Much has been written about the UK’s departure from the European Union. Less has been written about the fact that the UK is itself a union, a multinational state. Indeed, it was noticeable how often during the COVID-19 crisis there has been talk in the UK of the different policies adopted by the ‘four nations.’
However, there is a difficulty. Leaving the EU has an obvious impact upon the British Union. For example, devolution of powers to Wales and Scotland agreed twenty years ago meant that matters like agriculture and fisheries were technically entrusted to the devolved territories. However, in practice that meant abiding by the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy of the EU.
Now that the UK is no longer part of the single market, what will happen to these supposedly devolved powers? Will there be separate Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English agriculture policies? If so, how could the UK possibly pursue its much-vaunted post-Brexit trade deals? But if not, will Wales and Scotland feel that powers already devolved are being taken back by the centre?
Northern Ireland, of course, is a special case. Much has already been written about the problems there with backstops, protocols and the attempt to minimise the effect of the 500-hundred-mile meandering worm of a border which cuts through lakes, villages and even houses to mark the boundary with the Republic. But for all the ‘four nations’ talk in the UK, it is difficult to see Northern Ireland as a ‘nation’. Nationalists obviously don’t think in those terms, since they would like the North to be part of the Republic of Ireland. But Unionists don’t like the idea either, because their constant emphasis is upon ‘staying British’. The last thing they want is the creation of another nation which is neither British nor Irish.
At the very least one can say that a new constitutional settlement is needed inside the UK in order to preserve the integrity of a multinational state. But there is little sign of it so far. Perhaps one reason is that the UK doesn’t want to admit that it could learn from its experience inside the EU about how to manage relations inside its own group of 4.
In lots of ways the EU respects the rights and powers of smaller nations. One of them is the requirement for unanimity when a Treaty is signed. Had the UK required unanimity among its ‘four nations’ in order to get agreement for BREXIT, its withdrawal from the EU would never have happened.
It is ironic that the UK, which spent decades arguing about how individual nations were supposedly being crushed by the EU juggernaut and turned into nothing more than regions of a superstate, could learn from the EU’s structures how to respect the rights of its own different nations and preserve its own integrity as a union.
It may not want to. There are many people in England who think that leaving the European Union was just the first stage towards leaving the British Union. The same combination of voices from both ends of the political spectrum that rejected the EU now threatens the future of the UK. On the Right, English nationalists call for separation; on the Left, people talk about an ‘internal empire’ dominated by England being abandoned like the ‘external empire’ which once extended round the world. Polls show that about the same number of people in England as in Scotland want to see an end to the Union.
My own view is that this would be a bad outcome for all the nations in the UK. It is often said that the European Union helped to preserve peace after World War Two because it provided a roof over the heads of nations which had a long history of conflict. The UK has undermined belief in the value of that roof by leaving the EU, and as a result it under-estimates the value of the roof it can itself provide for conflicts on the islands of Britain and Ireland going back centuries.
If Boris Johnson is still fiddling while Rome burns even after BREXIT, it is because he doesn’t yet realise that this is a tale of two unions, not one, and the union that threatens to fall apart is his own.