How does a Union leave a Union?

The principle clamor from each devolved country’s Nationalists is to remain in the Single Market, essentially a false dichotomy and surely off the table, thus moving the narrative closer towards a second Scottish referendum. May doesn’t appear willing to give way, and Sturgeon’s majority is such that she has almost absolute power in Scotland. I wonder now whether the imperative ‘leave’, from Catalonia to Cardiff to California is an even more attractive concept, in a new digitized, global era.

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By Alexandra Phillips l November 1, 2016

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Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and British Prime Minister Theresa May

LONDON-We are more familiar with referenda on the status of political unions than perhaps immediately offers itself to memory. It was, of course, only two years ago, when leaving the EU was still a pipe dream of many a Eurosceptic, that Scotland held its own referendum on independence.

For an historic allegiance that many fail to fully grasp, (I will avoid illustrating with a Venn diagram the difference between The United Kingdom and Great Britain) it was surprising how close the result in September 2014 actually was. For many south of the border and probably those overseas, the idea that Scotland would want to, or even could, go it alone seemed absurd. Of course, we’ve all seen Braveheart, but beyond a raffish Hollywood star plastering himself in wode and bellowing ‘Freedom’ on the big screen, the concept of taking devolved governance to its absolute telos was something that belonged to romantic historical legend, not reality.

I am sure that to many outside the UK, as to those outside Scotland, the referendum to leave the EU may seem equally unfathomable.

But putting the two together creates an even more troubling situation. For Scotland voted by a convincing majority (62%) to remain in the EU, as did Northern Ireland (56%), as opposed to Wales, who like England, voted to leave by around 53%. For those not acquainted with the concept of ‘devolution’ or independent governance returned incrementally to each region, the UK has actually travelled some way down the road towards giving its constituent countries autonomy. In America, this concept is comparable to State-by-State differences, but whereas America is federalised with a written constitution, the UK is held together by a hot pot of history and legal precedence. Devolution is way beyond wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes, Scotland actually has its own corpus of law and determines much of its own policy, bar raising taxes and foreign affairs, although it is of course more complex than that. Meanwhile, both Wales and Northern Ireland are somewhere lower on the spectrum, but equally are moving towards more independent governance.

Thus, the leaders of the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met with the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street to begin discussing the implications of Brexit in each country. While Wales and Northern Ireland are governed by Unionist parties, those that wish to see the UK operate as one, Scotland resolutely is not. In fact, the SNP (the Scottish Nationalist Party) landslide in last year’s general election (winning 56 of the 59 seats) was so alarming to the future of the UK that the party and its firebrand leader Nicola Sturgeon got more airtime than any other politician, despite the party only standing in Scotland and Sturgeon herself not even up for election. In true Sturgeon form, the sabre rattling has begun and she has demanded that the UK remains in the Single Market, which essentially means not delivering Brexit in any meaningful way, and has definitively reaffirmed that she is not ‘bluffing’ over another independence referendum, and likely storming to victory second time round.

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Meanwhile, Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, has praised Theresa May’s commitment to Brexit and vocalisation of concerns as to what this means for Northern Ireland. So, why politically is Northern Ireland, attached by land mass to the entirely separate, Euro-using Republic of Ireland, where Brexit now poses very complicated questions about border regulation, and the not so historically completed Good Friday Agreement peace agreement, less agitated than Scotland? The governing party in Belfast’s Stormont is the DUP, or Democratic Unionist Party, which is largely Eurosceptic and distant cousin of the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Theresa May. The ideology that the UK joined as a complete nation state and should leave as a complete nation state is very much their bag.

Wales meanwhile under the stewardship of Carwyn Jones of the Labour Party, are having to somewhat plod along with the programme but express their need to be equally recognized, as they should. Not much sabre rattling there. Despite Wales (and its rather nepotistic public service) being run as a one-party-state of the Labour Party and that party being almost entirely united by Europhilia, the lack of taste for full or fiscal independence, the majority vote to leave, the dire state of the Labour Party and economic reliance on the comparative affluence of England, are left without cards in hand. The majority of murmurings are coming, yet again, from the ‘Nats’, or the Welsh National Party, Plaid Cymru.

I would add here that the contradiction of wanting to be independent from England, which significantly subsidises the other nations via the Exchequer’s very generous Barnett Formula and is happy to increasingly bestow further devolved governance as pragmatically permissible, and instead jump headlong into a European political union whose end goal is federalism, does rather baffle me. But there you go. I’m English.

With four different countries (don’t get me started on the Isles of Man and Wight or the Channel Islands, let alone Gibraltar), without any written constitution and more than just a romantic notion of independence, with nationalists fighting, perplexingly, for the EU’s socialist dream, with countries as appendages to other countries where peace deals have only just been secured, a shared currency of Sterling, devolved governments overseeing conjoined countries without borders and very different perceptions about the realities of Brexit, it all makes Game of Thrones seem very simple. But of course, we manage it all in a nostalgic, polite, gentlemanly fashion. Stiff upper lip and all that.

The principle clamor from each devolved country’s Nationalists is to remain in the Single Market, essentially a false dichotomy and surely off the table, thus moving the narrative closer towards a second Scottish referendum. May doesn’t appear willing to give way, and Sturgeon’s majority is such that she has almost absolute power in Scotland.

I wonder now whether the imperative ‘leave’, from Catalonia to Cardiff to California is an even more attractive concept, in a new digitized, global era?


Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for UKIP, the political party in Britain that campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She lives and works in London as a political advisor and communications consultant. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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