Brexit and the State of the Unions between England, Scotland and NI


Two major opinion polls have been published this week, the Scottish Independence and Brexit chapter from the British Social Attitudes survey (20 June) and Lord Ashcroft’s Poll on Brexit, the Border and the Union (19th June). These give a good insight as to current public opinion, with the usual caveats that no poll should be taken in isolation.

As regular readers of this blog will know I think Brexit is a mistake, a disaster and an obscenity, driven primarily by English nationalism or what Umberto Eco described as ur-fascism. I was deeply disturbed on the morning after the Brexit referendum. I had expected Leave to win till the murder of Jo Cox, given the ineptness and monochromaticity of the Leave campaign, but had hoped the country might draw collective breath.

It is now the second anniversary of the Brexit Referendum, but I remember waking the next morning, feeling as if a tenuous, beautifully painted, theatrical masking screen had been shattered by thugs, revealing the ugliness below. I tried to describe it to my young son as the scene in Lion King when Mufasa is killed and Scar takes over the Kingdom. The country which had shown its best side at its vibrant, multicultural, welcoming and creative best during the London Olympics only four years before seemed to have been brutally butchered. Revealing an ugly, mean-spirited, racist, English supremacist underbelly. I had retired the night before after the Sunderland result believing all was lost, but hoping for at least one good night’s sleep before catastrophe struck.

I had hoped that in the two years since the Brexit Referendum the scars would have healed and I would feel the country was in a better place. Sadly I do not. Partially because a very close 52-48% referendum victory was treated as 100-0% by the leave side. Partially also the sheer incompetence of the Brexit cabinet, with May, Johnson, Davis and Fox all vying for the worst holder of their respective positions in history. Partially the fear of sliding towards fascism, exacerbated every time “the will of the people” is invoked and our supposedly sovereign parliament proves itself spineless once again. Given that my father was in Germany from 1937-39 and instilled in me a fear that fascism could reoccur anywhere given the right conditions, it seems that there are clear indicators of slow burning right wing coup happening in the UK. I do worry that I am over-analyzing the situation.

However it was Rafael Behr on a recent Remaniacs Podcast who possibly hit the nail on the head, by comparing the current atmosphere in London to that of his time in Moscow. It was the fact that the Government could now lie with absolute impunity. There was no longer any such thing as truth and even if there were it would be hidden down such a labyrinth of lies it could never be found. Raf had to leave Moscow after a few years as he felt he was going mad.

I will continue to rage rage against the dying of the light till the 29th March but as David Alan Green puts it, exit from the EU is inevitable, unless something currently unforeseen happens by automatic operation of law, regardless of the state of the domestic statute book.

Whereas England may be a lost cause, there is a possibility that both Scotland and Northern Ireland may be able to escape the psychosis which seems to have enveloped the UK. Indeed Chris Kendal in last week’s Cakewatch, as an Englishman, advised Scotland to abandon the sinking ship and save itself. For Northern Ireland it is easier in that it gets automatic entry to the EU if it joins with the Republic. It was also interesting to hear in the same Cakewatch podcast that Steve Bullock shares my fear of an unelected right-wing coup.

Scotland 2014 and Northern Ireland 1973 Referendums

Northern Ireland last had a unification referendum (Border Poll) in 1973. This was a total farce as the Referendum was boycotted by the Nationalist population and it was estimated that fewer than 1% of Catholics actually voted. At the time there was both a substantial Protestant and Unionist majority, wide-scale gerrymandering against the Catholic community and as the then SDLP leader Gerry Fitt said “I think on the figures I have just seen, which have just arrived from London, there has been massive impersonation of votes by the unionist party.” There was an overwhelming majority to stay in the Union of 98.90%, a figure normally only seen in totalitarian states. It had been the intention to run a Border poll every 10 years but the poll was such a failure that this was dropped. The current state of affairs under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is:

The Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 (call a Border Poll) if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.

The NI situation is now very different with distinct possibility that a Border poll would result in a United Ireland. The specific wording of the GFA clause, giving the NI Secretary of State the power to make the decision has been criticized, particularly in the context where the DUP, a passionately pro-Union party, holds the balance of power in Westminster.

In Scotland of course there was an Independence Referendum in 2014 at which Scotland voted to stay in the Union by a 55-45% majority. This was supposedly a once in a generation poll, but one of the strongest arguments for Scotland to remain in the Union was that it automatically guaranteed EU membership. There was a mixture of “love bombing” Scotland by the major political parties with promises of greater devolution and “project fear”. Project fear was a warning of dire economic consequences if Scotland left the UK and supposedly formed the basis of the Cameron strategy in the Brexit Referendum.

If I were a Scot I would be very fed up. It seems that not only will Scotland be dragged out of the UK against its will but the Sewel Convention has been ignored and fewer powers will be devolved to Scotland and not more.

The Strength of the Unions

As seems likely the UK will leave the EU on the 29th March. Should either Scotland or Northern Ireland prevent this happening Leave voters prioritize Brexit over the existence of the UK, as illustrated in Fig. 1. The question includes not only Scotland and Northern Ireland, but Wales also. What is interesting that it is Tory Leave voters which most prioritise Brexit over the survival of the UK by a staggering 73% to 22% margin (more than 3:1).


Fig. 1 From Lord Ashcroft Poll 19th June 2018

Looking in more detail at the Scottish results it seems that the Tories again value Scotland least and the Lib Dems most of the major national parties.

Fig. 2 Feelings about Scotland leaving the UK

The situation regarding Northern Ireland are similar but in general show less affinity towards Northern Ireland than Scotland. The difference however is not that great. I find this surprising. The only area where NI seems to get a higher score than Scotland is that fewer Tories would be sorrier to see Scotland leaving the UK than NI, possibly because the DUP are currently propping up the Tory Government.

Fig 3. Feelings about NI leaving the UK


What is most striking is that it is the Conservative and Unionist party, to give its full name, which seems to support the Union with Scotland the least. This is a major turn around from a few years ago where the Tories were the most passionate supporters of the Union. There is also in general less support for the Union from the other parties. This should give proponents of an independent Scotland hope as the “love bombing” of the 2014 referendum is unlikely to be repeated and “project fear” may be less effective in the light of its failure in Brexit.

The Northern Ireland figures are less of a surprise. One could almost feel sad for the NI Unionists as their love for the Union is unrequited.

The Effect of Brexit

Whereas Brexit has had an effect on attitudes in both NI and Scotland, the Scottish figures are fairly subtle and the NI figures extraordinarily marked. Looking at the Independence support for Scottish Europhiles and Europhobes shows that the support for Independence for Europhobes has remained fairly constant at around 40% since 2015 but the support for Europhiles has increased considerably from c 40% to 55%. This is important in the context of an Indi Ref as both strands need to be kept on board.

Fig 4. Support for Scottish Independence for Europhiles and Europhobes


The NI figures are very stark as illustrated in Fig. 5. The Catholic community is nearly unanimous in believing Brexit makes a UI more likely, with a staggering 94% believing this to be the case. The Protestant community believes by a smaller margin that Brexit makes a UI less likely. In the actual Brexit referendum the Remain vote was around 80% in the Catholic community and 40% in the Protestant one. Unsurprisingly Catholics also think Brexit will be a disaster for the UK. Priorities are also very different. From the Ashcroft poll:

We asked people in Northern Ireland how much importance they gave to five potential Brexit outcomes. For Catholic and Nationalists voters, avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was far and away the most important consideration. For Unionists and Protestants, however, the issue mattered much less than ensuring the UK was able to negotiate its own free trade deals with non-EU countries, was no longer bound by EU rules, and had more control over immigration into the UK. Making sure Northern Ireland was treated the same as the rest of the UK was also more important than preventing a hard border.

Fig 5. The effect of Brexit on the likelihood of a UI by community.


Would an Ind Ref or Border Poll be successful?

In the case of Scotland there is a recent poll and a pre-existing model. My own view is that Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely. One aspect they have to get right is currency. As a MMT supporter I believe Scotland should go for its own sovereign currency and tying Scotland to sterling is a mistake. However the electorate may be more reassured by a sterling link. I suspect that the SNP may have had focus groups looking at this.

Overall however in terms of Scottish Independence the results are quite tight. It seems that the 45-55% split has tightened to 48-52%. As Prof. John Curtice says (from the British Attitudes Social Survey) says:

Much the same conclusion can be reached if we look at how people say they would vote if another independence referendum were to be held now. Leaving aside those who felt unable to say how they would vote, in 2016 45% said that they would vote Yes to independence, 55% No – the same result as in the September 2014 referendum. In our most recent survey the proportion saying Yes was, at 48%, a little higher (with No at 52%), but this slight departure from the result of the first independence referendum could clearly be a consequence of no more than the random sampling variation to which all surveys are subject.

So it is difficult to tell as Prof. John Curtice is famously very cautious. However if 48-52% result is true, all is to play for.

In NI Brexit sadly has caused near complete polatisation of both communities as Fig. 6 illustrates. The overall figures show a 44% to 49% split in favour of a UI. Catholics are massively in favour and Protestants massively against. Party allegiance is also what one might expect. The most interesting thing perhaps is that Alliance and non religious voters both lean towards a UI and they hold the key.

There is no chance of a Border poll however while the DUP are supporting the Government. This could change as many predict a GE in the autumn. The demographics in NI are such that Catholics will be (possibly already are and almost certainly by 2021 at the next census) in a majority in NI and this majority is set to increase with every passing year. Of course it will take some years for this to propagate through to the voting age population.

The other problem is that NI is expensive. It is supported by the British exchequer to the tune of c 10bn net per year, greater that the net 8bn EU contribution. It is true that the Republic of Ireland’s economy is very strong but it is only about 1/10 the size of that of the UK, so in Irish terms the 10bn figure is more like 100bn, from a UK perspective. Whereas the vast majority of people in the South would like a UI, many feel that that the effects of the 2008 financial crisis need to be put more firmly in the past. They would also like Brexit to play out. The Irish Government position is that now is not the time. Nevertheless a Border poll in say 2022 or 2023 is a possibility and by 2030 a virtual certainty. Time is on the Nationalists side. Unionists need to both pray that Brexit is a tremendous success and “love bomb” the Catholic community. The sight of the DUP doing this will be a wonder to behold!


Fig 6. Voting intentions in NI by community


  1. Peter May -

    If Ireland were to reunite would the currency be the Euro – would NI keep Sterling or would they create their own currency?
    Whilst reuniting might be desireable I cannot imagine that joining the Euro is!

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I think the certainty of joining the Euro is absolute. There is little appetite despite the banking crisis politically to leave the Euro. The Bankers and FF government got pretty much all the blame.

      If Ireland wished to leave the Euro there are two major issues:

      a large national debt of the order of 200bn (about 66% of GDP) is designated in Euros

      Exports are around 100% of GDP and I’m not sure exports are properly thought through in MMT. Most economies are far more closed, indeed I think Ireland is the most globalised economy in the world on some measures.

    2. Andy Crow -

      I can’t see there would be any possibility of NI doing other than accepting the Irish currency as part of the assimilation into a United Ireland.

      I don’t think the Euro has been reckoned that bad for Ireland, though obviously the lead into and out of the 2008 financial crash was far from a good experience. At least it was a shared pain.

      For NI the austerity of being part of the Euro is unlikely to have been any worse than being hog-tied to a politically motivated and completely unnecessary Sterling austerity.

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    Your usual excellent dissection of the recent polls, Sean.

    However, I don’t think there’s cat in hell’s chance that there’ll be a referendum for either an independent Scotland or UI until the full scale and scope of the impact of Brexit has time to push through and directly effect the wider public – and that will take time and will undoutedly be a highly politicised and chaotic process.

    Assuming we crash out in March next year – which I think extremely likely (the current attitude of May and her Brexit extremists seems to be akin to the charge of the Light Brigade and we all know that didn’t end well) – it will take the best part of the rest of 2019 before companies like Airbus – who now at least have had the courage to come out and say they may well leave – make firm decisions to quit the UK.

    Then there’ll be a period of scaling back and gradual withdrawral which will take several years, against which we can expect the government to try to put in place all sorts of special measures to stop or slow this happening, and then alleviate the impact (in short, buying organisations and the public off). In this endevour we can expect the government to be fully supported by the Brexit supporting press, who will also of course blame everything on the EU while hyping to the heavens any ‘jam tomorrow’ scenarios they and the government can construct (i.e. short term suffering will be worth it in the end).

    This I think is when things could get nasty. However, we also need to throw into the mix an election pending in 2020. I suspect that if we have economic upheaval combined with social unrest – or even the obvious sniff of both – politics may take a nasty turn. Personally I doubt there’ll be a right wing coup. My reason for saying that is that the degree of hegemony enjoyed by the Tory party and its associated entities (e.g. so called ‘think tanks’), supporting media and other institutions (i.e. the ‘Right’ in general) in the UK is such that a call for a ‘national government’ and the suspension of the 2020 elections – probably for an initial period of three years – will be sufficient. Given what we saw in 2010 I think it highly likely the majority of the public will go along with that and they will be aided in coming to this conclusion by the Brexit supporting/right wing media – including I have to say (sadly) the BBC.

    It’s at that point – at some point mid or later in 2020 – that I’d say it likely the Scotish indepence and UI issues may really get going. But let’s be clear, they will be stamped on – and hard. And if we already have a national government in place I wouldn’t be at all surprised if actions aren’t taken under the slogan ‘national solidarity’ or something similar, to suspend the powers of the Scotish government (Stormont is of course much easier to deal with).

    Anyway, I could hypothesise further but I’ll stop as the scenario set out to late 2020 is I think entirely possible, whereas the reactions to this and subsequent developments become much less easy to predict. Overall though, I’d say you are lucky to have an Irish passport as you may not wish to continue living in the UK come 2021.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. I note you have expanded this into a full article. I will reply tomorrow when I have had more time.

    2. Andy Crow -

      Certainly it was the stated position of the SNP and re-stated after May’s snap election that until the outcome of Brexit is clear, or at least visible, a referendum on Scottish independence would remain on the back burner.

      Despite wailing and gnashing of teeth from die-hard Indy supporters, impatiently wanting to ‘get on with it’, Nicola Sturgeon seems to be resolute in not changing that stance and rightly so in my opinion. It would be a curious situation voting to leave a Brexit Britain without knowing what it was.

      Nearly as daft as voting to leave the EU.

  3. Hazel Rodgers -

    “What is most striking is that it is the Conservative and Unionist party, to give its full name, which seems to support the Union with Scotland the least.” – doesn’t refer to the Act of Union with Scotland 1707 but the other problem! Ireland = opposition to Irish Home Rule. Drilling down into Scottish history it will be discovered that ordinary Scots had no say and did not want the union of parliaments 1707 and have been abused as the small nation for 300 years now. No wonder we’re angry.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      I agree. Irish home rule was fought for politically over a 30+ year period and continually weaseled upon by the Tories. The Irish had a war of Independence eventually and even the compromise over the existence of NI caused a civil ear.

      The Scots when given the opportunity for a peaceful Indi. Ref voted against. My Irish sister in law was surprised “Aren’t they fed up of being bullied by Westminster?” I think the way Scotland has been treated during Brexit has been contemptuous.

      I know more about the union between Britain and Ireland in 1801, which has been described as an experiment which went disastrously wrong for Ireland almost immediately by Dr Tim McInerney. Wealth was sucked out of the country, at a rate equivalent to North Sea Oil at its peak.

      1. Derick Tulloch -

        The Union of 1707 was an economic catastrophe for Scotland. All down the east coast in particular, as our trading links to the continent were severed.

        Shetland, where I’m from, had a thriving trade with the Baltic that had lasted for 200 years. The Union destroyed that almost immediately. That led to an economic depression that lasted decades, then to “fishing tenure” – debt bondage.

      2. Sean Danaher -


        I have a cousin Dermot who has retired to Shetland and I hope to visit soon.

        It does not surprise me that Scotland did very badly out of the Union.

        What does surprise me is how well the English succeeded with divide and conquer. Scotland and Ireland should be natural allies and I hope for a much greater relationship in future.

  4. Samuel Johnson -

    My family is from NI originally on my father’s side. His older siblings and parents moved south when the country was partitioned. I wouldn’t mind at all being resident when the poll happens if it’s possible to anticipate it and could yet see making some investment there if the pound were to take a further substantial tumble (NI is a place that could do very well under new management). My English other half would vote to end partition too (indeed I don’t know anyone from the UK mainland living in Ireland who thinks it should be sustained). If there are people in NI thinking similar but opposite thoughts, of leaving, as Arlene Foster has said she’d do, then, conceivably, things might accelerate.

    The pity is that NI is being treated as a zero sum game. Some form of joint sovereignty with NI remaining in the EU could be made to work for everyone, but the unionist attitude is not an inch, no surrender, no equality for Taigs (derogatory term for native Irish), gays, women, or Irish speakers. The stupidity of it given the demographic inevitability of change is unfathomable. Arlene has made a show of going to a Gaelic football game recently and a couple of other transparently choreographed PR moves that are not likely to cut a lot of ice with the community derided as crocodiles not so long ago.

    Ireland will never take on NI as a welfare dependency nor should it need to if it was well run. It’s not, and that’s why the income differential is large and growing. As for NI not using the euro, that’s a joke. It has a substantial trade surplus with Ireland, as does the UK, and a large majority of small businesses anywhere within a hour’s drive of the border use euros as well as pounds. Go to any fair or market in Ireland and you’ll find people from NI buying and selling in euros. It suits them just fine as they get better prices in Ireland and, it seems to me, make a margin on the exchange rate as well (and I suspect the reverse is not the case at all in NI).

    The status quo is doomed, but it’s too soon to say if we’ll transition peacefully to a new modus vivendi. The chances of doing so under the current Westminster govt are, I think, small. Mainly as I don’t think it’s going to around much longer. It’s the worst in my adult lifetime. If I am wrong it will continue to make disastrous mistakes and we may see conflict resume.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I agree with all of that. I think a UI is pretty much inevitable but if Brexit talks break down it could get very ugly.

      The irony is that the one thing likely to extend NI’s relationship with the UK is some sort of HK solution.

      The DUP as id often said are good at tactics but useless at strategy.

  5. George Gemmell -

    The problem for Westminster about Scottish Independence is ,they think of Scotland as a region of greater Englandshire .We are not ,we are a proud country in our own right.Since I was a child all we were taught at school was British history This was done to Anglinise our reasoning It was used as a weapon to subvert Scotland to Westminster rule.But in the lead up to the 2014 referendum people started to get involved in politics .It was the Labour branch office in Scotland for what it was .A red Tory party Don’t believe these so called polls The growth in support for independence is a lot higher than these polls suggest.Unlike in the 2014 referendum the European workers living here will not vote no They will now vote yes to save their citizenship here in Scotland

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I agree. On the last point there was a Lucid Talk poll in NI, where there is now a substantial EU community a few weeks ago. Pre-Brexit I think they split about 50-50 for a United Ireland. Post-Brexit the split was 100-0 for a UI. Not a single EU person chose to stay in Brexit Britain.

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