LONDON - In the 19th century Britons liked to boast that they oversaw an “empire on which the sun never sets.” But by the mid-twentieth century it did. Exhausted by war and facing rebellion and clamor for independence among its overseas possessions, Britain had to let go its colonies.
On June 23 the British referendum on European Union membership may well set in train the circumstances for what is left of the British empire, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to dwindle eventually to its residual core — England.
Outside England, pro-EU sentiment strong
Five sixths of the UK electorate is made up of English voters and if just a slim majority of the English decide next month to exit the EU it will almost certainly be against the overwhelming wishes of the Celts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who wish to remain in the European economic bloc.
Politicians across the political spectrum acknowledge such a result would spell trouble for the survival of the United Kingdom — that at least one of the Celtic nations would likely soon decide to break away. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned earlier this year in his first intervention on the EU referendum campaign that leaving the EU would trigger the break-up of the United Kingdom, arguing at the very least it would “completely change the dynamic of Scottish independence.”
Nationalist politicians north of the border, buoyed earlier this month by their third Scottish parliamentary election victory in a row, have warned that a UK exit from the EU thanks mainly to English votes will trigger yet another vote on Scottish independence, sooner or later. It would be one they’d expect to win.
In 2014 Scotland voted to remain part of the UK with just a 55 percent majority.
Second independence referendum possible in Scotland
The Scots favor remaining in the EU in overwhelming numbers — support has skyrocketed in the run-up to the referendum, from an average 64 percent in favor of staying in the European bloc to 76 per cent, according to a poll taken last week for Scotland’s Daily Record newspaper.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish nationalist leader and Scotland's First Minister, has warned that demand for a second independence referendum would be “unstoppable,” if the Scots are taken out of the EU against their will.
Pro-European sentiment runs as high in Northern Ireland, where on average three-quarters of voters also favor retaining EU membership. It is one issue that unites many Catholics and Protestants. Like Scotland, there are strong economic reasons for the pro-EU sentiment.
Pro-EU sentiment strongest in Northern Ireland
Prominent Northern Ireland businessman Len O’Hagan warns leaving the EU would prompt a terrible mess on the island of Ireland requiring, “new legislation for UK citizens living and working in the Republic of Ireland. New legislation for people from the Republic living and working in the north. New legislation to cover a huge raft of laws covering everything from mobile roaming charges to working time directives and agreements with the Republic on electricity, security and a raft of other key partnerships.”
Northern Ireland would lose economically more from leaving the EU than any other part of the UK. Sixty-one percent of goods exported form Northern Ireland go to the EU. And 87 percent of farm income in mostly rural Northern Ireland comes from EU subsidies.
Aside from the economic arguments, an exit from the EU risks undermining the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland that ended decades-long civil conflict between pro-British Unionist Protestants and nationalist Catholics. EU funds have helped fund the peace.
The Republic of Ireland Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Enda Kenny has warned that “Common membership of the EU project is part of the glue holding the peace process together.” Intelligence sharing between Belfast and Dublin and cross-border policing would be disrupted by Brexit, he fears.
An exit from the EU could well see a dangerous revival of angry Catholic nationalist sentiment leading to a resurgence of terrorism and conflict, warn analysts.
No matter the outcome, Great Britain will change
Even in Wales, the least independence-minded of the UK’s nations and where pro-EU sentiment is less pronounced than in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there could be trouble in the event of Brexit. Carwyn Jones, a former first minister of Wales, warned in March that Brexit would lead to a “constitutional crisis” in Wales with more calls for independence or at least for greater autonomy.
“The UK cannot possibly continue in its present form, if England votes to leave and everyone else votes to stay,” he told the Financial Times in a recent interview.
Not that the English seem much to care what their Celtic neighbors want — and that is adding to Celtic resentment. Alex Massie, Scotland Editor of The Spectator magazine, complains, “There has been, in recent days, a flurry of articles claiming that, look, there’s no need to worry about a British exit from the EU because it will have no negative consequences whatsoever.”
Writing on his blog in The Spectator, he says the prevailing view among the English is that “Britain is more important to Scotland than the EU. So you couldn’t afford independence. Got it, Jock?” But he warns, “Support for the Union – the British Union, that is – has never been more provisional or contractual.”
Whatever the result of the referendum on June 23 — a British exit from the EU on the back of English votes or an electoral decision to remain thanks mainly to voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales — Britain may never be quite the same. Some observers say there will be ugly consequences either way.
If a majority of English voters endorse leaving the European Union, only to see their wishes overridden by the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, relations between the various parts of the United Kingdom will likely further sour, too, prompting a re-thinking for many on the islands that make up Great Britain about what it means to be British.