When Kenneth Clarke proclaimed in the House of Commons that “no sensible countries have referendums” he wasn’t just lamenting the outcome of the June referendum that called for the United Kingdom to renounce its membership in the European Union. As we’ve since learned, the decision to Leave or Remain was so incredibly nuanced and complex that the British public had hardly any idea what they were even voting for or against and even less understanding of what the consequences of that vote could be.
Indeed, not even the government actually knew how far the consequences would reach, and no one within the government had any plan on the outside chance that the vote came back to Leave. Those who pushed for the vote to Leave did so with manipulation, falsehoods and empty promises. Lest we forget, it was not even 24 hours after the votes were tallied that Nigel Farage told a broadcaster that his oft-repeated claim that the National Health Service would receive up to £350 million a week once the UK left the EU was, in fact, a mistake.
More than the sheer logistics of the actual divorce, the internal dynamics of the UK itself may have an even more profound effect on what the country looks like, and even what is left of the UK after it Leaves. Indeed, the UK is perhaps closer to a breakdown than it has been in centuries, threatened by renewed calls for Scottish independence as well as an increasingly complex and potentially disastrous situation in Northern Ireland. Ultimately the test of whether the UK weathers the self-fulfilling storm within which they find themselves may depend less on negotiations with Europe than with the growing and steadfast opposition within their borders.
“Tatties o’wer the side”: A Scottish expression meaning that it’s all gone wrong, that disaster has struck.
Directly after the results of the referendum both the Scottish electorate as well as its First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, made it very clear that Scotland would not sit idly by and lose their position within the EU. Coming just two years after their own narrowly defeated referendum on independence, Scots had voted heavily in favor of remaining in the EU. Indeed voters had in part made their 2014 decision to remain part of the UK because of a desire to remain in the EU, which would have had a host of bureaucratic hurdles. As such, a vote for the UK to exit the European Union and to do so under the cloud of xenophobia and isolationism that organizations like UKIP have inspired could have only one result: calls for a new referendum on Scottish independence from the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon’s steadfastness in the face of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s increasingly hardline stance on Brexit has done little to ease tensions between the two leaders, and has stoked fears that Scotland will trigger an independence vote as soon as Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is activated, and the Brexit clock starts ticking. If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, you’ve not been paying attention: an independence vote in Scotland could trigger a constitutional crisis in the UK, and potentially a no-confidence vote in Theresa May’s government. Imagine then the difficulty of trying to negotiate an exit from the EU while simultaneously being forced to confront the dissolution of a treaty which has united Britain and Scotland for more than 300 years, and add to that the UK’s nuclear facility at Trident in Scotland, already a sensitive issue both in domestic politics and vis-a-vis the UK’s commitment to NATO.
It is not difficult to see why Theresa May would do her very best to convince the Scottish public not to call for a second referendum, and why even her opponent Jeremy Corbyn would declare that there is “no appetite for a second referendum” in Scotland. Unfortunately for them, that doesn’t seem to be the case: while there are reasons why Scottish independence might be problematic for Scotland, we’ve seen that voters don’t often make their choices on reason alone.
“They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” - Dr. Ian Paisley, former DUP leader, speaking about Catholics in Ireland
The Scottish conundrum is far from the only threat to the integrity of the UK; it may not even be the most serious one. Northern Ireland also voted in favor of remaining part of the EU and as the only part of the UK to share a land border with the bloc their interests are manifest.
Of course, this is not just any land border. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were separated for decades by a 310-mile land border that was regularly bombed, mined, and attacked during The Troubles. With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was opened, and has enjoyed regular commercial and cross-border integration ever since. Indeed it was the integration afforded by both Ireland’s and the UK’s membership in the EU that was a precipitating factor in negotiating the peace, and one which has kept tensions from boiling over ever since.
With Brexit, the possibility of a breakdown in either the Good Friday Agreement or the open trade routes looms and has become a terrifyingly real prospect for some. Peace accords are always fragile, and the conditions under which they are signed depend on opportunity and reason as much as they do on luck. Moreover, in the 20 years that the two states have maintained an open border, their economies have become interwoven with the passage of goods and workers past the now unmanned border every day. Indeed, a recent protest along the border, where trucks and cars caused a slowdown with a mock border patrol using vintage signs caused hours of chaos and frightened commuters, afraid that their lives would once again be under threat.
Indeed, it may be that Northern Irish opt not to erect any new walls and instead move to tear up their union with the UK, thus uniting Ireland into one country. Calls for a unity vote came out almost immediately after the results of the Brexit vote were announced, and the Sinn Fein has stated that the Republic of Ireland could afford to unite with Northern Ireland and calls it the ‘only way’ to ensure that both states wishes are respected. Of course, there are detractors to the idea of Irish unity, and the process would be difficult, time-consuming and expensive- but the fallout on the UK side would be catastrophic. If it seems an impossibility that tensions could reignite in a sectarian conflict that has passed its prime, one need only look at the voting results coming in right now that show two parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, neck and neck to dominate the Northern Irish Assembly.
The referendum may not have been her idea, and it may not have been her choice to leave, but if Theresa May can’t find a way to make Scotland and Northern Ireland feel like their voices are heard, the Brexit she gets may be a lot harder than the Brexit she wants. Indeed, there may hardly be a Britain to go back to once it’s all over.