Between Brexit and coronavirus, UK togetherness is fraying

If Brexit goes badly, it could give a boost to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
If Brexit goes badly, it could give a boost to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - The United Kingdom has endured in one form or another for hundreds of years but between Brexit and the coronavirus, the country is creaking and some suggest it may be on the verge of breaking up entirely.

England, Scotland and Wales have been joined since 1707, with Northern Ireland added in 1921 - four parts of a single country - but since the late 1990s, each has won more devolved powers, including over healthcare.

That ability to steer the most important policies in a time of emergency has seen frequent fallouts with the UK's central government this year over strategies to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Britain's departure from the European Union has largely remained on the back burner during the global pandemic.

But if Brexit goes badly, it could give a boost to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast - and stoke calls for greater powers.

Scottish nationalists point out that they never wanted to leave the EU in the first place and might now try again to become an independent state and rejoin the bloc.

"The pandemic is not going to help," Mr John Springford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank, told AFP. "So, with Brexit running into the mix, and a Conservative (UK) government that's very unpopular north of the border, I think the support for independence is likely to rise."

Support for independence was already increasing after the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which Scotland voted heavily to remain. Seventeen straight polls have now shown that a majority of Scots support going it alone.

Brexit was the driving force for pre-2020 gains, pollster John Curtice told a recent Institute for Government seminar, with the rise concentrated among those who voted to remain in the EU.

But the pandemic has been the driving force this year, with support increasing across the Brexit divide, he added.

"The view of the Scottish public is that the Scottish government and (First Minister) Nicola Sturgeon have handled the pandemic well and the UK government and (UK Prime Minister) Boris Johnson have handled it badly," said Mr Curtice.

Ms Sturgeon and her separatist Scottish National Party hope the perfect storm will push them over the top if they can force a rerun of a 2014 independence referendum, in which the pro-UK side won 55 per cent to 45.

But Mr Johnson has repeatedly vowed to block any attempts to hold another vote.

Other large obstacles stand in the way of independence, with Mr Curtice pointing out the lead was still a "relatively narrow" one given the "fragility of polls".

Wales banging the drum

An independent Scotland would find itself without the protection of British or European might, with Brussels cautioning that rejoining the EU would not be a formality.

"If Scotland decides that it wants to join the EU and the EU says that it can, then obviously we'd have to erect a border with England," said Mr Springford.

"And that border would be harder than the border between Northern Ireland," he added, suggesting economic pro-union arguments that Scotland would not be able to support itself may not be as successful as they were in 2014.

While most of the attention may be focused on Scotland, nationalists in Wales have also been banging the drum for independence.

Nationalist party Plaid Cymru has promised a referendum if it wins forthcoming devolved elections. But Brexit is less of a catalyst, as Wales voted narrowly to leave the EU in 2016, despite years of regeneration and development funding from Brussels.

"The likelihood that it's going to lead to Welsh independence isn't that high," said Mr Springford.

Irish question

Brexit has had the potential to send a wave of discontent across the Irish Sea, reviving a three-decades-old conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending the bombings and street clashes known as "The Troubles" hinged on an open border with EU member state Ireland.

Opposition to the potential return of border checks united politicians of all stripes on both sides, and complex new rules governing trade, closely aligning Northern Ireland to EU rules, could yet galvanise support for a united Ireland.

In Dublin, republican Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said Brexit had raised "fundamental questions around the wisdom and the sustainability of the partition of our island".

But they would have to overcome potential resistance in Dublin to having to fill the province's annual budget gap of around £10 billion (S$17.8 billion).

"While there's a quite a lot of internal pressure from Sinn Fein there's not necessarily the conditions in the same way for independence as there are in Scotland," said Mr Springford.