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Why Brexit risks breaking up Britain

As political risks over the integrity of the union grow, a case needs to be made for Scotland to stay within the UK. Both sides face challenges if Scotland secedes.

The Scottish National Party has reminded the "Leave" camp that Scotland voted 62-38 per cent to stay within the EU.

SCOTTISH National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon confirmed on Tuesday that she will, before the end of this year, ask the UK government to approve another independence referendum. With Brexit the immediate trigger for the decision, it is increasingly possible that the 2020s could yet - tragically - witness the unravelling of one of the world's longest and most successful political unions.

What her plans underline is that political worries about Brexit (even if Prime Minister Boris Johnson can avoid a no-deal by getting a breakthrough exit deal ratified) go well beyond Westminster to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures. Despite the Supreme Court ruling that the UK government did not have to consult the devolved administrations before triggering Article 50 in 2017, this has not stopped politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast being thorns in the side of the UK government.

The Scottish and Welsh First Ministers, Ms Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, who from their different political standpoints of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Labour respectively, have both said that they cannot support Brexit without membership or full access to the Single Market, which appears highly unlikely to be realised. Ms Sturgeon argued on Tuesday that the Brexit plan being touted by Mr Johnson, which looks likely to see a "hard exit" from the EU, would be particularly disadvantageous to Scotland.

Meanwhile, there is also substantial opposition in Northern Ireland to the UK government's stance, especially from Sinn Féin whose leader Michelle O'Neill has said that Brexit "ignores the views of the majority of the people" in the country who voted by 56 per cent to 44 per cent to Remain in 2016. Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has also previously asserted that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday peace deal, and poses a unique opportunity to "unite the island of Ireland". His argument is that it makes no sense, going forward, to have one part of the island (the Republic of Ireland) within the EU and the other outside it (Northern Ireland).

Given this opposition of most key party leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to Brexit, the forthcoming exit negotiations with the EU is testing existing UK constitutional and legal frameworks to their limits.

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Here, it is not just devolved authorities outside of England, but also English local government leaders who have also voiced concerns about Brexit, not least given potential lost funding opportunities. With the planned repatriation of powers from Brussels, these local leaders in England want to assume some of these powers rather than all being centralised in Westminster.

Take the example of the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has made clear his concerns about the implications of Brexit for the metropolis, a city that from 12 per cent of the UK's population generates about a third of all UK tax income. However, the lack of any formal role for him and other local leaders in Brexit negotiations looks set to reaffirm the overly-centralised nature of the UK's (and especially England's) system of government, potentially fuelling resentment.

Yet, frustrated as some English local authority leaders are, it is in Scotland where the "rubber may hit the road". Ms Sturgeon is seeking to capitalise on popular discontent with Brexit in a nation which voted 62 per cent to 38 per cent in 2016 to remain in the EU.


Yet, while she has understandable concerns about Brexit and Mr Johnson's government, she is leading Scotland plus the wider United Kingdom, down a potential political black hole which will probably weaken all parties, given that their future is better together. It is more widely accepted that the wider United Kingdom would be damaged by Scottish independence.

For instance, a UK Parliamentary Committee has warned that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.

Moreover, the UK's large overseas aid budget and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions will also be affected. Together with military cutbacks, this will undermine both hard and soft power that has enabled the nation to punch above its weight for so long.

Scottish independence would also erode the UK's post-Brexit voice in international forums, from the United Nations (UN), G7, G8 and G20 to NATO. Perhaps, most prominently, it could be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and/or other UN members to catalyse a review of UK membership in the UNSC. To be sure, reform of the UNSC is overdue.

However, with Scottish independence, this issue could be decided upon in less favourable terms for the United Kingdom than may otherwise be the case.

All this underscores that Scottish independence, combined with Brexit, would undercut the domestic underpinnings of the UK's international influence. They threaten undermining the sizeable political, military and economic force that the United Kingdom has preserved, helping bolster international security and prosperity.

Moreover, Ms Sturgeon is charting her pathway toward a second referendum despite the uncertainties that the country itself would benefit, significantly, from independence. This is not least given the difference between tax revenues and public spending in the country which rose to a deficit of around 9.5 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 - which it can better stomach as part of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Moreover, the EU has confirmed that an independent Scotland would not have an automatic right to join the Brussels-based club. So such an accession may, in fact, require potentially complex, protracted negotiation, not least given that membership technically requires countries to run a deficit below 3 per cent of GDP.

Plus, the terms on which Edinburgh might accede could be significantly less favourable than those that the United Kingdom negotiated. For instance, it is unclear whether the EU would insist upon Scotland joining the troubled Eurozone - regardless of much of the country's attachment to the pound - as all recent accession states have been required to sign up to.

Further, there is also a significant possibility of a "harder border" between England and Scotland if the latter joined the EU post-independence. This is because the country would be required to embrace European-style freedom of movement and thus a different immigration policy from the rest of the post-Brexit United Kingdom.

With growing political risks over the integrity of the union, the case needs to be made again for why the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom is better together. There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the United Kingdom are clear of diminished international influence, plus fraying of remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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