The latest panic in respect of Brexit is a warning that it could lead to a breakup of the United Kingdom. “Brexit has become the enemy of the UK union,” is the headline in Nikkei’s world business newspaper, the London Financial Times. It’s worried about Scottish disunion and Irish unification. “Boris Johnson’s ‘do or die’ strategy,” the FT says, “is gambling with Britain’s future.”
To this case of the nerves, The New York Sun says “boo.” The Sun is, after all, the only mainstream American publication to endorse a yes vote on both Scottish independence and Brexit. We issued that editorial — “Dis-United Kingdom?” — in April 2014, as the Scottish referendum was looming. The Scots failed, alas, to take our advice. No wonder they’re still unhappy.
Our reckoning was — and is — that a yes vote on the two questions combined with a Republican accession in America in 2016 could, as we put it, “clear the way for a broad assertion of the values of classical liberalism.” Britons did deliver on Brexit, and American voters elevated Donald Trump to the White House. Not only the FT but also the Guardian fears that a no-deal Brexit could break up the UK.
This is a reference to breaking up the 1707 Act of Union, which united England, Wales and Scotland and, eventually, what is now Northern Ireland. By our lights this adds up to an opportunity for England on both fronts. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted against Brexit. So they have become a kind of political albatross as Britain makes its dash for independence.
The thing to remember about Northern Ireland, we have been reminded by our columnist Paul Atkinson, is that the prospect of its joining the Irish Republic has been long provided for. First, the 1949 Ireland Act, which ended dominion status of the Republic, left it to the Northern Ireland parliament. Then the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 stipulated that Irish union required a referendum.
Given that 60% of Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, the time might be ripe. As it might be in the case of Scotland, which also voted with the Remain camp. We wouldn’t want to suggest that every subgroup of Britain that voted Remain ought to quit the UK. There already is, though, an ample record of agitation on this head in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
No sooner did Boris Johnson emerge as prime minister than he rushed to Scotland to make nice to Nicola Sturgeon. It would have been better, in our view, to maintain a studied indifference, as has, after all, Elizabeth II, even when she permitted Scotland’s referendum of 2014 to take place. It’s not apathy, one can speculate; she’s hemmed in by constitutional conventions.
In any event, the guiding principle, at least for us, is that independence for Britain — Brexit — trumps these other issues. If the choice for England is between, on the one hand, independence without Scotland and Northern Ireland, or, staying in Europe in order to keep Scotland and Northern Ireland, then the Sun’s vote would be hands down for independence.
That would leave Britain free to pursue a special and strategic relationship with America and the other freedom countries. It would be a major bet on the principles of liberty and property. In our view, it would put Britain in a stronger, not weaker, position to negotiate the terms of its future relationship with Europe — and, for that matter, the unhappy Scots and fractious Irish.
Image: Drawing by Elliott Banfield, courtesy of the artist.