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Brexit may end dreams of Scottish and Welsh independence
For years, many have argued that Brexit makes Scottish and Welsh independence more likely, independence representing a route back into the EU and (according to Remainers) prosperity and international respectability. Certain developments in public opinion have been consistent with this, Scottish and Welsh independence movements gaining initial support.
Once, I agreed with this analysis - as a Remain campaigner, I warned that Brexit might break up the Union - yet am reconsidering. Brexit may play a devilish trick on independence movements. Rather than increasing pressures for independence, it might lock Scotland and Wales into the British state.
As I have argued, we should see Brexit in the institutional terms which this Substack favours. The referendum was a critical juncture and, following Brexit, pressures for the new status quo are becoming self-reinforcing and path dependent, reducing the probability of Britain rejoining the EU.
National exposure to these pressures is critical. After lengthy dispute over its border, Northern Ireland follows much EU regulation, making it exempt from many influences associated with Brexit. In the long run, this creates pressures for Irish unification which will be difficult to resist. If Northern Irish regulation is more similar to Irish regulation and there are superior links between the countries, why should Northern Ireland remain in the Union?
Contrastingly, Scotland and Wales are part of the mainland British state which has left the EU and is diverging from it. The new status quo will involve distinct legislation. Beyond the planned revocation of much EU law, the UK government is increasingly adopting legislation which diverges from the EU. Notwithstanding their opposition to Brexit, devolved governments will take advantage of opportunities; for example, new Scottish and Welsh plastic regulation deviates from EU standards.
As the British economy turns inwards, it will involve the creation of constituencies who are committed to the new system; these may be the SMEs who benefit from deregulation, the fishermen who have better access to British waters and/or the low-skilled workers who enjoy reduced competition with immigrants. Such constituencies will emerge in Scotland and Wales, encouraging new regulatory approaches from the devolved governments.
Ironically, devolution is a good parallel. Following the initial decision to establish a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, spillover has entailed increasing competences for national bodies and support from those constituencies who benefit from devolution. Over twenty years later, the path dependency of devolution has made reversal unthinkable.
Crucially, the diverging status of England undermines the prospect of independence. Whether independence supporters like it or not, England’s size means that it sets the terms of British politics. Primarily, this raises questions about borders. The Northern Irish border became the major sticking point of Brexit negotiations and remains controversial, many Brexit supporters being unhappy with the border in the Irish Sea. More broadly, EU-UK border checks have proven a major constraint on economic growth, many businesspeople loathing them.
Whilst Britain remains outside the EU, Scottish and Welsh independence movements will not escape the border question. Independence without EU membership is a non-starter, meaning that independence movements must confront the prospect of borders along the Tweed and/or Severn.
For independence campaigners, such borders would be a hard sell. England is the largest trading partner of Scotland and Wales and borders are lengthy. In the Welsh case, cross-border relationships are more significant than North-South Walian relations.
A key report on a potential England-Scotland border is sobering. Such a border might not involve problems associated with sea borders, yet would entail multiple logistical challenges. Though the border question has had limited influence on public opinion, voters having little acquaintance with it, this would change during a referendum campaign, Unionists seizing on it. Given the impact of Brexit, voters may take fright and favour the status quo.
Of course, Brexit path dependence will not be the only influence on Scotland and Wales. Devolution will remain a key force and, in coming years, further powers may be transferred to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. Despite countervailing pressures, Scottish and Welsh governments will continue to cultivate relations with the EU. There may be surprising developments. For example, the technology which Brexit supporters promised in 2018-19 may emerge, reducing the salience of borders.
Notwithstanding these caveats, the influence of Brexit on Scottish and Welsh independence may be misconstrued. The logic may be cruel – independence campaigners have consistently opposed Brexit and, in the Scottish case, voters rejected it – yet Brexit is a new status quo which, for better or worse, will restructure all aspects of British politics.
In 25 years, I suspect that Britain will remain outside the EU and, at least on the mainland, with its territory intact.
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