A couple days ago an American friend posted this to an email list we’re on (original purpose: beer geekery) and requested some commentary. I had read it that morning, so I sent the list some assessment. (For the record, this request for commentary was made not only to the beer list’s resident political scientist, but also our resident Scot who has lived in Manchester the past 25-odd years).
The basic thrust of this Guardian piece is that the core of Brexit support is English nationalism. Not British nationalism, not UK-ish nationalism, but specifically English nationalism. And it rings true based on what I’ve seen, discussions I’ve had, and the rather impressive immutability of the Brexit support. It’s emotional, not rational:
When you strip away the rhetoric, Brexit is an English nationalist movement. If the Leave side wins the referendum, it will almost certainly be without a majority in either Scotland or Northern Ireland and perhaps without winning Wales either. The passion that animates it is English self-assertion. And the inexorable logic of Brexit is the logic of English nationalism: the birth of a new nation state bounded by the Channel and the Tweed.
The advent of devolution to Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Wales inflamed a segment of the English populace, then there’s the difficult-to-measure sovereignty-sapping forces of globalisation that are perceived to be screwing everybody. Here, the EU represents a very tangible, mis-understood (on the left and right) symbol of globalisation. It’s an easy target. And as I said in that Foreign Entanglements thing Farley and I recorded on Thursday, the EU referendum gives those on the right and left the ability to snub the elite, consequences be damned.
That said, what are the ramifications? Given current polling, it’s probable that should Brexit win, it will only win in England. Remain will win overwhelmingly in Scotland, comfortably in Northern Ireland, and a bit narrower in Wales. Thus, the basic ingredients for a typically British constitutional crisis are available in the kitchen. This is especially true given that the enabling legislation for the Scottish Parliament (Scotland Act 1998) requires Scottish law to be consistent with EU law.
It’s also possible that there’s a second referendum in the wake of a settlement, for the UK to accept it. Remember, the current parliament is heavily pro-remain. It’s not fanciful to imagine a well crafted sleight of hand where said parliament puts a settlement that is not favorable to the UK to another referendum vote. Indeed, if Cameron somehow hangs on as PM following a Brexit result (and it’s a huge if), I see this as a probable outcome. Also possible, considering how the Tories have gone through self-immolation, Cameron immediately stands down, and there’s a snap election following a Brexit vote. Given current polling, the Tories win, with perhaps a reduced majority. Or, less likely, some form of a Labour or a Lab-SNP coalition assumes power. If the latter, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where there’s a second referendum.
What must be understood about the mythical British constitution is that the people are not sovereign as in the US. Parliament is sovereign. Parliament would be within its constitutional rights to flat out ignore the results of the referendum. Technically, these are merely advisory in the British system. It would be politically problematic, but not beyond the possible.
It’s common to suggest that Scotland will hold a second independence referendum with alacrity. A second Scottish referendum is possible to probable in the wake of a Brexit vote, but it won’t be immediate. It will take up to two years to negotiate Article 50 (which is the legal mechanism within EU treaties for any member leaving). Unlike 2014, commodity prices (i.e. oil and gas) have cratered, so the logic of Scotland going it alone outside the UK has less economic attraction (if it ever really did). Furthermore, a freshly-independent Scotland would face the same problems vis-a-vis the EU as it would have done in 2014: it would have to apply for accession as with any other state. Granted, given EU law is already woven into the fabric of Scottish law, accession would be easier and quicker than, say, Albania or Turkey (ironic considering one of the many outright lies of the Brexit campaign is that Turkish membership, and millions of Turkish immigrants, are right around the corner should we stay in the EU, and there’s nothing the UK can do about it!!!) All said, Scottish independence is possible, but it won’t happen quickly.
A big, key question only slightly touched on in this piece is the Irish border and the future of the Good Friday agreement. Britain and Ireland have long had open borders. Since 1923, that border has been part of the “common travel area”. Of course, during the troubles, there were military checkpoints, and until the early 1990s random customs checks did happen, but right now, in crossing the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, you’d likely never even notice. This is true for any port of departure / port of entry combination between the Republic and the UK: I once flew from Dublin to Plymouth (back when Plymouth had this thing modern civilizations call airports) and there were no border controls. It was as easy as flying from Seattle to Portland. In some ways, easier.
Here’s the rub. Neither Ireland nor the UK are in the Schengen free-travel zone, but they have their own free-travel area. As a significant component of support for Brexit is controlling immigration, something will have to be done about that. On the British side of things, a post-Brexit Britain would want to ensure than anybody getting into Ireland isn’t likewise capable of wandering into Britain. While free movement of labor will cease once leaving the EU (unless the UK wants to stay in the free trade area, at which it would have to accept free movement, but then that undermines the entire argument for leaving in the first place) a key plank of the leave campaign has been all about border control. There would be a controlled border in Ireland. But it might not even be up to the British: the European Union would likely ensure that border is effectively a proper border: passports, customs, etc. That’s going to significantly fuck with the economy of Northern Ireland.
But not enough for Northern Ireland to leave the union and unify with the Republic or (shudder) go it alone. Those who support both the DUP and UUP would be (possibly violently) opposed to leaving the UK, and there’s not enough public support for unification at present. While leaving the EU and the introduction of a controlled border will likely inflame nationalist and especially republican sentiment in Northern Ireland, and lead to calls for a unification referendum, written into the Good Friday Agreement is the constitutional requirement that any unification vote is limited to the electors of Northern Ireland. NI will stick with (a possibly rump) United Kingdom.
Wales? Even though they beat the crap out of Russia last night in Euro 2016, Wales hasn’t ever really been an independent state. I would be astonished, even if the UK votes Brexit yet Wales (as is probable) votes remain, that Wales would want independence. Plaid Cymru might gain in support. However, unlike in Scotland, legal, political, educational (et al.) frameworks are largely the same between England and Wales. Scotland has its own legal system, its own laws, its own education system (strange fact: university education in Scotland is four years, not three like in England and Wales. It’s also free for the Scots, whereas here it’s £9000 per year), and a much stronger parliament than the little Welsh Assembly. Scotland was allowed to retain all that it developed with the Act of Union 1707. Wales never really had the chance to develop an indigenous legal or political structure that would be recognisable as such to a post Westphalian observer.
But, they beat the crap out of Russia, while England couldn’t nick a goal against Slovakia.
I’ve downgraded the threat level on the referendum from freaking out last Thursday to cautiously pessimistic. Three new polls were released overnight (although one is based on fieldwork dating back to 16 May, so ignore). While mixed depending on how one interprets them, they both suggest that the shift to remain over the past week has consolidated into “bloody close”.
Number Cruncher Politics (whom I followed last year in the run-in to the general, and should have listened to) were on either BBC R4 or WS last night as I was falling asleep, and forecast the same 52-48 remain vote that I was spouting until about ten days ago. You can see their assessment and unpick their methodology here. Their “nowcast” is 51-49, forecast 52-48.