As the House of Commons rages over the draft deal negotiated in November, with Theresa May’s government eternally lurching from crisis to crisis, the future of the United Kingdom as a single nation grows less certain by the day. For many on both sides of the referendum campaign in 2016, the most divisive issues were sovereignty, immigration, and trade. Few would have expected that the greatest point of contention over the matter would be the future of the Union itself. But here we are two years later; and British government stands in chaos as Parliament, the Cabinet and the European Commission seem to find little common ground over the future of the post-Brexit Irish Border. And in Scotland, the debate over Independence, long-thought settled in 2014, threatens to emerge once again as Holyrood’s patience with the squabbles in the South grows thin.
At the moment, it is the future of Northern Ireland that dominates the conversation. The government currently finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to placate three different interests over the matter. For the Republic of Ireland and the EU, their priority is the upholding of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and preventing a return of the sectarian violence that dominated the late twentieth century. This means no hard border that would inflame the currently dormant divisions of identity in the devolved state. For the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), their purpose as a political party is maintaining the Union with Britain, arguing for no customs border in the Irish Sea.
And finally for the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party and the European Research Group (ERG); their only priority is the expulsion of all Brussels-based jurisdiction from Britain’s borders. The problem this has generated for the government is that the current deal creates a customs border in the Irish Sea, ostensibly undermining where the future political border could lie (according to the DUP), and still attaches Britain to certain EU trading regulations - to the anger of the ERG. That, and May’s early commitment to a hard Brexit in January 2017 in her Lancaster House speech meant that as it stands (especially after the events of December), the deal cannot feasibly be ratified by the Commons. As a result, the UK now careens towards a no-deal Brexit that could very well revive the violence of The Troubles in the currently ungoverned Northern Ireland.
Looking north, the picture is hardly more palatable for Unionists. Where the Scottish National Party (SNP) faced significant losses at the last General Election to both of Britain’s two major parties, Scotland still stands as the most stridently pro-Remain of the UK’s constituent states in sixty-eight percent of Scots voting to stay in the EU in 2016. This, before even considering the conduct of May’s government towards Holyrood since the referendum, with requests for impact-reduction methods by Nicola Sturgeon’s administration met with a suspension of devolved powers and a court case against the Scottish government. This is worsened yet further still by the fact that this is still an SNP administration. Any, and all, centralisation or ignorance to Scottish politics, however significant, is fuel to the SNP’s cause of another Independence referendum, and poor publicity for Unionist parties.
At the end of all of this yet-still-to-come trauma for the United Kingdom, one has to ask why on earth would the Conservative and Unionist Party, that has sat in government for the past eight years, allows this to pass? Theresa May’s consistent indulging of the toxic Brexiteer wing of her party during her two years in office, through her bull-headed initial pushes for a ‘Hard’ Brexit, has hardly secured her position, given the recent vote of no-confidence amongst Conservative MPs. Instead, she has allowed a once proud bastion of Unionism to devolve into a tortured rabble of Anglo-British reactionaries and cringing Liberals, with over a third of its MPs now preferring the Union put dangerously at risk than retain any ties to the European Union.
Given the bleakness of both the Prime Minister’s situation, and the country at large, one now has to wonder if it is at all possible for any Unionist leadership to undo the damage done to one of the world’s oldest political unions.