- Explain why it was easier for the UK to leave the EU than it would be for Scotland to leave UK?
- Explain how a decision by the UK Supreme Court to allow a Scottish
referendum could be undermined by the British parliament
- Identify the concerns about the UK joining the EU expressed by
French President Charles De Gaulle and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.
- Explain why the Maastricht Treaty was not popular in the UK.
- Evaluate the last sentence in the Brexit article, “The most striking
consequence of (Brexit) might not be Britain’s exit from a(n) EU . . . ,
but the break-up of the nation-state whose sovereignty the Brexiteers
sought to defend.” Explain why the author believes that UK’s
nation-state may be threatened and explain what you believe to be the
biggest consequence (positive or negative) of Brexit.
As boris johnson flew
northward on January 28th to try to persuade the Scots of the value of
the union, the land beneath him seemed ready to break apart. Many
unionists think the United Kingdom is bound to disintegrate. Brexit has
loosened the bonds between the four nations. More than twice as many
Britons think Scotland will get independence in ten years than think the
country will hold together (see chart). Fewer than half say they’d be
The Scottish National Party (snp)
is expected to win a majority in elections to the Scottish Parliament
in May, which it will use to seek a second referendum on separation. In
the first ballot, held in 2014, Scots voted to remain in the uk, but a majority now consistently say they want independence. Nicola Sturgeon, the snp leader,
has strong approval ratings; Mr Johnson does not. Brexit is causing
havoc with the Scottish fishing industry. Scots think independence will
leave them poorer, but like Brexit the project is a triumph of
constitutional ideals over economic interest.
And yet to Scottish Nationalists the
United Kingdom looks vexingly robust. Despite support for independence, a
mechanism to break up the uk lies frustratingly beyond reach. On January 24th, Michael Russell, the snp minister
responsible for the constitution, presented his impatient members with a
new plan to force a referendum. Its chances of working are slim.
The reason is Britain’s constitutional law. There is no British equivalent of the eu’s
Article 50, the secession clause any state can invoke. Rather, the
Scotland Act, which created the Scottish Parliament, stipulates that the
constitution is Westminster’s domain. David Cameron’s government
granted permission for the 2014 referendum under a Section 30 order, a
device which allows the Scottish Parliament to pass laws in areas
normally reserved for Westminster. Mr Johnson says that he won’t grant
such an order, and that the wait between Britain’s referendums on Europe
in 1975 and 2016 is “a good sort of gap”—suggesting no Scottish vote
Yet the government is alarmed at support
for independence, and is drawing up a strategy to reinforce the union.
Mr Johnson used his visit to praise the role of Whitehall and the
British Army getting covid-19 vaccines to Scotland. He faces none of the
pressure from within his party to hold a vote which Mr Cameron did on
Europe. A prolonged independence rift in Scotland would allow the Tories
to scoop up the votes of pro-union Scots.
Many nationalists know this. Their fears
that independence will slip through their fingers if Mr Johnson holds
firm were aired at an online meeting on January 22nd of All Under One
Banner, a group which organises marches for independence. Some speakers
called for strikes and protests outside the snp’s headquarters; others accused the party leadership of growing too comfortable with devolution. Angus MacNeil, the snp mp for the Western Isles, reckons Mr Johnson would be “a mug” to agree to a referendum now, and says the snp should
simply use May’s election as a ballot on independence. Joanna Cherry, a
potential successor to Ms Sturgeon, argues that Irish independence was
won after Sinn Fein mps won a majority in
Ireland, meaning no referendum is necessary. Some activists see
precedents in how Kosovo and Lithuania split with their masters.
Such talk makes Ms Sturgeon’s team wince.
She insists any referendum must be beyond legal question. If not, it is a
dead end; the eu, which an independent
Scotland would seek to join, would ignore the result. So would the
British government, with which it would need to haggle over fishing
grounds and pensions in lengthy divorce talks. “We don’t get endless
shots at this,” says a party figure. The deadlock which followed
Catalonia’s unsanctioned referendum in 2017 serves as a warning.
Mr Russell’s plan seeks to navigate between the frustration of his members and the constraints of the Scotland Act. If the snp wins
in May, it will ask Mr Johnson’s government again for a Section 30
order. If Mr Johnson refuses, the Scottish Parliament would pass a
referendum bill anyway, and dare the British government to challenge it
in the Supreme Court.
Mr Russell’s scheme will probably unite the independence movement until May’s elections, says an snp hand,
“but it doesn’t really have legs beyond that.” The British government
thinks that whatever the result of the elections, the Scottish
Parliament does not have the power to call a referendum; and if the
Supreme Court looked likely to rule in the Scottish government’s favour,
the uk Parliament could swiftly change the law to nix the vote.
Alternatively, London could call the
nationalists’ bluff and dare Ms Sturgeon to push ahead with the
unrecognised referendum she has sought to avoid. Douglas Ross, the
leader of the Scottish Tories, said he’d boycott any “unofficial” poll.
Scotland’s constitutional divisions risk becoming sharper if the two
governments cannot even agree on the rules for settling them, notes
Stephen Tierney, a professor of constitutional theory at Edinburgh
Whatever happens in May, it is a difficult
moment for Ms Sturgeon’s leadership. An inquiry is probing what she
knew about allegations of sexual assault against her predecessor, Alex
Salmond, who was later acquitted in court. If Mr Johnson digs in, or the
Supreme Court rules in his favour, demands for independence may grow,
making separation only a matter of time until a future British prime
minister gives in. But it is equally possible that the cause will
deflate as Brexit settles, and Scots’ focus turns to the state of their
schools and hospitals after 14 years of snp government.
Far from being inevitable, the break-up of the uk would be historically remarkable. Since the snp’s
birth in 1934 more than 100 states have secured independence. Almost
all were born of war, decolonisation or economic collapse. Breaking away
from a prosperous democracy in peacetime is another matter. “There are
plenty of examples of nationalist movements in advanced democratic
countries, but none of these has led to independence,” notes Nicola
McEwen, a professor of territorial politics at Edinburgh University. The snp has
set itself the unusual task of dismantling the British state within the
constraints of a legal order that is stacked in its opponents’ favour.
It wants revolution, without breaking so much as a window.
Britain went from enthusiastic commitment to the EU to an acrimonious departure on unfavourable terms
The vote in
the House of Commons to approve Britain’s membership of the European
Economic Community on October 28th 1971 was greeted with widespread
jubilation. The “yes” vote was larger than expected, and it passed with a
majority of 112. Leading politicians went off to celebrate in different
ways—some to parties, while the famously buttoned-up prime minister,
Edward Heath (pictured), returned to Downing Street in a mood of elation
and played the first prelude and fugue from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered
As Britain completes its departure from the eu half
a century later, there is little celebration. Even determined
Eurosceptics complain about the terms of the withdrawal treaty,
particularly over fishing. Others are regretful if not furious:
according to the latest poll, 48% of Britons now think the country
should remain in the eu, while 38% think it
should leave. There is nervousness, especially among the businesses that
trade with Europe, about how the relationship will work. And there is
residual puzzlement on both sides. How did it go so wrong?
Britain’s history meant it was always
ambivalent towards the European “project”. For most continental
countries, building European unity was a reaction to the horrors of the
second world war and its aftermath. The Germans were escaping Nazism,
the French defeat and collaboration, the Italians dictatorship, the
eastern Europeans, when they eventually joined, Soviet domination.
Britain was the only member that felt no need to escape from its
past—indeed, in many ways, it preferred wallowing in the past to
confronting the future. For Britain, unlike the rest of Europe, the
nation state is something to be celebrated rather than transcended.
Britain’s imperial history also made a
difference. Its empire was larger and more recent than other European
nations’. Culturally, the British feel closer to America, Canada and
Australia than they do to Europe. Two-and-a-half times as many British
expatriates live in the English-speaking world as on the continent, and
Britain’s main ethnic minorities are from Commonwealth countries. That
English is the language of the world gives monoglot Britons the sense
that they are at home anywhere.
Politics on both sides of the channel
reflected this ambivalence; Heath’s passionate Europhilia was unusual.
Charles de Gaulle famously vetoed Britain’s first application to join in
1963 on the grounds that Britain “is insular, she is maritime, she is
linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most
diverse and often the most distant countries”. Most of Britain’s leading
post-war politicians shared the general’s doubts. Harold Macmillan, a
Conservative prime minister, worried about the emergence of a “boastful,
powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’” and applied to join in part in order
to change Europe from within. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, worried
that a federal Europe would mean “the end of Britain as an independent
European state…the end of a thousand years of history”.
Politicians’ doubts led a Labour
government to hold a referendum on membership in 1975, only two years
after joining. But strike-ridden Britain was a mess and Europe seemed to
offer a more stable and prosperous future. Over two-thirds of voters
wanted to stay. The establishment, too, had come round. The Economist put a picture of a young member of staff wearing a tight t-shirt,
emblazoned with “Europe or bust”, on the cover. Margaret Thatcher,
subsequently a Eurosceptic pin-up, campaigned enthusiastically for
continued membership, and in the 1980s it was she who persuaded the
union to take its most important step forward of that decade—the single
From the start, Britain was unhappy about
the terms of its membership. Farming was the main point of contention.
Committed to free trade in food since the abolition of the corn laws in
1846, Britain had a tiny agricultural sector compared with its
neighbours and enjoyed cheap food. The eec kept
farmers in business by imposing high tariffs, making consumers pay high
prices and handing out subsidies. As a result, Britain was the
second-largest contributor to the European budget, until Thatcher got
“our money back” in 1984.
But it was supra-nationalism that most
bothered the British. From the first Britain saw itself as the champion
of a Europe of nation-states that came together voluntarily to make the
business of the world easier to conduct. But in the eyes of its
founders, Europe was a political project whose purpose was to bind the
continent so tightly that future conflict would be inconceivable. As
Europe moved towards an “ever closer union”, the tensions grew.
Two speeches and a treaty
In the 1980s Euroscepticism was confined
to the extremes. Its leading champions were Enoch Powell, so far to the
right that he had parted company with the Tories, and Tony Benn, a
hard-left Labour man. Jacques Delors, president of the European
Commission, did much to change that. He gave a speech to the Trades
Union Congress in 1988 in which he anticipated that most future
legislation would come from Europe. Thatcher responded with her Bruges
speech: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state
in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a
European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
Euroscepticism burgeoned inside her party.
The Maastricht treaty of 1992 drove the union closer together, and Britain and the other member states further apart. The eu’s
residents became “citizens of the Union” with fundamental rights
including the freedom to live wherever they wanted. The word “economic”,
which had first attracted Britain, was dropped. The adoption of a
single currency created pressure for ever-greater pooling of
sovereignty. Optimists thought that Britain could have its cake and eat
it by being half in and half out. Pessimists argued that the pressure to
pool sovereignty would make this position impossible to maintain.
Those speeches and that treaty served to
recruit young enthusiasts, such as Daniel Hannan, who joined the older
hard core of Eurosceptic Tory mps such as
Sir Bill Cash and Sir John Redwood. Outside Parliament, the movement
coalesced into pressure groups such as the Bruges Group and Sir James
Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party (ukip),
a bunch of provincials ridiculed by metropolitan Europhiles, got
nowhere in Westminster elections but made ground in European ones.
Three men and an issue
The global rise of populism after the
financial crisis poured fuel on these sparks. Britain proved especially
susceptible, partly because of the size of its financial sector, and
partly because David Cameron’s government slashed spending, hurting poor
areas most. The Labour Party lurched to the left, electing Jeremy
Corbyn, a hard-left Eurosceptic, as leader. ukip grew
in strength, snapping at Mr Cameron’s heels, demanding a referendum. In
order to weaken its position in the 2015 election, he promised
one—believing, in his hubristic way, that if he actually had to hold
one, he would be able to swing it. To his surprise, he won the
election—having fallen into the trap the Eurosceptics had set him.
The Leave campaign’s victory was forged by
three men and an issue. Boris Johnson, formerly mayor of London,
provided a smiling face as the front for a movement that had usually
worn a snarl. Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s ideologue, provided it
with the brains it had previously lacked. But the Leave campaign’s most
powerful weapon was perhaps Mr Corbyn. His lukewarm campaigning for
Remain and known distaste for the eu probably tipped the result for Leave.
The issue was immigration. Britain had supported the eastward expansion of the eu partly
on the ground that a larger Europe seemed like an alternative to a
deeper one. But enlargement gave low-paid Europeans a chance to better
themselves by moving to Britain, thanks to Tony Blair’s refusal to
follow 12 other eu countries in
making use of a seven-year brake on citizens of the new states
exercising their right to work. The number of Polish-born residents in
the uk increased from 56,000 in 2001 to 911,000 in 2016 and Romanians from 14,000 in 2004 to 310,000 in 2016.
In places into which eastern Europeans had
flooded, the Leave vote was especially high. But immigration had a
broader, more pervasive effect on the vote. The government’s failure to
reduce the foreigners’ numbers, despite repeated promises to do so,
contributed to the feeling that Britain had lost control of its destiny
in the most important aspect of national policy—determining who lives
inside your borders. To vote “out” was, in the Leave campaign’s slogan,
to “take back control”.
Four players and a dangerous game
Even difficult marriages are hard to end.
Over half a century, European legislation had become part of the warp
and weft of British law and European and British business thoroughly
entwined. Lawyers contracted thinking about rights to their European
counterparts. Businesses happily embraced European regulations.
The nature of the referendum made leaving
all the harder. Voters were offered a binary choice about a complicated
set of relationships. There was nothing on the ballot paper about the
single market, the customs union or how the 500km-long border between
Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland, freighted with history and
fraught with tension, should be dealt with. The asymmetry between the
complexity of the problem and the simplicity of the question ensured
that the referendum debate was both shallow and mendacious.
Given how many issues the referendum left
undecided, the terms of Britain’s departure could have been settled in
any number of different ways; and the close result—48:52—argued for the
“soft” Brexit that most mps favoured, with
Britain remaining close to Europe. That the outcome has been a “hard”
Brexit, with Britain leaving both the single market and the customs
union, is a consequence of the way four interested parties chose to play
For Theresa May, a Remainer bounced into
the premiership after Mr Cameron’s ignominious resignation in the wake
of the referendum, offering a “hard” Brexit looked like a way of keeping
the right wing of her party onside. The 2017 election shrank her
majority and made her their hostage. When she softened her position on
Brexit, they got rid of her and replaced her with Mr Johnson, who boldly
sacked a bunch of recalcitrant Remainers, bringing the parliamentary
party to heel.
For Mr Corbyn, opposing the Tories’
position was more important than achieving an outcome that kept Britain
close to the European Union. For the Liberal Democrats, a purist
determination to overturn the result looked like the best way of
distinguishing their position from Labour’s, so they went into the 2019
election with the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”. The clash of absolutes
eliminated the middle ground.
The Europeans also contributed to the
“hard” outcome. They could have compromised with Mrs May when she was
desperately trying to sell her softer deal. But member states had their
own particular demands—so, for instance, negotiations went to the wire
over French fishermen’s insistence on continued access to British
waters—and the eu wanted to make it plain that those who leave the club cannot enjoy the benefits of membership.
The vote to leave thus led to one of the
most turbulent periods in recent British history. Careers, such as Mrs
May’s, were made and destroyed with extraordinary speed. Precedents were
broken. When the government prorogued Parliament to get its way it was
slapped down by the Supreme Court. The Conservative Party, once the
party of toffs and the middle class, was rebranded as anti-European and
working-class. And a country which had been lukewarm about the continent
saw the birth of a pro-European movement flying the European flag daily
in Parliament Square.
The ructions are not over. The referendum
has strained the United Kingdom’s bonds. Scotland voted for Remain by a
large majority and Northern Ireland by a smaller one. To avoid creating a
hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic, a border has
been established inside the United Kingdom, between Great Britain and
Northern Ireland. That will have consequences. A majority of Scots now
want independence, and support for Irish unification is growing. The
most striking consequence of that historic day in 2016 might not be
Britain’s exit from a European Union that it never loved but the
break-up of the nation-state whose sovereignty the Brexiteers sought to