The United Kingdom is facing growing challenges to the Union, claim experts, amid Scotland’s angling for a second shot at independence, simmering loyalist tensions in Northern Ireland over the Irish Sea border post-Brexit, and rising nationalist sentiments in Wales.
Forceful sanguinity and injections of cash could be part of the “Project Love” approach the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will opt for in dealing with the fast-growing pressures that threaten the union, suggests Alister Jack, the UK’s secretary of state for Scotland.
He was interviewed by Politico along with two other territorial secretaries tasked with handling relations with the devolved governments in the three nations.
Devolution is the Parliament of the United Kingdom's statutory granting of a greater level of self-government to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the London Assembly and to their associated executive bodies: the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and in England, the Greater London Authority and combined authorities.
Under the devolved powers, unlike under federalism, the state remains, de jure, a unitary state, and legislation creating devolved parliaments or assemblies can be repealed or amended by the UK Parliament.
Union a ‘Hard Sell’
The post-Brexit environment, with its cross-border checks, trade quotas and early glitches, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19 disruptions, is a particularly difficult time to ‘sell’ remaining within the UK, Jack emphasised.
The Scottish politician currently serving as Secretary of State for Scotland since 2019 underscored, however, that strengthening the union is the general policy across Whitehall.
“We recognise that there are many, many great benefits to our family of nations and maybe we don't trumpet them enough.”
One of the problems feeding fissures within the union is the fact that devolved parliaments can, and do, work against Westminster, he said, while laying the blame for diverse failures at London’s doorstep.
England may be the de facto ruler in chief, however, the devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales wield power over sweeping aspects of life, including health, education and welfare.
“Devolution can be a rip-roaring success if it's in the right hands. And it can be a rip-roaring success if it isn't hijacked by people who want to pursue a different sort of objective,” said Wales Secretary of State Simon Hart.
One way to fix the fissures between the four nations is to sell them the benefits of the union, agreed Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis.
He added that the UK government should be “a bit braver” in expounding on those advantages, citing the business investment being channelled into Northern Ireland.
The so-called “Project Love” would require time and effort from Whitehall, built on positive images rather than the ‘fear-mongering’ that permeated the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and 2016 Brexit woes, believe the three officials.
Benefits need to be laid out “in a positive way, rather than just sort of slag off the negatives of independence,” said Wales Secretary of State Simon Hart.
As the UK faces what experts believe to be the biggest threat to its unity in years, the stakes are currently very high, writes the outlet.
The immediate concern for Downing Street is Scotland.
Support for independence has been soaring ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, with the Scottish National Party (SNP), led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on course to win the contest, with the only question being by how much.
With over 60 percent of Scots having opposed the UK’s decision to quit the EU bloc, Brexit is what’s fueling nationalist argument, according to the territorial secretaries.
Having staked on pushing for a second, this time successful, independence referendum, Sturgeon is hoping that an outright majority in the election will provide her with a mandate for a second shot at independence.
44.7 percent of voters answered "Yes" and 55.3 percent answered "No", with a record voter turnout of 85 percent in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Sturgeon vowed to take her case to the courts if Westminster refuses to give its consent for a second referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon to Anas Sarwar: "If, at this election, Scotland returns a majority of MSPs who support, after the pandemic, Scotland having the right to choose independence in a referendum..."— The SNP (@theSNP) April 13, 2021
Previously, Johnson declined her request, saying that Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond had promised that the 2014 referendum would be a "once in a generation" vote.
Speaking of the possibility of a indyref2, Scotland Secretary Jack said:
"We believe that constitutional wrangling and division is the wrong route to go down at the moment.”
Wales has also seen growing public support for independence.
39 percent of respondents backed separating from the UK – the highest support for Welsh independence ever recorded - according to a March poll made for the ITV News Tonight programme in collaboration with Savanta ComRes. Most respondents cited differing social attitudes to the rest of Britain.
“Although the numbers are quite a long way off where Scotland is, if you look back 20 to 25 years, then you can see the sort of general shift. I think that's what we need to take seriously and, above all, respectfully,” said the Secretary of State for Wales.
He added that Westminster is not putting in enough elbow grease to clarify why “unionism is a good thing.”
Brexit has also been wreaking havoc in Northern Ireland, which over recent time witnessed some of its worst street violence in over a decade.
Post-Brexit fears have generated uncertainty about the future in a land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists. Furthermore, as in Scotland, a majority of people in Northern Ireland (56 percent) voted for the UK to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, installed to end large-scale violence, prohibits reinstalling a physical border between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country and EU member state.
Accordingly, the de-facto border for UK-EU trade is now in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, avoiding the need for checks on the Irish border. Instead, EU customs rules are enforced at Northern Ireland's ports instead.
However, unionists cite concerns that the new trading border - the result of the Northern Ireland Protocol -damages trade and threatens to isolate them from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who has the authority under the Good Friday Agreement to call a referendum on the unification of Ireland if a majority were evidenced to support the ‘nationalist cause’, said:
“There is not at the moment any indication that a border poll is going to be happening any time soon.”
Nevertheless, elections to the Northern Irish Assembly in 2022 are cited as a possible de facto referendum on the Brexit settlement.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also served to compound divisive sentiments across the UK, with different rules enforced in the different nations.
As Westminster embarks on its ‘charm offensive’, it will ostensibly seek to replace EU investment with a new "shared prosperity fund".
Viewed as a potential tool to display the benefits of the union, the cash will be managed from London, bypassing the devolved governments, writes the outlet.
“Before, Europe dealt directly with the Highlands and Islands, for instance. Now, we want the UK government to be able to deal directly with local authorities and work with them to deliver on projects that matter most to people,” said Scotland Secretary Jack.
Furthermore, Westminster will be pushing ahead with “growth deals” believed to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds of investment for local businesses and projects. This will also involve a review of transport connections between the nations, with a bridge, physically linking Scotland and Northern Ireland, under consideration.
Also proposed are low-tax freeports around the UK.
“It's important that [people] recognise there are many things like this that are the strength of the United Kingdom,” said Jack, as the three secretaries of state expressed confidence their nations would remain in the union to go from strength to strength.