In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) with a 52-48 percent majority. Since joining the European Community (EC), the EU’s forerunner, in 1973, the United Kingdom has had a tenuous relationship with the regional bloc. The United Kingdom never fully embraced European integration, fearing a loss of national sovereignty. This was evident as the United Kingdom opted out of several EU institutions, neither using the common euro currency nor joining the Schengen area.
All of Britain’s frustrations with the EU culminated in the vote to leave the bloc in 2016. However, several of the individual nations within the United Kingdom voted to stay in the EU: 62 percent of Scotland’s population voted in favor of staying in the EU, as did 55.7 percent of voters in Northern Ireland. In contrast, English voters were the main demographic driving the leave vote with 52.5 percent of English voters choosing to leave the EU, while 53.4 percent of voters in Wales did the same.
In his recent Foreign Policy article, “Brexit is Probably the United Kingdom’s Death Knell,” Brent Peabody notes that the United Kingdom has survived quite a lot since Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in the early 1920s: World War II, the Troubles, and persistent questions from Scotland about its continued existence within the union.
“But it may not survive Brexit,” Peabody posits, since Brexit has conjured up revived independence sentiments in Scotland and driven Northern Ireland closer to the Republic of Ireland. This sentiment is shared by many analysts who study Brexit. It is true that Brexit exposed the deepening fractures within British society. However, despite renewed independence sentiments, the United Kingdom is unlikely to break up.
The desire for Scottish independence is not new. Scotland and England have an embattled history, and Scotland joined England in 1707. Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014, with 55 percent of voters voting to stay within the union, partly in fear of losing its EU membership. The EU made it clear that should Scotland vote for independence from the United Kingdom, they would “not have automatic membership and would have to re-apply from outside the bloc.”
The argument for staying within the United Kingdom to preserve its EU membership is now moot, since the United Kingdom officially departed the EU on January 31, 2020, followed by an 11-month transition period in which the United Kingdom and EU negotiated their future relationship. Brexit has brought support for Scottish independence back into political debate. In fact, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, argues that Brexit “transformed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its will.”
Several recent polls indicate increasing support for Scotland’s independence. The Scottish National Party, expected to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections in May, plans to capitalize on this increasing support to secure another referendum. While it is likely that another referendum will occur, this will require London’s blessing and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rejected the idea of Scottish independence on several occasions. In the long run, it is doubtful that Scottish voters will actually vote to leave the United Kingdom as there are too many economic and financial benefits remaining in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain in the EU, has been part of the United Kingdom for approximately a century. The Irish War of Independence against Britain ended in 1921 when the island nation was divided into Northern Ireland, which became part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. Decades of chaos, war, and hostility ensued, primarily between predominantly Catholic Republicans aligned with the Republic of Ireland and the mostly Protestant unionists who wished to maintain a closer relationship to the United Kingdom.
A desire for reunification has not subsided in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Partly as a result of Brexit, there is growing support within Northern Ireland for reuniting with the Republic of Ireland. Recent polls reveal that while 47 percent would vote to remain in the United Kingdom, 42 percent of voters favor reunification with Ireland. While this polling data indicates that there is growing support for reunification, the percentage of the population that wants to remain within the United Kingdom remains higher than those who would vote to leave. Although support for reunification in Northern Ireland has clearly grown, it is still unlikely that Northern Ireland will leave the United Kingdom.
Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, most Welsh voters voted to remain in the EU. Despite support for independence in Wales being traditionally weaker than compared to the other United Kingdom nations, there is growing, if nominal, support for independence. A recent YouGov poll in October indicated that nearly 25 percent would support Welch independence from the United Kingdom, up 8 percent since 2016. Nationalism in Wales is gaining traction. Yet, in reality, Wales’ economic prospects are not good enough to support independence.
Recent support for Scottish independence and Northern Irish reunification with the Republic of Ireland calls into question the stability of the United Kingdom. However, the United Kingdom is unlikely to dissolve. Brexit has certainly exposed the deep fissures within British society, especially with respect to the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. While society is increasingly polarized on this and other issues, the dissolution of the United Kingdom remains highly improbable. The push for Scottish independence and Northern Ireland’s reunification with Ireland are unlikely to materialize and will create more of a political headache than an existential threat to the United Kingdom.