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It’s not the break-up of Britain… yet

Election results show that the ground is shifting in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the future of the UK is still up for grabs

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
11 May 2022, 10.55am

Sinn Fein replaced the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland, making Michelle O’Neill the first minister designate


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Sometimes, journalists talk about elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland or even Wales as though they are merely proxies for each nation’s respective constitutional questions. It can feel as though we don’t have our own schools and health services to run well or badly, or our own rusting railways.

In reality, for example, the trouncing of Edinburgh’s Tories last week – they went from the second-biggest group on the city council to the fifth – had as much to do with cars as constitutional arrangements.

They focused much of their campaign on allowing traffic more access to residential streets. Unsurprisingly, the parents of the children they were proposing to sacrifice to the gods of petrol weren’t so keen, whatever they may have thought of the 1707 Acts of Union. They seem to have preferred the SNP’s alleged ‘war on cars’.

The difference from just a few years ago is striking. In the last local elections in 2017, Edinburgh’s Tories were able to mobilise thousands of votes to ‘save the union’. This time, they weren’t.

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Northern Ireland is similar. Throughout the campaign, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the north – and now first minister designate – focused on the cost of living crisis. A leaflet delivered by the party to the flat where I’m currently staying in County Down highlighted the party’s plans for Northern Ireland’s underfunded NHS. O'Neill has been elected to do a job, while the DUP has lost seats because they were seen to do that job badly.

Yet despite all this, this month’s elections do represent a further loosening of the knot binding the UK’s four nations together.

Undecided nation

To understand why, let’s look first at Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin replaced the DUP as the country’s largest party.

For the past decade, the commuter belt around Belfast has formed a bright Orange rubber-ring for unionism, keeping it afloat in stormy seas. But, with millennials starting to move out of the city centre, leaks have started to appear. In Strangford, just east of Belfast, and in Ian Paisley’s North Antrim, the cross-community Alliance wrestled seats from the DUP.

The result doesn’t necessarily amount to a simple swing towards nationalism, since the total number of both nationalist and unionist members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) actually fell. Sinn Féin’s vote went up slightly, while the DUP’s fell by 6.7% – but the biggest beneficiary was the cross-community Alliance, which went from 8 seats to 17.

An increasing number of moderate voters are choosing not to vote along identity lines. But there are constitutional implications nonetheless, because it points to a growing group of voters who could be swayed either way on the question of Irish unity.

One republican said Theresa May had just done more to unite Ireland than their efforts ever did

At some point soon, the results of the 2021 census in Northern Ireland will be published. They are likely to show that for the first time since the territory was carved out of the rest of Ireland 101 years ago, there are more Catholics than Protestants.

Yet the increasing likelihood of a border poll – a referendum on Irish unity – is as much to do with recent political changes as with demographics. When I visited Northern Ireland in 2014, during the summer before Scotland’s independence referendum, it was very hard to find anyone in favour of such a vote.

Even people who saw themselves as Irish and nationalist said they would prefer to stay part of the UK – for the time being, at least. The NHS was better than Ireland’s health system. The UK’s unemployment benefits were more generous. A poll carried out around the same time bore out my experience: less than 6% of people in Northern Ireland said they would support immediate Irish unity.

Since then, however, opinions have shifted dramatically. Tory austerity means that the UK’s public services don’t have quite the same attraction. Ireland’s referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage have made it feel more like a modern, progressive state. And of course there was Brexit, and the question of where the border would be drawn.

When Article 50 was triggered in March 2017, formally launching the UK’s exit from the EU, I was in the Bogside Bar in Derry, drinking with a group of older men. They had started the evening by showing me pictures on the wall of balaclava-clad republicans carrying guns and bombs. This, they had said, was them as teenagers. One of them commented that Theresa May had just done more to unite Ireland than their efforts ever did.

The next day, in heavily unionist Coleraine, I asked groups of young people how they felt about a potential border poll. One young man summed up a commonly held view among his generation. He told me he was sad to say it, because he felt British, but ultimately he figured he’d have a better life in Ireland and the EU than in Brexit Britain.

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Last month, a poll put support for Irish unity at around 30%, with 45% against. Most notable, though, were the 25% who saw themselves as neutral or undecided.

These are people who have been trying to kick the habit of voting for ‘their side’ – many of the people who opted for the Alliance in the recent election. If there is a border poll, they will be the swing voters. And their decisions won’t just be based on whether they see themselves as British or Irish. Increasing numbers are comfortable with both, and don’t care much for either.

This year, for the first time, more people in Northern Ireland have applied for Irish than British passports, but for most this isn’t about rebel songs or stories of Celtic chieftains. It’s simply a question of expediency: ease of travel, and economic prospects.

These people will want to remain part of the UK, if it can offer their children a better future. They will want to be part of Ireland – and the EU – if that looks more comfortable.

Putting down roots

Then there’s Scotland. If you stand on the right stretch of Northern Irish coast on a clear day, you can see Scotland’s Southern Uplands jutting out into the sea. The southern half of this peninsula is Dumfries and Galloway, which has long been one of the most solidly unionist corners of the country.

Yet the SNP has just had its best-ever local election result here, with 28% of the vote, as well as in the country at large. The pro-independence Greens also won a personal best of 4.5%. In the Scottish Borders and Orkney, two other historically unionist areas, the Greens also did well.

These results don’t show pro-independence parties dominating in traditionally unionist areas – far from it. But they do show both the Greens and SNP expanding their networks deep into territory where they’ve historically struggled. Across Scotland, both pro-independence parties increased their vote, though not by that much: just under 2% each.

Both the SNP and Greens have historically performed worse at local elections than in those for the Scottish parliament. While this election hasn’t quite bucked that trend, the SNP is now firmly rooted in local government across Scotland.

He was sad to say it, as he felt British, but he thought he’d have a better life in Ireland than in Brexit Britain

Among the anti-independence parties, Labour and the Lib Dems made modest gains, but the real story was the Tory collapse. Its vote has slipped back to the level it was at before Ruth Davidson rallied unionists to her flag: an inevitability, perhaps, since her relatively centrist project was never compatible with Boris Johnson’s hard Brexiteer appeal to English nationalism.

Support for independence, which was strong during the first year of COVID, has fallen recently. Most polls currently point to a No vote. But this shifting wave of opinion implies that there is a decent-sized chunk of the Scottish electorate that is undecided on the issue. With more pro-independence councillors than ever before, the SNP and the Greens have more opportunity than ever to meet people – and even if they’re not actively talking about it, to normalise the idea.

Touching distance

If Northern Ireland and Dumfries and Galloway reach out to each other then Yns Môn, Wales’s biggest island, points up at them. This is home to one of four councils that Plaid Cymru took control of this month, the most in its history.

These victories were somewhat marred by the fact that, overall, the party managed to lose six more seats than it gained.

Making up for that loss, the pro-independence Welsh Green Party gained eight seats. These are the Greens’ first real foothold in the country since Cynog Dafis was elected as a joint Plaid Cymru-Green MP for Ceredigion in 1992.

That pact also made a slight comeback with two councillors elected in Cardiff on a Plaid-Green joint ticket. It’s worth keeping an eye on the phenomenon, given the recent proposal to make voting for the Welsh Assembly more proportional.

As recently as 2014, only 5% of Welsh people supported independence. Over the past year or so, polling has put support at between 21% and 42%. With Corbynism over, some of its radical energy in Wales has rushed into a new independence movement.

But the main story in Wales is the same as it’s been in every election for a century: Labour won, and won big.

Modern Britain – the archipelagic nation-state that succeeded the British Empire – was invented in the 1945 Labour manifesto. While Churchill was appointed founding father, it was the institutions of social democracy which kept the constituent parts together. Welsh Labour, firmly to the left of Keir Starmer, is the one remaining bastion of that version of the UK. As post-COVID cuts start to bite into the Welsh government’s budget, it will be interesting to see how long that position can be sustained.

The road travelled

Despite the surprised tones of the British state’s favoured courtiers, the UK isn’t about to suddenly break up.

In Northern Ireland, the simple fact of Sinn Féin coming first doesn’t mean there will be a border poll. But the party has a better chance than ever to set out its case for a united Ireland. In Scotland, the local elections have not fundamentally changed the constitutional dynamic: pro-independence parties have put down stronger roots, but Labour overtaking the Tories gives unionism a more plausible leading voice. Welsh Labour is a stronger voice still.

Yet last week’s elections were another step along a path we were already walking down. It isn’t inevitable that the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland keep going in this direction. But Johnson’s government is doing nothing to encourage us to turn around.

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