Glasgow, United Kingdom – The political ramifications of Britain’s historic decision to leave the European Union began early.
Not long after polls confirmed that the British people had endorsed a Brexit vote by 52 to 48 percent, United Kingdom Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the Remain campaign, announced his resignation outside his official residence at10 Downing Street. He declared his intention to stand down by October.
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As the pound plummeted and the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, sought to calm financial markets in the referendum’s aftermath, many eyes looked towards the two nations of the UK that voted to remain in the EU: Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Scotland, which registered a 62 percent Remain vote, and which saw its capital city, Edinburgh, vote to retain the UK’s EU status by 74 percent, immediately fell under the political spotlight as observers speculated on the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum almost two years after the first, when the people of Scotland rejected statehood by 55 to 45 percent.
The nation’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), said the Brexit vote, which was carried by England and Wales, had now made a second poll “highly likely“.
Indeed, the SNP’s manifesto for last month’s Scottish Parliament election, where the pro-EU party won an unprecedented third successive term in government, declared that there should only be a second independence poll if there was a “significant and material change of circumstances”. On Friday, the first minister confirmed the Brexit vote as that “material change”.
“It puts Scotland in an interesting place – but not in a place where the SNP leadership wanted it to be,” said the prominent UK and Scottish political commentator, Gerry Hassan, speaking to Al Jazeera. “The United Kingdom has moved itself geopolitically to a place which is very uncomfortable for Scotland. The SNP leadership is in a position where they have tried to balance two different constituencies – the enthusiasm of the most passionate independence supporters and the realisation of the need to slowly win over the soft ‘no’ [to independence voters]. That balancing act is now much more difficult.”
Hassan said that any SNP move to hold another independence vote would have to be done with due political consideration – and the party “would have to come up with a new independence package … as Britain negotiated its exit”.
“The SNP will have to develop a more coherent independence offer that answers some of the concerns that were there last time,” he added. “One of them has already been addressed – the European Union membership issue – but there are still issues of currency and the economic issues of the [volatile] oil price and all those things.”
A divided nation
Opinion polls in Scotland prior to the EU referendum suggested that Scotland would remain divided on the independence issue even after a Brexit vote. But SNP blogger, James Kelly, told Al Jazeera that such a prospect had now moved from the hypothetical to the very real.
“We know that people are very bad at answering hypothetical questions,” said Kelly. “If you could imagine that opinion formers in Scotland, such as small ‘c’ conservative Scotland – middle-class Scotland – suddenly came out for independence because it was the only way of retaining European citizenship, you might see quite dramatic movements.”
Such dramatic shifts may even come from within those political parties that officially opposed independence in 2014 – and continue to do so. Simon Pia, a former media adviser to two former Scottish Labour leaders, told Al Jazeera that “an awful lot of [party members and supporters] in the Scottish Labour Party will now not look negatively upon a [second independence poll]”. An independence No-voter during the 2014 campaign, Pia even said that he would now be “open” to the prospect of supporting Scottish independence should the opportunity arise.
“The constitutional issue has not gone away – it is the centre of our politics, not just in Scotland, but the UK too, as this [EU] referendum has shown,” he added.
In Northern Ireland, where 56 percent of the population voted to remain, the Brexit vote gave rise to speculation about the prospect of a unity poll to unite it with neighbouring EU member, the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Fein nationalist party, called for a vote to unite both parts of Ireland, saying it was “imperative for a ‘border poll’ to be held”. This was rebuffed by Northern Ireland’s pro-British first minister, Arlene Foster, who called her deputy’s demand “opportunistic”.
“I think Sinn Fein are parking their strategic tanks in a sense because there isn’t a majority in Northern Ireland at the moment for reunification,” said Hassan. “So, they’re posing the issue of the nature of the border – they’re strategically saying ‘we’re here and this [EU] process is one we’re not happy with’. It’s more planting a flag basically because they’d have to wait – if the demographics work out – 10 to 15 years or so before there’s any potential for a majority in Northern Ireland.”
As the only land frontier between the UK and the rest of the EU, Northern Ireland’s forthcoming departure via a Brexit is also raising questions about the reintroduction of border controls between north and south – and the potential repercussions of the Brexit vote on the Northern Ireland peace process. Currently free from any hard border, the installation of “physical checkpoints along the border would instantly undermine a hard-won peace, and the psychological impact alone would be catastrophic,” speculated Kathryn Gaw in The Guardian on June 21.
Many observers are also looking at how and why the four UK nations ultimately ended up so divided, with England and Wales leading the way for a UK withdrawal that is expected to take two years to negotiate once Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon is set in motion.
Brexit and the future of Britain
Concern over the quantity of immigration to Britain was at the heart of the Leave camp’s campaign tactics. With England host to many more migrants than its much smaller northern neighbour, Scotland, the immigration factor was always likely to play better in the UK’s largest constituent nation.
Yet, others have also put the result of the EU vote at the door of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for failing to convince large swaths of the party’s Labour support across England and Wales to back his push – seen by many of his detractors as no more than lukewarm – for a Remain vote.
“Many factors have led us to having this result,” said Hassan. “One of them is the absence of the Corbyn leadership in this contest, which mattered in England. It didn’t matter in Scotland so much where the Labour vote is now small – but in England and Wales, where it’s relatively sizeable, it has mattered massively.”
As the UK digests the result of the referendum, the full extent of what a Brexit means for the future of Britain is at least apparent to one SNP supporter, who is eyeing a second opportunity for the establishment of a Scottish nation-state.
“I’ve always had mixed feelings about the caution that we have to wait and wait and wait for a second Scottish independence referendum because we can’t go too soon otherwise we might lose,” said SNP blogger Kelly. “The bigger danger is that the momentum is going to drift away … So, it may not feel like the perfect time, but this may be the moment to go forward.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi