In a major warning to the British political establishment, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown claims that the union is more at risk of collapse than at any time in 300 years.
Brown blames Brexit and what he calls the rise of “narrow nationalism” in England and Scotland for the potential collapse.
Addressing Britain’s oldest thinktank, the pro-Labour Fabian Society, the former prime minister (who is of Scottish origin) made a clear link between a potential “no deal” Brexit and growing calls for a second Scottish independence referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has called for a second referendum in 2021 if the UK exits the European Union against Scotland’s will.
At the June 2016 Brexit referendum Scottish voters overwhelmingly opted to stay within the EU. By contrast, England and Wales voted to leave the EU and Northern Ireland opted to stay in by a very narrow margin.
Brown’s sense of foreboding echoes similar warnings three years ago by two other former prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Major. Speaking jointly in their capacity as leading Remain campaigners, the former British leaders warned that voting to leave the EU would “jeopardise the unity” of the UK.
However, even the joint intervention of Blair and Major (who come from opposite sides of the political spectrum), did not make an impact on the British public who soon afterwards voted to leave the EU.
Gordon Brown’s warning is arguably the gravest to date, not least on account of his status as post-war Britain’s most thoughtful and erudite prime minister. His intervention will fuel speculation and fears over the potential breakup of the UK following Brexit and related political trends.
Brown’s intervention comes in the midst of the Tory leadership contest, with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt vying to become Britain’s next prime minister. As the leading contender, Johnson’s favourable views on a no-deal Brexit, in addition to his lukewarm support for the union with Scotland, have fuelled growing fears of the UK’s potential disintegration.
Whoever wins the Tory leadership contest will have to grapple with several overlapping political and constitutional crises, notably managing the final stages of Brexit and trying to contain growing Scottish, Welsh and even English nationalism. In addition the next prime minister will have to manage a potentially explosive situation in Northern Ireland.
In a further blow to the union latest opinion polling indicates a rise in support for Welsh nationalism. A Yougov poll suggests that 14 percent of respondents are now “strongly” supportive of independence whilst overall up to 30 percent are to varying degrees committed to Welsh independence.
And as if that was not enough, the potential re-emergence of a hard border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland risks unravelling the Good Friday Agreement and by extension boosting the cause of Irish unity.
The situation in Northern Ireland has been festering for years, as evidenced by multiple political crises and the re-emergence of Republicanism as a major political force. The advent of Brexit, and the re-imposition of border controls between the north and the south, is set to apply additional pressure on British control in the north.