AT JUST THE MOMENT when post-Brexit Britain should be seizing global opportunities – not least in the long-neglected Commonwealth – the spectre of Scottish (and Northern Irish and Welsh) independence is on the march again. At a time when the UK should be blossoming, there are those who would cut it down and carve it up.
In Scotland, what was meant to be a once-in-a-generation contest is turning into a once-a -decade rematch. Ill feeling egregiously stirred up during the pandemic – as well as export problems following the Trade & Cooperation Agreement with Brussels and border issues thanks to the Northern Ireland Protocol – are all creating ripe conditions to break up Britain.
Polls commissioned by The Times found a majority in both Scotland and Northern Ireland would back holding referendums which could end the very existence of the UK. Capitalising on the chaos, the SNP has announced an eleven point plan to hold a referendum of its own if it is denied by Westminster. The minister responsible claims it could happen before Christmas. The Sunday Times found more voters across all UK home nations expect Scotland to be out of the UK within the decade than believe it will remain. In that Times poll 49 per cent of Scots backed independence compared to 44 per cent against. Problems created by the T&CA for seafood hardly helps matters.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is an even greater threat to the Union, having caused chaotic scenes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as supermarket shortages. Last weekend’s temporary triggering of Article 16 was a warning of what the future may herald, especially as Northern Ireland remains in the EU customs union and single market. This year marks the centenary of Northern Ireland. But can we anticipate a 150-year milestone? There is hope for unionists (a majority of Northern Irish people continue to want to remain in the UK) but the conditions exist to permanently undermine Northern Ireland’s status in the Union.
The SNP in particular has been allowed to hijack Scottish identity, without allowing room for a dual Scottish-British sense of self. But Little Englanders often fall for this, conflating the SNP with Scotland, and leading many to drift into their own form of parochialism, all too happy to cast Nicola & Co. adrift. But it would confirm the worst Remainer tropes if post-Brexit Britain diminished into Little England. The break-up of Britain cannot be measured in pounds and pence. We are yet to know the ramifications if Great Britain the island was cut in two or three. What opportunistic foreign power would, in the future, use this division as a staging post for malign influence? A port for Russian naval vessels? A Chinese Belt & Road initiative for bridges or motorways here or there?
That isn’t all. Writing in the Scotsman, my Brexit Watch colleague Brian Monteith imagined a scenario of post-UK Scotland seeking to join the EU, but “with Britain remaining outside the EU, Scotland would be required to enter into a border arrangement for trade similar to that set up between Ireland and the UK – only with Scotland also having to obtain visa-free travel for the movement of people.” Based on what happened with the Irish border with Northern Ireland the former MEP and MSP imagined a scenario where “without consulting the Scottish prime minister, the EU closed the border with England by its own decree.”
The UK should be expanding – not limiting – British horizons. What other country would share a head of state with another G8 country (Canada), another G20 country (Australia), and thirteen more besides, but fail to capitalise on it for so long? Would Spain have thrown its lot in with the EU if Spain’s king was the king of multiple Latin American nations? This Government has been bold in seeking trade deals around the world. Liz Truss is to be congratulated. This heralds a new dawn but momentum cannot be lost. The world cannot afford a diminished UK, yet those who would cut the UK down are controlling the narrative.
Given the EU’s inability to cohere, Washington would no doubt welcome a strengthened UK and ‘CANZUK’ adding vigour to the Western alliance. There is a world waiting for the UK, not least in Canada – where CANZUK champion Erin O’Toole could well become the next prime minister. But a diminished UK could not hope to play a full role in today’s world. What message would it send to the world if the UK could not even hold itself together? It would hardly inspire confidence in the country, or its alliances, if Britain became a partitioned and less secure island.
Unnecessarily carving Britain up would be a gift to its enemies. The UK must strengthen, not engage in self-imposed isolation and mutilation. The synchronised suicide of the SNP and Little Englanders would haunt generations to come, condemning them to lower security and less prosperity. By contrast, a truly Global Britain – reunified with its Commonwealth allies – could forge a path towards greater prosperity, interoperability and security in these dangerous times. To slightly amend a familiar refrain from the Brexit campaign, Global Britain means Global Britain.