Would Brexit be followed by breakup of the United Kingdom?
British voters head to the polls this week to decide whether to “remain” in the European Union or “leave” it. The most recent surveys suggest the outcome is too close to call, with those favoring an exit holding a slight lead and many undecided.
The campaign has been bitter, although the murder of pro-EU Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox by an alleged “Britain First” supporter led to some soul-searching by all sides. As British actor Hugh Laurie tweeted:
I hate this referendum, for turning a question of unfathomable complexity into Lord of the Flies.
— Hugh Laurie (@hughlaurie) June 17, 2016
While the referendum is over the U.K.’s place in the EU, a vote to leave could have far-reaching consequences for the kingdom itself because its constituent parts – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – hold differing views on Europe.
So the question is, if there’s a Brexit – a British exit from the EU – what happens to the regions of the U.K.? Does it mean a breakup might soon follow?
If you need a primer on the situation, John Oliver has you covered. The short version is that voters in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will vote on June 23 on whether to remain in the EU a little more than three decades after joining it.
One fascinating angle to this referendum for me, as someone who has long studied Scottish and Welsh nationalism and its connection to the EU, is what effect a Brexit vote would have on the United Kingdom’s own unity.
Recent polls have shown hints of trouble looming for the United Kingdom if Brexit happens, with its regions expressing disparate views on the referendum. In Scotland, which rejected independence from the U.K. in its own referendum less than two years ago, a majority of voters say they want to stay in the EU. These results suggest that a Brexit could be quickly followed by another Scottish referendum, this one on whether to leave the U.K. and perhaps join the EU.
A Belfast telegraph poll showed that Northern Irish voters also prefer to remain in the EU by a wide margin (54 percent to 35 percent). Except for Wales, the periphery of the United Kingdom opposes Brexit far more than their English counterparts.
And while London may be unlikely to secede from the U.K., its voters also favor staying in the EU (45 percent to 40 percent).
Scotland and the EU
In a recent interview, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued that given the strength of the remain vote in her region, it would be “democratically indefensible, if we had voted to stay in, to face the prospect of being taken out.”
Sturgeon has not yet officially advocated for another referendum in such an event, but she is campaigning strongly for the U.K. to remain in the EU. And in part, she is using Scottish political history over the last 40 years to bolster the case.
One of the chief complaints of Scottish nationalists from 1979 onwards was that the Tories, then led by Margaret Thatcher, ruled the UK from Westminster despite never winning in Scotland. This democratic deficit continued until former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 and subsequent devolution referendum later that year. If Scotland is pulled out of the EU against its democratic wishes, it may fuel another round of Scottish nationalism.
Looking back, one of the keys to the defeat of its 2014 independence referendum was the uncertainty of an independent Scotland’s role in the EU. As I argued in my 2015 book “The European Union and the Rise of Regionalist Parties,” this uncertainty over whether Scotland would be able to immediately join the EU contributed to concerns over the viability of an independent Scotland, which hurt the “yes” campaign in the referendum.
While I believe that similar uncertainty over Brexit and a U.K. breakup will likely favor the status quo in this week’s vote, if things go the other way, a new Scottish independence referendum in the near future seems likely, as Sturgeon and former SNP leader Alex Salmond have made clear.
Northern Ireland’s new border
Elsewhere in the periphery, the questions are just as sharp.
For Northern Ireland, not only has the EU played a significant role in the peace process, but the border and trade agreements between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom would be fundamentally challenged after Brexit. As the Telegraph reports, if Brexit occurred, the boundary between Ireland and Northern Ireland – which currently allows free flow of trade and travel – would have to be strengthened.
The border would then be an external EU border, requiring more controls on either side to prevent unwanted migration and monitor customs flow. Any additional restrictions on immigration increase transactions costs and hinder trade and travel, as residents along the American-Canadian border experienced after 9/11.
Though the threat of an independence referendum in Northern Ireland does not seem to be in the cards (despite the wishes of Sinn Fein), the risks and uncertainty associated with Brexit will undoubtedly affect relations in the region. A return to violence is not out of the question.
Weighing the odds of a Brexit
Despite my own views on the likely outcome of the June 23 vote, as noted above, polls suggest Brexit might win.
Similar to what research showed in earlier EU referendums in Netherlands and Denmark, anti-immigration attitudes are a key driver of Brexit votes. But a major uncertainty about the referendum vote is turnout.
According to the polling firm YouGov, the youngest voters (18-24) are the most supportive of remaining in the EU (60 percent for “remain”), while older ones (65+) are far more euroskeptical (59 percent for “leave”).
At the same time, young people are less likely to actually vote. Just 56 percent of 18-24-year-olds say they would be absolutely certain to vote, compared with 86 percent of 65+ voters. Thus, getting out the youth vote is crucial to the remain campaign’s success.
That being said, the betting markets suggest that a vote to remain is much more likely than a vote for Brexit. What makes them so sure despite the results of recent polling? Most significantly, risk aversion in British referendums tends to favor the status quo. Basically, voters fear the risks associated with change more when they are in the voting booth than when they are responding to polls.
And, as historian Timothy Garton Ash argues in a Guardian op-ed, the uncertainty and risks associated with Brexit are tremendous, with most economists agreeing that there would be serious short- and medium-term adverse consequences for the British economy.
In my own work on the topic, I’ve shown how actual voting in referendums can differ substantially from what the survey polls suggest, such as in the 1979 campaign to devolve powers to Scotland and more recently in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Thus, history suggests that the vote to remain will make up some ground on referendum day.
But if voters thumb their nose at history…
Hypothetically, though, if the leave campaign wins, what would that mean for the U.K.?
In the short run, the border issues between Northern Ireland and Ireland would be part of the messy and complicated divorce proceedings and involve the EU, U.K. and Ireland. In the longer term, if the EU/U.K. breakup weakens Irish dependence on the U.K. and leads to a greater continental focus for Ireland, then Northern Irish voters may reconsider whether Ireland or the U.K. is a better fit.
In Scotland, the short-run story seems similar. The latest polling suggests that Scottish voters would be more likely to take a wait-and-see approach rather than immediately opt for a new independence referendum. At whatscotlandthinks.org, political scientist John Curtice has compiled eight recent polls that show a slight point swing in favor of independence in the case of Brexit. However, the swing is not quite enough to hit the 60 percent threshold that the Scottish National Party has said it would need to trigger a new independence referendum.
However, these hypothetical polls in Scotland are just that, hypotheticals. If the remain camp is right and Brexit leads to a dramatic recession and decreased economic growth, then a downturn that can be directly linked to membership in the United Kingdom will increase support for a second referendum.
In short, the costs of Brexit for the United Kingdom will reverberate for years to come.