Political Opportunism Will Make Brexit Worse

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© Egal

April 28, 2017 17:00 EDT

Opportunistic nationalists and their shortsighted referenda proposals could usher in the disintegration of the UK.

British Prime Minister Theresa May recently invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which formally notified the European Council of the United Kingdom’s intent to leave the European Union. The forthcoming negotiations offer the first glimpse into what the future relationship will be between the United Kingdom and the soon-to-be 27-member EU. However, Brexit also raises doubts about the political union between the four constituent nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The divisive referendum campaign and its aftermath have reopened old tensions and sowed new divisions between the constituent nations. Driven by opportunism, nationalists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are proposing independence referenda for their respective regions. These nationalist movements are not monolithic, but they are collectively calling for the dissolution of the UK during one of the most critical junctures in its modern history. If staged, these referenda would amplify the rampant uncertainty and instability caused by Brexit.

The 2016 membership referendum was a national vote. Therefore, all four constituent nations will be leaving the EU, regardless of how each one voted individually. Prior to triggering Article 50, May stated that “as Britain leaves the European Union … the strength and stability of our Union will become even more important.” However, from the perspective of nationalists in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, to a lesser degree, Wales, Brexit presents the perfect opportunity to forge independent futures outside of the UK.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly cited the 62% of Scottish constituents who voted against Brexit as a mandate for a second independence referendum. (In 2014, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the UK — the “no” side won). In Northern Ireland, the new Sinn Fein leader, Michelle O’Neill, has also called for a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland. Roughly 56% of those in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. Additionally, Welsh Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood has proposed the idea of an “independent Wales,” although the situation in Wales is different; a slim majority of Welsh voters were in favor of Brexit.


In Scotland’s 2014 referendum, 55% of voters elected to stay in the UK. The pro-independence camp left a lot of questions unanswered regarding Scotland’s economy, currency, borders, defense, trade, relationship with the United Kingdom and its membership in the EU. At this point, it is not clear whether a second referendum would result in a different outcome. Moreover, a decision to leave the United Kingdom and the European Union at the same time would jeopardize any sense of stability or certainty surrounding the country’s future.

For Northern Ireland, Brexit poses a serious challenge for the hard-fought peace enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Currently, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland share an open border that may tighten as a result of Brexit, and there are fears such a development could reignite sensitive identity politics. However, a referendum on Irish unity is not the way to alleviate this concern; in fact this could spark a new era of violent tensions. Advocates for a referendum and Irish unity have yet to put forward a vision of the region’s future economic and political relationship with the UK. These questions will not be resolved until after the United Kingdom’s negotiations with the EU are finalized and settled.

Advocating for Welsh independence at this point is also premature and irresponsible. However, there is another option. Wood has proposed a further devolved government as an alternative to full-scale independence, in which the Westminster Parliament would transfer powers to the Welsh Assembly. Greater devolution is more realistic and palatable to voters because its offers autonomy while avoiding the potential chaos of leaving the UK. In fact, this would be a suitable alternative for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. If the devolution route were taken, these constituent nations could see greater regulatory control over critical sectors such as the environment, labor and fisheries, in addition to greater legislative authority over taxation and welfare distribution.


Nationalists in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have seized on the political turmoil following Brexit to move forward with long-held intentions for independence from the United Kingdom. Similarly, Prime Minister May’s snap general election, scheduled for June 8, will give nationalists a platform to make the case for independence, which means the prime minister must now also devote a great deal of time and attention to promoting national unity in the face of Brexit.

The best-case scenario at this point would be for regional nationalists to pause their referenda plans until the Brexit negotiations are over and voters digest the new political reality. The Westminster Parliament should then consider granting additional powers to devolved governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. However, if these plans are not paused, opportunistic nationalist leaders and their shortsighted referenda proposals could usher in the disintegration of the United Kingdom. This would be a dismal prospect for all British citizens, regardless of where they live or if they voted for or against Brexit.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Egal

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