Larne, and Warrenpoint are already underway, with an estimated cost of £40m. During the 2018 DUP conference, Boris Johnson proclaimed that no British government could or should agree to a border down the Irish Sea. Yet that is precisely what he has done, much to the chagrin of unionists and to the detriment of the Union.
What about a united Ireland? I have discussed support for and against Irish unity at length in a previous article however it is worth a brief recap. The most recent poll on this issue by Lord Ashcroft reported 51% support for a united Ireland in the North compared to 49% against, after undecided voters were removed. As for the South, a Red C exit poll from the simultaneous local and European elections last year reported 77% support for a united Ireland compared to 23% against, after undecided voters were removed. These findings indicate that support for and against Irish unity are neck-and-neck in the North whereas support for a united Ireland is very strong in the South. This is important as a border poll in the North will require a concurrent referendum in the South, both of which must return pro-unity majorities in order for the process of reunification to begin.
At present, it looks as though Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland are all pulling away from England. This begs the question, why? While issues of independence and nationhood have a long history across these islands going back centuries, recent developments can help explain why the Union is more fragile than ever before. These developments can be summed up in three words: Boris, Brexit, and COVID-19. Starting with the Prime Minister, it’s not hard to see why his appeal (whatever that may be) fails to extend beyond England’s borders. Boris Johnson is the quintessential English Tory, educated in Eton and Oxford, complete with membership of the infamous Bullingdon Club. To many, his demeanour smacks of arrogance, elitism, and chauvinism. His comments past and present, both as a journalist and a politician, are replete with examples of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In addition, despite his honeyed words about the importance of the Union, Boris is an English nationalist. He knows that his support comes from England and he plays to his audience, regardless of the wider constitutional implications.
Boris’ popularity in Scotland and Wales is abysmal, especially in comparison to local political leaders. From the recent Ipsos MORI poll in Scotland, 76% of respondents reported that they are dissatisfied with Boris (the lowest rating Ipsos MORI has ever recorded for him in Scotland). Only 19% of respondents indicated that they were satisfied with Boris, giving him a negative net satisfaction rating of -57%. In contrast, SNP Leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoys significant approval. In the same poll, 72% respondents reported that there were satisfied with Nicola’s performance compared to 24% who were dissatisfied, giving her a positive net satisfaction rating of 49%. Boris’ ratings don’t fare much better in Wales. In September, a Welsh Barometer poll commission by ITV Cymru Wales asked respondents to score political leaders on a ten-point scale, from 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like). Boris Johnson received an underwhelming 3.9. In contrast, Welsh Labour Leader and First Minister Mark Drakeford received a rating of 5.3. It is easy to see how the relative popularity of Wales’ and Scotland’s First Ministers, and general antipathy towards the Prime Minister, has contributed to the growing support for independence.
The next big event that has shaken up the Union is Brexit. While hardly breaking news, the Brexit saga rumbles on with new developments every week. It’s worth remembering that both Scotland and the north of Ireland voted to remain within the EU by a majority of 62% and 56%, respectively. Those results alone provided significant impetus for Scottish independence and Irish unity, but a lot has happened since 2016. The most significant development in recent months is the Internal Market Bill. An entire article could be written about this Bill however, for the sake of brevity, it is essentially a piece of legislation about the rules and regulations that apply across the Union. Despite its dry and technical appearance, the Internal Market Bill has created considerable controversary.
First and foremost, it directly violates the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the British Government and the EU. In fact, the Secretary of State for the North, Brandon Lewis, openly admitted in the House of Commons that the Internal Market Bill will “break international law”. As if that wasn’t enough, the Bill also drives a coach and horses through the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland by granting Westminster authority over areas that are the responsibility of the devolved governments, such as food safety, energy efficiency, and environmental and animal welfare standards. It has been variously described as a power grab by Westminster, undermining devolution and threatening the Good Friday Agreement. It is therefore unsurprising that the Scottish Parliament and Stormont Assembly have both voted to reject the Internal Market Bill while the Welsh Government has stated that it cannot support the legislation unless it is “substantially amended” to address their concerns. Despite these objections from the devolved administrations, it appears that the British Government intends to plough on regardless. This disregard for devolution has been a constant feature of Westminster’s approach throughout the Brexit process. With the Sewell Convention dead in the water and the Brexit deadline looming with no future trade deal in sight, it is easy to see why the people of Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland are looking towards a future outside of the Union.
The final and most significant development of 2020 is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic that has afflicted countries around the world. While London introduced a nationwide lockdown in March in order to reduce the transmission of the virus, the devolved administrations have since diverged in their approaches. This has resulted in number of consequences for nationalist sentiment. Firstly, the divergence between England, Scotland, and Wales has reified the differences between these countries as the devolved governments exercise the full extent of their limited autonomy. This, in turn, has shattered the illusion of a unified, homogenous Union. For example, the Welsh Government has recently announced travel restrictions to Wales from areas in England, Scotland, and the north of Ireland with a high prevalence of COVID-19 cases. This has drawn the ire of unionists, including some Conservative politicians, but ultimately it is a pragmatic measure to protect the people of Wales. The value of devolution and the ability to act independently are on show for everyone to see. This seems to have contributed to the rise in support for independence in Scotland and Wales, especially against the backdrop of an incompetent and uncaring Tory government in Westminster.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also demonstrated the irrationality of partition in Ireland. The island of Ireland is considered a single epidemiological unit and so it is logical than an all-island approach to the pandemic should be adopted. However, partition has meant that different strategies have been adopted in the North and South. Sinn Féin has consistently argued for an all-island approach in Stormont and Dáil Éireann. While some progress has been made, more needs to be done. This is particularly pressing in the North where political unionism has resisted an all-island approach, preferring instead to follow whatever policy is adopted in England. It is now clear that partition is not an abstract issue but a real problem that has serious consequences for our families and communities. While the immediate focus is rightly on taking action to prevent the spread of the virus, the long-term consequences that present events will have on support for a united Ireland remain to be seen.
Support is growing for an independent Scotland, Wales, and a united Ireland. The Union is under strain and reaching its breaking point. Once one country leaves, it won’t be long before the others follow suit. For example, it’s hard to imagine that Wales will continue to remain a partner in a one-sided relationship with England once Scotland is independent and Ireland reunited. Amid this constitutional turmoil, the British Government seems surprisingly cavalier, even apathetic. Either the Tories greatly underestimate the threat to the Union or they simply do not care. In the era of Brexit, it is possible that many in the Conservative Party are content to ditch the Unionist part of their title and let Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland go gently into the night. Of course, there will be public opposition from the Tories to the break-up of the Union, and Boris has already confirmed that he will block an independence referendum in Scotland regardless of the outcome of the Scottish Parliament election next year. However, under Boris’ leadership, it seems that the Conservative Party has taken a distinct turn towards English nationalism. Indeed, what Irish, Scottish, and Welsh nationalism have started, English nationalism may help finish. Whatever may transpire over the coming years, it is clear that the eponymous kingdom is united no more.
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member and activist.