A Brexit would break up Britain – and dismantle the Commonwealth too

The Brexit campaign has made much of its ties to the Commonwealth, particularly its richest members. But it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see that a break up of Britain could sever what remains of their umbilical cords

Andrew Dewson
Monday 30 May 2016 15:33
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Prince Charles travels by carriage: his accession to the throne may prompt soul searching from Commonwealth nations if Britain leaves the EU
Prince Charles travels by carriage: his accession to the throne may prompt soul searching from Commonwealth nations if Britain leaves the EU

Have you ever tried to repair something only to end up throwing the whole thing into the dustbin? Brexiteers are campaigning to do just that with Britain. If a majority of Brits decide they want out of the European Union, all outcomes are possible. But there’s one very real possibility that Brits are ignoring: that a vote in favor of a Brexit could conceivably lead to the breakup of Britain and then of the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, what remains of the British government in Westminster would be so handicapped it could do almost nothing about it.

The idea that a win for the Brexit campaign could result in Britain breaking up isn’t new. However, Brexit supporters are willing to believe that everything will be rosy in the event of a Brexit victory, an optimistic view verging on ‘pie in the sky’. The dismantling of Britain is a far more logical and likely outcome.

Assume that the current national polling within the UK is going to remain fairly accurate. That means the Brexit campaign can only win because a majority of English voters want out, while a majority of voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and (possibly) Wales support remaining within the EU.

EU Referendum: Latest Poll

What next? The Scottish Nationalists will demand another independence vote. In fact, they are already doing just that.

Nicola Sturgeon has made no secret of her desire for another referendum should Britain choose to leave the EU. She has already argued, rightly, that the last independence referendum in Scotland was based on a background of Britain remaining a part of the EU.

With the backdrop changed so dramatically, based largely on English votes, the calls for another independence vote will be deafening. And this time the Scottish Nationalists know they will win.

Given a choice between leaping into the unknown handcuffed to England and remaining as part of a stable (if risky) European Union, Scots will take their chances with Europe. More than just avoiding a leap into the unknown, remaining as part of the EU while England leaves represents a once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity for Scotland.

Every business that might consider leaving England for mainland Europe following a Brexit might instead consider moving to Scotland. Scotland will probably adopt the Euro as currency, is more conveniently situated for mainland Europe than Ireland and has a highly advanced renewable energy sector.

The numbers don’t even need to be huge for Scotland to emerge as a big economic winner. If 5 per cent of American companies in the UK moved their European HQ north it would be a major economic windfall for the country.

Plenty of Brexit campaigners want Britain to remain whole; they argue that Scotland wouldn’t become an automatic member of the EU and may not achieve favorable membership terms. But alternatively – and just as likely – the EU desperately, wanting to stick it to England, might fast track Scottish membership, granting the country very favorable terms indeed. Independence is tantalisingly within reach; Sturgeon must be willing the English to do their part.

But no matter what campaign dilemmas Sturgeon faces now, they will pale in comparison to those Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face – assuming, as most now do, that the Brexit campaign’s figurehead becomes PM in the event of a Brexit win. He can’t then beg the Scots to stay, having led a Brexit campaign based on national sovereignty and self-determination arguments; Scotland will go.

Where politics and religion have failed to unite Ireland in the past, EU economics might. Ulster has – and always has had – a far greater affinity with Scotland than with England. Ulster’s loyalist identity is very much based on being a part of Britain. If Scotland leaves the UK then Britain no longer exists, will that identity remain strong as a part of England?

And where does that leave Ulster? A united Ireland might seem unlikely – the peace process is nothing if not fragile – the idea that Ulster’s Protestant majority would be persecuted by a Catholic national majority is rooted in the past. Over the last 20 years Ireland has gone from being one of the most religiously repressed nations in Europe to one of the most socially liberal and progressive. Unity is possible.

What to believe about the EU referendum

Wales is the least likely to go it alone. Regardless, if England forces Wales out of the EU, calls for a Welsh independence will get louder.

Not all English people consider losing Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales a problem; breaking up the UK may, for them, be just another reason to vote for Brexit. A set of dominoes may soon begin to fall.

What about the Commonwealth? The British monarch is still the official head of state in Commonwealth nations, but for how much longer? It’s possible that an independent Scotland could decline membership of the Commonwealth. Support for republicanism isn’t at the levels recorded a decade ago, but if Britain no longer existed then sentiments may change.

At some point, Prince Charles is set to become head of state. Like him or loathe him, he doesn’t have quite the same gravitas as his mother. That, in itself, might be enough to provoke Australia and Canada to think more seriously about an elected president.

The Brexit campaign has made much of its ties to the Commonwealth, particularly its richest members, based on some very naïve assumptions. With the exception of Nigeria and India, the population of Commonwealth nations is increasingly diverse. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see that a British break up could sever what remains of their umbilical cords, at least in terms of sovereignty, if not trade and sport.

A Prime Minister Johnson, it bears repeating, would be irrevocably tied to support for national sovereignty and self-determination. How could he oppose, for example, an Australian referendum on Commonwealth membership?

Despite what voters hear from most politicians there is one other certainty about the Brexit – that there are no easy answers. In many (if not most) ways Europe is a pretty unattractive place right now: a stagnant economy, a refugee crisis that lurches from open arms one minute to callous disregard for human life the next, an out of touch bureaucracy that has spent half a century failing to explain what it does. No wonder the Brexit campaigners have the bit between their teeth.

A united Britain standing alone against European tyranny sounds attractive in comparison. It fulfills the romantic notion many Brits cling to, the lone hope against an evil empire.

Indeed, there is no guarantee that the doomsday predictions of many economists, should Britain exit the EU, will turn out to be correct. There’s a reasonable chance that the economy might do just fine once the dust has settled; that as some trade doors close others open; that investment might not be affected at all.

But nothing is guaranteed. At least with Europe Britain’s place at the top table is assured.

A vote to leave the EU could result not only in the breakup of Britain, but of the entire Commonwealth. A dismantled Britain is a greatly diminished Britain. All of this might not come to pass, of course. But it might.

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