Brexit Effects

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Why the Scottish Independence Movement can be hard to stop

Predictions of UK break-up may be intensifying, but they are not new. In 1707, Jonathan Swift wrote a poem ridiculing the Act of Union between England and Scotland, which had just been passed, for seeking to combine two incompatible peoples into one state: “As if a man making bouquets / Should mix thistles with roses”. He goes on to say that political differences would inevitably ruin the entire enterprise, as "pitting one faction against another will bring down / Our mad two-faced kingdom".

Swift was confident the crumbling project would founder, but it took 313 years before his prediction could begin to come true – and even then the split may not be as imminent as some imagine.

It is true that the last 20 opinion polls show that a majority of Scots are now in favor of independence, but the turn against the union is quite recent, as is the dominance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the polls.

Contrast this short period with the Irish struggle for self-government, which reached its height from 1885 to 1918, when those who sought self-government by constitutional means were replaced by the sense fine and by unilateral secession. Many of the arguments used against Irish separatism – most notably that it made no economic sense at all – are now used against the Scots and are likely to be equally ineffective.

Minimizing Scottish self-determination on the grounds that it is less important than mundane issues on the political agenda, as Boris Johnson did during his one-day visit to Scotland on Thursday, sounds absurdly hypocritical coming from a prime minister who only it holds that post because it promoted British sovereignty above all else by leaving the European Union. No doubt he and his advisers are well aware of this contradiction, as the purpose of their trip to Scotland in the midst of the pandemic was evidently to rebrand Johnson in Scots eyes as “Mr. Vaccine” instead of “Mr. Brexit”.

Hoping that Johnson's appearance in a white coat claiming, contrary to the evidence, that Scottish voters consider independence irrelevant, will help turn the political tide is just one measure of how upset the British government must be with Scottish separatism. He blunderingly claimed that prioritizing self-determination over economic benefits is "like saying you don't care what you eat, as long as it's with a spoon."

Suggestive phrases like this must have sent PNE leaders into secret glee, as Johnson's condescending words only serve to remind Scottish voters of the two main reasons they are more inclined to secede today than in the 2014 referendum: Britain's exit from the European Union and Johnson's botched response to the coronavirus last year compared to the seemingly more competent Nicola Sturgeon.

Johnson and his pro-Brexit government are forcibly learning the same political lesson they once taught others, namely: once a nationalist movement gains momentum, it becomes an identity mark for the people and a vehicle for social grievances. and economical, so it is very difficult to stop it.

However, self-determination comes in different shades of practical independence. Even if Scotland and Northern Ireland move significantly away from direct UK government control, the degree to which they can go their own way will be dictated by the underlying balance of power, as Brexit supporters are only discovering the hard way. Union and rupture, these two competing forces, are normally analyzed only in the UK context, but it is more realistic and illuminating to look at them in relation to the British Isles as a whole.

Ireland gained a large measure of independence in 1921 and was neutral in World War II, but surprisingly remained in the British sphere of influence due to disparity in political and economic strength and the common labor market. But Britain's exit from the European Union, while Ireland remains within the bloc, has made the two countries much more even when it comes to negotiations, especially when there is an Irish-friendly US government.

One of the many things that Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party failed to understand was that no British leader wants to clash with Brussels and Washington to comply with the wishes of a million unionist/Protestants in Northern Ireland. A sign of the times is that few in the rest of the UK were concerned that a part of their country, in the form of Northern Ireland, remained strangely within the European Union while the EU/UK trade border now ran downhill. of the Irish Sea.

Ireland, north and south, is full of ominous warnings for Johnson and his cabinet as they try to block and reverse the Scottish movement towards independence. There are delicious ironies in seeing them repeat, almost word for word, the old arguments of the anti-separation about the advantages of economic union with a larger entity, arguments that they once denounced. In an earlier period, the Conservatives had also failed to “end kindness separatism” through social and economic reforms in Ireland.

Those measures may have assuaged historic hatreds, but they had little lasting impact as separatists continued to win elections. It was frustration with the failure to obtain national government by constitutional means, despite repeated endorsement at the ballot box, that gave the initiative to advocates of unconstitutional methods. In addition to the armed uprising of 1916, the then newly elected deputies of the sense fine left the Westminster parliament and established their own in Dublin.

Practical secessionism such as this may still be on the horizon in Scotland, but what is certain is that nationalist movements around the world almost invariably respond to blocking the way to self-determination by becoming more radical, not less.

“The Scottish Question” now takes the place once occupied by the “Irish Question” as a divisive issue that will dominate the UK political agenda for decades to come. After all these years, Swift might turn out to be right.

*Patrick Cockburn is a journalist. Author, among other books, of the author of The Origin of the Islamic State – The Failure of the “War on Terror” and the Jihadist Rise (Literary Autonomy).

Translation: André Campos Rocha

Originally published on the portal counter punch.


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