The new issue of Catalyst journal is out now. Subscribe today!

The End of the United Kingdom?

Brexit has suddenly made Scottish independence and a united Ireland possible. What does it mean for the Left?

As every politically attuned masochist knows, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union — over the resounding objections of two of its constituent nations.

Scotland, still nominally a member of the increasingly Ruritanian island state, voted against Brexit to the tune of 62 percent. Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom to share a border with another EU nation, voted to remain by 56 percent.

The democratic deficit, a concept British unionists have tried fruitlessly to erase from the popular consciousness for decades, is once again unavoidable. And the chances of Irish unification and Scottish independence just got a whole lot better.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, reacted to last month’s result by declaring her government’s intention to defend the Scottish people’s wish to remain in the European Union by any means available, up to and including a second referendum on independence.

Almost simultaneously, Sinn Féin followed up on its promise to press for a vote on Irish unification should Northern Ireland be removed from the European Union at the behest of predominately English votes.

Sturgeon has been meeting with every EU official who will take her call in the hopes of securing Scotland’s continued membership, whether as a constituent unit of the United Kingdom or not. Reportedly, she has been met with sympathy but little else. As Andrew Tickell recently observed, the European Union is comprised of member states, “and until it is independent, Scotland remains a stateless nation.”

This likely suits Sturgeon just fine: if there is no way for Scotland to remain in Europe as part of the United Kingdom (contrary to unionist guarantees in 2014), it not only provides “a material change in circumstances” — the SNP’s phrase for the conditions under which they would call another referendum — but substantially increases their chances of winning a second vote.

Still, over a million Scots voted for Brexit. Whether one sees them as part of a wider British majority, or a minority within a separate electoral entity, is now as much a matter of ideological perspective as technicality. Attempting to overlook the distinctiveness of Scotland as a polity, regardless of the circumstances, has not been a winning strategy any time this century, and if momentarily victorious Brexiters have no better idea than presenting Scotland as “North Britain” — which even the most deluded unionists knew was a lousy notion in 2014 — then both they and the United Kingdom are truly out of ideas.

In short, while Scottish independence is by no means guaranteed, it is now more likely than even its most optimistic supporters would have dreamed mere weeks ago.

“Scots will feel disempowered, and I think that will have a radicalizing effect on the more conservative parts of Scottish society,” predicts Jamie Maxwell, political journalist and former press officer for the Scottish socialist coalition RISE. “My instinct has always been that Scotland will only ever change its mind about a radical political shift when it feels it’s been pushed into a corner. Scotland could naturally come to the conclusion that self-government is preferable to a deeply reactionary, nativist kind of nationalism.”

Whenever another referendum takes place, the SNP will almost certainly place greater emphasis on winning over Scottish businesses and the middle class — elements of Scottish society that were largely unconvinced by independence in 2014.

This could, in a best-case scenario, deliver a clear victory for independence, with the SNP handling the Scottish bourgeoisie as the Left rallies the working-class and activist communities that so overwhelmingly voted “yes” last time last time. But the SNP will have to take care not to alienate the Left, lest working towards a common goal becomes untenable.

In the case of Northern Ireland, those observers confidently treating unification as a virtual certainty are, to put it politely, only superficially familiar with the difficulties involved. Northern Ireland today is not the Northern Ireland of the Troubles, but neither has it extricated itself entirely from the divisions and uneasy compromises left over from those years.

Nevertheless, even the British state’s historic distrust of participatory democracy may not be enough to preclude a vote.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland can hold a border poll when there’s a clear indication that public opinion supports a united Ireland. And while such data has not yet presented itself — despite Northern Ireland’s majority vote for Remain — it is unlikely that Sinn Féin would have made its demands if it didn’t believe majority support was achieveable in the near future.

Should that backing hinge upon membership in the European Union, however, the Irish left — without which Sinn Féin’s vaunted anti-austerity credentials disappear — would have to reconcile such a campaign with some of their existing commitments, including their long-standing opposition to EU-mandated water charges in the Republic.

Self-declared followers of James Connolly would need to convince themselves that, despite the painful memories of the Greek experience, EU diktats could be resisted from within.

In his own inimitable style, Boris Johnson — the Conservative politician who placed himself at the forefront of the pro-Leave campaign, whose dreams of riding Brexit to the prime ministership crashed and burned mere days after the vote — has vowed that the United Kingdom will remain a “great foreign power” outside the European Union.

Indeed, as the Scotland-based Irish journalist Peter Geoghegan argued, “The EU referendum has, for many, fed the belief that rather than find a new function in world affairs, Britain needs to regain its imperial role.”

Though the left arguments for Irish and Scottish nationalism differ by their respective circumstances, both have often been couched in terms of being a good country instead of a great power.

For left nationalists, the dissolution of the British state is not only a pragmatic necessity for Irish and Scottish independence — it is a vital part of the praxis of national liberation, and a moral obligation to any internationalist worth the name. In the wake of the Chilcot Report, with bloody memories of the Iraq War made fresh once again, this is far from academic.

The strange geopolitical mindset of British unionists was most revealingly articulated during the 2014 Scottish referendum, when former prime minister Gordon Brown asked if an independent Scotland could lead “a new wave of secessionist movements that strike at the heart of the advanced industrial world? Could it be the pacemaker for nationalist breakaways in Spain, Belgium, and eastern Europe and for a thousand liberation movements in the developing world?”

Almost as one, the Scottish left replied, “And that would be a bad thing?”

Yet even if dismantling what the Marxist theorist of nationalism Tom Nairn called “Ukania” would be a worthy achievement — and achieving national liberation would be a lasting one — the many problems of the European Union would still fester.

As it stands, no single nation, sovereign or otherwise, has the ability to reform the European Union into anything resembling a progressive institution, or render it irrelevant with a viable left-wing alternative.

Only the kind of international solidarity between insurgent nations that so terrifies Gordon Brown could pull off such a feat. As Hugo Chavez once put it, it will be difficult “to silence the multiple chants sang by multiple nations which, faced with the hegemonic globalization imposed by capitalism, have started to build counter-hegemonic globalizations.”

Such tasks occupy histories not yet written. Right now, many socialist advocates of self-determination, in Europe and beyond, are willing and eager to find inspiration in their respective national struggles. The question of the hour is: what can they offer each other beyond that?