Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan will break the UK union

Boris Johnson’s readiness to tear up the UK’s reputation for honest dealing by rewriting the EU withdrawal deal has grabbed the headlines. The news, though, is worse. Legislation to create a post-Brexit single market across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shows equal contempt for the UK’s constitutional settlement. By asserting unassailable English supremacy, the prime minister is inviting Scotland to leave the union. 

There is a burgeoning school of thought, in Whitehall and Westminster as well as Edinburgh, that says Brexit has made Scottish independence inevitable. The sweep of history, the story runs, will conclude that the matter was settled as soon as England voted to leave the EU and Scotland to remain. The frayed bonds of the union were cut beyond repair.

There is something to be said for the long view. The Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 was a contingent agreement. Mr Johnson’s remark this year that there is “no such thing” as a border between the two nations was a measure of indifference as well as ignorance. Scotland did not give up its border or its nationhood — nor its distinct legal and educational systems. 

The union was about collaboration abroad. Scotland secured access to the emerging British empire, and England to talented entrepreneurs, engineers and administrators. With empire long gone, Brexit has put an end to any notion of a joint enterprise beyond British shores. Instead, Scotland is presented with a choice: if it sticks with England, it cuts itself off from Europe. The referendum vote to leave the EU was bad enough. The threat to defy international law on the way to a no-deal Brexit risks leaving Scotland isolated on the edge of its own continent.

Historical determinists point also to the sharp contrast in political culture and temperament revealed by Covid-19. The performance of the two nations in curbing the spread has not been that different; the styles have been miles apart. The cautious, open approach of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party administration has sat alongside a strategy in Downing Street most kindly described as shambolic bluster.

At this point — with Ms Sturgeon demanding a rerun of the 2014 independence poll and the opinion polls showing a solidifying majority of Scots in favour of independence — a reliably pro-union government at Westminster would be declaring that nothing is preordained. England and Scotland have both been enriched by their partnership. 

History is written by human agency. Brexit, such a government would continue, can be the occasion for a new settlement between the four constituent parts of the union. Power reclaimed from Brussels will be distributed to every corner of the UK.

Mr Johnson has taken the opposite course. Publicly he declares himself a unionist; privately, Whitehall officials report, he is heard to scorn Scotland as “too leftwing” — spending money raised from English taxpayers on lavish welfare. The prejudice is reflected in the legislation now before parliament to create a UK single market.

Beyond the controversial clauses that would renege on provisions in the withdrawal agreement to keep an open border in Ireland, the essential purpose of the new law is to tighten England’s grip over the rest of the UK. 

Decisions over food and environment norms, labour law and industrial standards hitherto shared with Brussels will belong solely to Westminster. Powers over health and education held by the Scottish parliament and Northern Ireland and Welsh assemblies will be diluted. Westminster will decide whether to scrap the animal husbandry rules that presently bar imports of American chlorinated chicken.

A common set of rules is certainly needed to allow the UK market to operate freely. Yet there is no reason why the other nations of the union should be barred a say in negotiating trade deals and the setting of standards, or that UK-wide norms must exclude a measure of national discretion. But no, English MPs at Westminster will decide what Scotland eats. 

In truth, the legislation — as bluntly condemned by a pro-union government in Wales as by Ms Sturgeon — is a gift to Scottish nationalism, proof that centrist Scotland is now a prisoner of rightwing English Conservativism.

Mr Johnson’s response to criticism of this English-fits-all approach is to insist he will simply block independence. Even if, as the polls suggest, the Scottish Nationalists win a mandate in next year’s Edinburgh elections, he will prevent a referendum. If that fails, there is a back-up plan. Scottish voters will again be told that their reliance on fiscal transfers from England mean they cannot afford independence.

Both approaches serve the nationalists: the first by legitimising the SNP charge that England is locking Scotland into a state of vassalage; the second by displaying a condescending contempt calculated to energise nationalists. Of course, independence would bring severe economic challenges. But if there was a lesson from the Brexit vote in 2016 it was that identity trumps economics.

Whatever the outcome of the present furore over lawbreaking, Brexit has also weakened the bonds between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The strains on the union, though, start with the balance between Westminster and Edinburgh. Break-up may not be preordained, but none looks so determined as Mr Johnson to force Scotland’s hand.

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