UK Politics

A United Kingdom? Five reasons why the Union’s future feels uncertain


It was formed by the Act of Union with Wales in 1536, the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 and the Government of Ireland Act 1920, creating Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom the following year.

Yet today, questions of "The Union" too often boil down to the Boris and Nicola pantomime, as prime minister and first minister dance around re-running the Scottish independence question.

The challenge of governing the UK today is so much bigger than this, however.

Image: Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson have very differing views on the Union

Travelling 2,000 miles across and around the kingdom, and speaking to the leaders of all the nations as well as their citizens, there are strains and challenges evident like never before.

Sky News has seen how coronavirus was handled differently across the four nations of the United Kingdom causing angst in Westminster, while Brexit is generating fresh warnings from one-time allies, and bringing a fresh focus on all unions, everywhere.


Here are five reasons why the Union's future feels uncertain…

Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson
Is the union in trouble?

1. A second Scottish independence referendum is far from impossible

Boris Johnson has vowed never to authorise a second Scottish independence referendum, and there is no reason to doubt his word on this, however strong the pressure from north of the border. But that doesn't make it impossible.

Speaking to Sky News, leader of the Welsh Labour Party and First Minister for Wales Mark Drakeford revealed how it could happen.

He insisted no prime minister should have the right to stand in the way of an independence referendum in either Scotland or Wales if the people wanted one. In other words, should he be in Number 10, Keir Starmer should not block a vote on Scotland breaking away from the UK in the way Mr Johnson is currently doing.

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"I am very clear that if a population in Scotland, or indeed in Wales, wanted to hold a referendum it is for the people of Wales and the people of Scotland to make that decision," Mr Drakeford told me.

"And then that decision must be respected. So that's my starting point… is that no Labour leader should argue that the component parts of the United Kingdom can be prevented from navigating a future for themselves."

This is a headache for Sir Keir.

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Successive Labour leaders have ruled out "pacts" with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament – and continue to do so – but the consequences of high stakes government formation talks involve unpredictable outcomes. The voices around the leader are crucial.

Richard Leonard, the embattled Scottish Labour leader, was unable to say never to supporting a second referendum, even though he readily declares "never" to supporting independence.

He told Sky he wants a "mandate" next May against a second referendum in the Scottish elections, an argument likely to hurt him if the SNP win big in May.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said the 'stay at home' message still applies in Wales
Image: Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said he could not rule out a referendum if the people wanted it

Separately, there is an outside chance the Supreme Court may eventually force the hand of the Westminster government to hold one sooner – in what would be an epic fight of mandates and arguments over sovereignty – though this involves too many legal imponderables for many in SW1 to have got their heads around yet.

Curiously, both the Scottish Secretary Alister Jack and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart refused to say to me the Tories would "never" hold one. Mr Jack said: "It's not my job to say never. My job is to say now is not the time and I am saying now is not the time."

Mr Hart says he does not have a crystal ball.

2. The SNP may not need to show how an independent Scotland can pay its bills to win

The clinching argument of the 2014 referendum – that Scotland can't afford to go it alone – may no longer be sufficiently effective.

First ministers Arlene Foster and Mr Drakeford both say Northern Ireland and Wales respectively couldn't alone have afforded this year's emergency coronavirus help provided by the United Kingdom Treasury. Scottish Secretary Mr Jack wants Scots to focus on this issue too, calling it the £6bn question.

Pressed over whether a newly independent Scotland could borrow massively without the support of a Bank of England – which in March had to step in to defend high borrowing by the UK government – Nicola Sturgeon insisted Scotland would cope.

George Osborne Visits Scotland Oil Platform
Image: Scotland may not have to prove how it will fund itself

Initially Scotland would use Sterling before changing to a "different currency arrangement" or "a separate Scottish currency".

But she added: "The idea that Scotland uniquely in the world is not capable of having its currency, of having the infrastructure to support that and operating like other small countries, the world over does, is just nonsense. And we are a country that has greater resources than many other countries across the globe, and we are perfectly capable of becoming an independent country and operating successfully an independent country."

On the streets of Edinburgh, voters wanting independence showed little concern for the warnings, which echo so-called "Project Fear" during Brexit.

Asked whether Scotland could afford another coronavirus or a scheme like furlough, one young independence supporter thanked the Treasury, admitted there'd probably be a problem but then said "we don't know until we do it", and reaffirmed his commitment to breaking away.

This should worry cabinet ministers as they work on their arguments for the Union in the coming months.

3. Northern Ireland is the most fragile part of the United Kingdom, not Scotland

Northern Ireland has handled coronavirus strikingly differently, not that Westminster has noticed, necessitating co-operation with the Republic of Ireland, which is likely to cause angst among some unionists.

The government has developed a coronavirus contact tracing app compatible with the one in the Republic of Ireland. A north-south memorandum was struck with Dublin, hailed by nationalists, and work was done to keep the border flowing with the North.

Friends observe social distancing as they meet outside Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Image: Northern Ireland is the most fragile nation in the union

Pubs in Northern Ireland did not reopen along the timetable of the British mainland, instead more closely to the Republic's decision to keep them largely shut.

"I think coronavirus has changed the way everything works at this moment in time," Robin Swann, Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist health minister, told me.

"I have as good a relationship with the health minister in Ireland as I do with Matt Hancock."

He, like DUP first minister Mrs Foster, deny this is a shift with any constitutional implications, and reject the idea that embracing of Belfast-Dublin co-operation has any greater resonance beyond sensible information sharing in a global emergency.

Asked if people think political allegiances in Northern Ireland are moving because of coronavirus co-operation with the Republic, Mrs Foster said: "Well they're definitely reading too much into it a lot. I mean, that's not the case."

However, Séamas de Faoite, a nationalist on Belfast council, disagrees. He thinks "the conversation (about whether Northern Ireland's future is with the Republic) has very seriously begun".

The SDLP councillor added: "In the context of Northern Ireland's politics coronavirus is neither green nor orange, it doesn't respect or adhere to any constitutional viewpoints or barriers, and that has prompted us into the position where there is a realisation that north-south co-operation works, no matter what your constitutional position."

First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster arrives at St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry, ahead of the funeral of John Hume.
Image: Arlene Foster said people are reading into to much after Northern Ireland and the Republic worked together during the pandemic

One of the United Kingdom's most senior unionists jokingly placed a bet with me that Northern Ireland might be the first to break away, before Scotland.

Constitutionally, there is a case for this.

The Good Friday Agreement gives Northern Ireland the opportunity for a border poll – a vote for a united Ireland – if the secretary of state thinks it likely that a majority would vote for a united Ireland.

This means the risks are huge.

Could community peace be maintained in the event of a referendum on its borders, given the turbulence which the 2014 and 2016 votes across the UK caused?

Ministers should not assume Wales's future is assured in the event the other nations break away. Welsh first minister Mr Drakeford told me "we have to stand up for Wales, but Wales is part of the United Kingdom" – but added that "if the United Kingdom were to fracture… then everybody will have to think about the way in what remains can go on working for everybody".

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and British Prime Minister's Europe adviser David Frost are seen at start of the first round of post-Brexit trade deal talks
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4. Boris Johnson's ministers do not much like devolution as it stands

Coronavirus has meant a "great awakening" about the realities of devolution – the three nations' ability to govern themselves in certain areas – Ms Sturgeon told Sky News. She felt too few in Westminster were ever even aware Whitehall has no direct control over health outside England.

Ms Foster and Mr Drakeford both say the ability to differ responses from Westminster have proved devolution is a success.

Yet cabinet ministers cannot hide their discomfort with it.

Scottish Secretary Mr Jack said he wished nations would not move at different speeds on coronavirus. "I would prefer we move as one, particularly because my constituency… especially close to the border… and it has been confusing for people, all the different rules regulations. And I know that others have said that from other parts of the UK to me, so Read More – Source