Boris Johnson is entitled to crack open a few bottles of champagne after being re-elected prime minister, with his Conservative party winning a landslide majority. But when the celebrations are over, Britain is facing a thumping hangover – from the inescapable fact that half of the United Kingdom is now on an irrevocable path of separatism and independence.
Johnson has won a decisive mandate to “get Brexit done”, at least from London’s perspective. His party now has a substantial parliamentary majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons which will ensure delivery on his promise to execute Britain’s departure from the European Union on January 31. The actual final severance will take another year or two to complete because of negotiations between London and Brussels to definitively hammer out divorce terms. But at least Johnson can claim that he has consummated the final journey to leave the EU on January 31, a journey which began over three years ago when Britons had originally voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
However, crucially, the Conservative government’s mandate for Brexit only applies to England and Wales. It was in these two countries that saw the significant swing of voters from the opposition Labour party to Johnson’s Tories. Thus, in effect, his parliamentary majority stems from voters in England and Wales.
By total contrast, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the other two regions which make up the United Kingdom, the voters resoundingly rejected Johnson’s Brexit plans and voted for parties wanting to remain in the European Union. The outcome is consistent with the 2016 referendum results when Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted against Brexit.
Moreover, the latest election results have reinforced the call for independence in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Scottish Nationalists swept the election to enhance their already existing majority. They now control nearly 90 per cent of all seats in Scotland. Party leader Nicola Sturgeon says there is an unquestionable mandate to hold a second referendum for Scottish independence. The previous independence referendum held in 2014 was defeated. But Scottish nationalists claim that popular support for their cause has surged since the Brexit referendum in 2016. The Scots, by and large, do not want to leave the EU. To remain in the EU therefore necessarily means separating from the United Kingdom and its central government in London.
Boris Johnson has so far rejected calls for holding a second Scottish independence referendum. But his position is untenable. Given the parliamentary numbers for separation stacking up in Scotland, he will have to relent. Nationalists there are demanding the holding of another plebiscite as early as next year.
In Northern Ireland, the election outcome is perhaps even more momentous. For the first time ever, nationalist parties have a majority over pro-British unionist parties. Mary Lou MacDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, the main nationalist party, says that there is now a clear mandate for holding a referendum on the question of Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom. Given the breakthrough nationalist majority in the latest election, that would inevitably lead to a United Ireland, from the northern state joining with the existing southern state, the Republic of Ireland.
Nationalists in Northern Ireland have long-aspired for independence from Britain. Northern Ireland was created in 1921 from an audacious act of gerrymandering by the British government when it partitioned the island of Ireland into an independent southern state (which became the Republic of Ireland) and a small northern state (which became Northern Ireland). The latter remained under Britain’s jurisdiction. The arbitrary, imperialist act of partitioning Ireland was done in order to give the British authorities in London a mandate to rule over a portion of Irish territory because in newly created Northern Ireland the pro-British unionists were in a majority over nationalists. It was British establishment cynicism par excellence.
The present political structure of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is only a century old. (Before that, the UK included all of Irish territory, but London was forced to grant partial Irish independence due to an armed insurrection.)
In any case, nearly a century after the setting up of Northern Ireland the natural demographic changes in its population have now created a majority for nationalists. The outcome of the election on December 12 is an undeniably huge historic event. For the first time ever, the nationalist mandate has overcome the unionist vote. The historic violation by British gerrymandering against Irish nationalist rights to independence and self-determination has finally been reversed in terms of electoral ballot.
When the Northern Ireland peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 to bring an end to nearly 30 years of armed conflict, enshrined in that treaty is the “principle of consent”. The British government is treaty-bound to abide by the electoral mandate of a majority in Northern Ireland wanting a United Ireland.
The threshold for triggering a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving British jurisdiction has now been reached. And nationalist parties are openly demanding that the legislative process to achieve that separation is now implemented.
Jonathan Powell, a seasoned British diplomat who oversaw the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement, is not one for hyperbole. But in an interview with Matt Frei for Britain’s LBC Radio on December 14, Powell said he expected to see the “collapse of the United Kingdom” within the next decade, if not sooner. He was referring specifically to the electoral results in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson’s seeming victory in the British election is a double-edged sword. He may claim to have a mandate to cut off ties with the European Union. But the results also mean Scotland and Northern Ireland are empowered to now cut off their ties with the rest of Britain. The separation of those two states, leaving behind England and Wales, spells the end of the so-called United Kingdom.
Johnson’s election success is not “unleashing great potential” as he claims. Rather, it is unleashing an existential constitutional crisis for the British establishment.