Theresa May finds herself in an astonishing scenario. She appears almost invincible. Her poll numbers are high; Labour and Ukip are in disarray. Mrs May could almost afford to disregard partisan politics and get on with her job – negotiating Brexit.
But then the Celtic women roared. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon is threatening a second independence referendum for Scotland. And this weekend, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O'Neill came within touching distance of winning the elections in Northern Ireland. The Union is at risk. Mrs May has to save it all over again. The question is, how many Britons really want her to?
The problem is Brexit. The victory of those who want to leave has enormous consequences for those who want to stay – and it forces us to rethink our relationship to one another. Why should Scotland and Nothern Ireland, who voted Remain, have to suffer to give England and Wales what they want? Put it another way, why should the ambitions of England and Wales, who voted Leave, be stifled just to keep Scotland and Northern Ireland happy? If British common interests are seen to diverge on a matter as fundamental as membership of the EU, British identity itself becomes contested.
For this reason, Brexit was the best thing to happen to the SNP since Thatcher. The party was in trouble. Last year, the Scottish education system got its worst ever international rating for maths, reading and science. The economy is stagnant. The oil price, which the SNP claimed would bankroll independence, has slumped, while the UK’s subsidy to Scotland has soared. And the May 2016 Holyrood elections were a triumph for the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson – yet another woman shaking up British politics. She bagged 31 seats and displaced Labour as the second party. Tory Unionism appeared resurgent.
But that was May. One month later, the United Kingdom voted for Brexit. Among them were 38 per cent of Scots, including 400,000 SNP voters. But that didn’t stop Mrs Sturgeon jumping on the chance to claim that the election result defined irreconcilable differences between the aspirations of voters north and south of the border. She used the threat of a referendum to try to leverage a soft Brexit. But “Brexit means Brexit”, as Mrs May observed, which almost certainly mean leaving the single market and an end to free movement; and the High Court ruled that local assemblies have no right to block the will of Parliament.
Now Mrs Sturgeon demands a special status for Scotland, which Mrs May, rightly, says will lead to a “looser and weaker Union.” It’s possible that Mrs Sturgeon will insist upon another vote; Mrs May appears to be calling her bluff. Even if Mrs Sturgeon goes for it, Westminster could refuse permission, which would only inflame nationalist anger. We are entering into a period of brinkmanship.
The SNP has been around so long that this debate was predictable. Less foreseen was the impact of Brexit upon Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein surge in last Thursday’s Stormont elections was about many things: a scandal that eroded trust in the DUP, opposition to austerity, use of the Irish language. But it was also made more likely by a tilt in demographics towards those who identify as Irish and, crucially, the questions that Brexit raises about relations with Eire.
Few want to see a return to the kind of border operated during The Troubles: long queues, security checks, violent tension. Yet post-Brexit, Northern Ireland will suddenly have a porous EU border that will surely have to be policed. Brexit voters might say: “So, police it.” But for those who actually have to live near it, the prospect is grim. No wonder then that roughly 70 per cent of first preference votes went to anti-Brexit parties in the Stormont elections. Michelle O’Neill – a passionate republican nationalist – now holds the balance of power. Her demand is essentially the same as Mrs Sturgeon’s: a special status for Northern Ireland that allows it to keep elements of EU membership.
But the UK is either in EU as a whole or out of it as a whole – much as one is either part of the UK or one is edging towards the exit. The goal of both O’Neill and Sturgeon is first to visibly frustrate Brexit in order to gain popular support and then to use it – for it cannot be prevented – as an excuse to weaken and ultimately undermine the Union.
They might find unexpected sympathy among English and Welsh voters. A recent poll found that fewer than a third of Conservative Party activists believe Scottish independence would damage the rest of the UK; 29 per cent said they would welcome it because it would end “unreasonable demands on England to provide ever greater financial and political concessions” to Mrs Sturgeon. Attitudes towards Northern Ireland are probably similar. If talks over forming a new coalition fail in Stormont and direct rule from Westminster is imposed, the rest of the Union will regret it. There may be a temptation at this moment to say that Northern Ireland is welcome to any special status with the EU and Eire that reduces the UK’s responsibility for it; while Scotland is free to turn around now and walk out that door. Ukip could find a second life if it became the voice of English nationalism.
Mrs May doesn’t want any of this to happen. She is a Unionist. No Tory wishes to preside over the breakup of the UK. So now she has to dedicate herself to two tasks.
First, she’ll have to persuade the voters of Scotland and Northern Ireland that Brexit can be advantageous to everyone. She would prefer to enter negotiations with the EU with her cards clutched to her chest. But – if only to satisfy Northern Ireland and smooth through the formation of a new government – she is going to have to make the post-Brexit settlement on immigration a little clearer. What will the border look like? Who can cross it? What role will Dublin play in its management? Ireland, which is on the verge of changing prime ministers, is going to emerge as a key player in the Brexit talks; almost a proxy for nationalist voters.
Meanwhile, the case against the SNP is going to have be rolled out more aggressively in Scotland. Labour can’t do it; it’s a dead parrot. The Tories have to pick up the Unionist mantle. David Cameron was reluctant to be seen too often north of the border – and that attitude must change. Mrs May is more popular than her Etonian, paternalist predecessor and her calm, professional manner embodies the argument that – after two referendums, assembly elections and a general election – the Scots are surely exhausted and want to get on with their lives. Hence this game of bluff between Mrs May and Mrs Sturgeon. The SNP is probably testing even its own supporters’ patience: polls suggest that it would lose another referendum in a landslide.
But while all this is going on, Mrs May is also going to have to persuade England and Wales that it is worth this constant, Herculean effort to hold the Union together. Up to now, the Unionist case has been focussed relentlessly on bribing the Scots to stay. The needs and ego of the other parts of the UK have been neglected – and Mrs May has to correct that.