What is the future of the Union?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Exhibition Hall 1Political thinking

The result of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, with a clear margin in favour of staying in the UK, seemed to put paid for the foreseeable future to the most significant threat to the Union. Having been touted as a ‘once in a generation’ vote, it seemed there would be little to justify a re-run any time soon.

But the result of the EU referendum in June 2016 seems to have put the cat amongst the pigeons once more. Many opinion polls have suggested rising support for independence and the SNP won another term in power at Holyrood in May 2016 calling for another vote if there were a ‘significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’. In September this year, Scotland’s first minister, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, announced that she would seek the power from Westminster to hold another independence referendum in 2020.

But the problems for the UK don’t stop with Scotland. The future of Northern Ireland has been a constant bone of contention since the Brexit vote. The ‘backstop’ in the proposed EU Withdrawal Agreement – which was supposed to cement Northern Ireland’s place in the Union while keeping an open border with the South – has been rejected by the new prime minister, Boris Johnson. With the prospect of a ‘hard border’ if there is a ‘no deal’ Brexit, demands from Irish nationalists for reunification are bound to increase. In September, a shock opinion poll in Wales suggested that a quarter of the electorate would vote for Welsh independence. More generally, devolution, which was supposed to satisfy demands for greater autonomy for the different UK nations, appears to have exacerbated separatist tendencies.

Johnson has declared that he wants to keep the UK as the ‘awesome foursome’, but the pressures on the Union have clearly increased. However, there are still plenty of barriers to the break-up of the UK. The SNP does not have the power to call an independence referendum and is unlikely to be granted one while the Conservatives are in office in Westminster. Moreover, there seems to be little appetite for another divisive referendum campaign north of the border. If the UK’s departure from the EU has been fraught with logistical difficulties, how much greater will those be for Scotland to separate from a 300-year-old union? There is no majority in Northern Ireland for reunification and the Good Friday Agreement demands consent.

Is the Union really in imminent danger? What is the positive case for the UK today? Is it just a convenient economic arrangement or is there still a deeper connection?