The victory of Boris Johnson in the UK general election could be considered a national endorsement for Brexit, but should not be judged as a breakthrough in reconciliating the factions that are splitting the kingdom. For at least two reasons. First of all, the result of the election confirms that the voters for and against Brexit are more or less the same as they were in 2016, when the referendum took place. Three years of excruciating debate has not shifted opinions in any clear direction. The country remains split vis-a-vis its relationship with the European Union.
The second reason is the geographical partition along the borders of the nations belonging to the United Kingdom. The degree of division is different. In England the majority of the people was and still is in favour of Brexit; in Scotland was and still is against Brexit; in Wales was in favour of Brexit but now seems to be marginally in favour of Remain; in Northern Ireland people were and remain in favour of Remain. In London, the city state of the kingdom, Remain is still by far the preferred choice.
The British electoral system gave a huge prize to the mainly rural and English supporters of Brexit. The sound parliamentary majority won by Boris Johnson is misleading: it gives the impression of a countrywide consensus for the divorce. It is not true. It is indisputable, though, that the voters want to put an end to the Brexit saga. But let us not get confused: the kingdom is in pieces and will be in pieces for a long time. The threat of Scotland’s secession via a new independence referendum and of Northern Ireland’s via a reunification referendum (to unite the island under Dublin) are realistic and plausible. If the Catholic population in Ulster becomes a majority, going beyond the threshold in 2022 as presently estimated, the chances of a referendum in favour of the island’s unification will skyrocket. The deal signed by Boris Johnson with the EU has already singled out Belfast from the kingdom: Belfast will have a different customs arrangement from the rest of the UK. It is the first step towards a divorce of Northern Ireland from London. That is why the unionists have always opposed the deal reached by Boris Johnson. Their mistake was not to support Theresa May’s deal. It was a weak compromise, but the only one able to guarantee the unity of the UK as we currently know it.
Northern Ireland might be the first nation of the kingdom to strike a different path from the rest. Scotland, though, will be tempted to seek independence once again. The Scottish nationalists are already doing their best to find a majority for secession, but the result is not guaranteed. The economic links between Edinburgh and London are too strong to be dismissed. Oil is not enough (and it is not entirely Scottish, as Downing Street keeps repeating) to guarantee present standards of living. Economic considerations make the separation a complex development; political goals go in the opposite direction. I believe a second Scottish referendum will be organized but the outcome is very much uncertain.
If this is the picture of the kingdom as by-product of Boris Johnson’s victory, the question is: will the will of the people, as the Brexiters keep calling the referendum results and the general election results, align with the hopes of the people? Will more jobs, better living standards, a sound national health service, public education, new infrastructure, efficient transport be the direct consequences of Brexit? I belong to the tribe that does not see how raising a border between you and your best friend, your best economic and trading partner can be of any help. I also believe that forty or so years of Europeanization have left a deep imprint on the British people, much more than they seem to be aware of. For now, at least.
The mantra of the Brexiters has always been the opposite: once free from the laces of the EU we will blossom again thanks to our ability to revamp the ancient imperial links with the Commonwealth nations, relaunching the American special relationship, rediscovering the strength of Britishness (although we should call it Englishness). There are no signs of that but clear indications of the bumpy road ahead. Brexit has still to be properly defined. The political decision is taken, the nitty gritty of the future economic EU/UK relationship – in other words the real Brexit – not yet. By the end of the year the electorate of the kingdom will probably discover that to align the will of the people with the hopes of the people, the price has to be a Brexit so soft as to be almost impalpable.
Contributing Editor at Il Sole 24 Ore / Political and Economic Analyst (EU)