Leave Vote Could Mean the Fracturing of the United Kingdom

By June 21, 2016 No Comments

By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst

Coverage of the EU referendum has primarily focused on what the consequences of a victory by the Leave Campaign would be for the UK economy and for the European Union as a whole. Another aspect that is sometimes overlooked outside the UK, is that there are outcome scenarios in which there would also be consequences for the UK as a nation with four distinct constituent countries – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The referendum on the question of EU membership is a simple choice that will be won or lost in aggregate, but in opinion polls there have been persistent differences between the four constituent countries. England and Wales hang in the balance, and could vote to leave the EU, but Scotland and Northern Ireland are almost certain to vote to remain in the EU. Three potential outcome scenarios are worth considering.

• A Leave victory in which England and Wales vote to leave by large enough margins to overpower Scotland and Northern Ireland’s vote to remain.

• A Remain victory in which England and Wales vote to leave narrowly, or virtually tie, but Scotland and Northern Ireland tip the balance for Remain.

• All four constituent countries vote unanimously to remain in the EU.

Because the UK does not have a codified constitution, there have been numerous changes to the governing structures of the nation over the years, most notably with the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – but not England – from the Westminster Parliament. After the EU referendum, the status of each could be revisited and changed, depending on the outcome.

If Leave wins by winning in England alone or in both England and Wales, overpowering  Scotland and Northern Ireland, in the ensuing Brexit negotiations the question of Scottish independence or additional devolution would again get traction. Such an outcome would likely trigger another referendum on Scottish independence, even though that was rejected by the Scottish people just two years ago.

Perhaps more worryingly, in this first scenario the status of Northern Ireland, which would find itself with the only UK land border to the EU, could also be revisited. Much would depend on how exactly a Brexit from the EU is structured, the specifics of which will have a greater impact on Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK.

In other words, a victory by Leave opens up the possibility of the UK fracturing into its constituent countries. Scottish independence, as well as the constitutional status of both Scotland and Northern Ireland would be on the table, and major changes would become possible.

If the aggregate result of the referendum is very close, the second scenario is that Scotland and Northern Ireland tip the balance in favor of the UK remaining in the EU. This would also trigger a debate on the constitutional structure of the UK, but it would probably be more focused on England.

Thanks to its dominant status as the largest of the constituent countries of the UK, England has never really entertained the idea of leaving the UK the way Scotland has, but calls for more clearly distinguished English rule would likely get stronger and we could see moves towards the devolution of powers to an English governing body as well.

With either of these two scenarios, observers of the EU referendum should be prepared for the potential of years of constitutional uncertainty. The scenario that would not lead to much constitutional uncertainty is the third one: all four countries of the UK unanimously vote to remain in the EU.