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The British Union After Brexit: Issues of Sovereignty and Identity

After Brexit: The State of the UK Union

Après le Brexit : l’état de l’Union britannique
Philip Rycroft


Brexit shattered the ambiguity that had long sustained the unique construct that is the United Kingdom. As an assertion of British sovereignty, Brexit overrode the will of the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland. That broke the long tradition of territorial management of the United Kingdom, latterly formalised in a measure of self-government for the three smaller territories through devolution of substantial powers from 1999. But devolution had not resolved the existing challenges to the Union which were now reinforced by Brexit. The UK government’s response has oscillated between a hardline ‘muscular’ unionism and a more emollient ‘reasonableness’ agenda. This has left the Union in a state of unstable equilibrium, with considerable bodies of opinion in the three smaller territories dissatisfied with the status quo and with growing indifference to the future of the Union in England. Brexit has further undermined what was already a Union under pressure, leaving its future survival a more uncertain prospect.

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Editor's notes

This article was delivered as a lecture to the CRECIB conference on the state of the Union, held in Lyon on 7 – 9 October 2021.

Full text


1Brexit has administered a profound shock to a polity – the Union of the United Kingdom – that was already far from robust. The UK Union is a unique construct. It has prospered through many years with deep ambiguity about the precise relationship between its four parts. Brexit shattered that ambiguity. On a question of existential importance for the future, the votes of an English majority, with similar levels of support in Wales, overwhelmed the democratic will of Scotland and Northern Ireland; the UK left the European Union against their express wishes.

2The impact of Brexit has far from dissipated. Will the UK Union survive the shock? The future is uncertain, but the UK Union is in a more parlous state because of Brexit. To understand why means setting the impact of Brexit in the longer history of the Union and the relationship between the different parts of these islands.

Living with Brexit

3Five years on from the EU referendum in June 2016, the trauma of Brexit is far from over. Hobbled by a lack of clarity from its promoters about what Brexit actually might entail, the UK government, and the country more generally, is still feeling its way forward into its post-Brexit future. For Remainers everywhere, and for the majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the decision to leave the EU has been compounded by the manner of exit. The governments in both Scotland and Wales have from the start bitterly opposed the form that Brexit has taken; the leaving of the EU single market and customs union, and the signing up to a deal that prioritises sovereignty over alignment.

  • 1 The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the agreement between the UK and the EU on the UK’s withdr (...)
  • 2 Northern Ireland voted 55% to remain and 45% to leave in the EU referendum in 2016. All the main po (...)

4In Northern Ireland, the conundrum of where to place the trade border has resulted in the complexities of the Protocol1 and all its controversies. While the Protocol actually offers unique advantages to businesses in Northern Ireland, which is effectively still in both the EU single market and the UK internal market, and while those advantages are recognised by many, no one could claim that this is a stable arrangement. Within the tangled web of Northern Ireland politics, it is ironic that the sharpest opposition to the Protocol comes from the only party to be a consistent and enthusiastic advocate of Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party.2

  • 3 What EU Thinks, “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the European Union? (...)
  • 4 John Curtice, “The Changed Foundations of SNP Support”, What Scotland Thinks, ScotCen, 27-11-2020, (...)

5Hopes that the UK might rejoin the EU any time soon are effectively dead, but that does not mean that people are reconciled to the decision taken in 2016. There is evidence of buyers’ remorse; YouGov polling in September 2021 found that only 39% think it was the right thing to do, 48% the wrong thing to do and 13% uncertain.3 At least in Scotland, opinion on Brexit has got tangled up with the wider question of national identity; many who voted no to independence in 2014 and to remain in the EU in 2016 have switched their allegiance to the SNP.4

6It is difficult to predict how long Brexit will continue to be a driver of political opinion in the UK. The reminders of the impact of Brexit are still very evident. Although occluded to some extent by the coronavirus pandemic, issues with supply chains, additional costs and hassle of personal travel and a shortage of workers in critical industries like haulage and care are a constant prompt to those who want to be prompted that the fallout of Brexit is far from over. The UK government itself seems to conspire to keep the Brexit pot bubbling by its aggressive approach over implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way which is bound to keep at least that aspect of Brexit in the news.

7It might serve the UK government’s political purposes to continue its antagonistic positioning towards the European Commission. Similarly, the Scottish government no doubt will see it to its advantage to continue to point to what it claims is the damage done to Scotland’s interests by Brexit. But many voters are wearied of the whole subject. Over time the practical consequences of Brexit will be subsumed in the natural evolution of events. Most accept that, for now, Brexit is a done deal.

8How, then, will Brexit play out in the continued argument over the future of the United Kingdom? The fact of Brexit cannot be undone. It has changed forever the assumptions about the nature of the relationships between the people of these islands and that has introduced a new dynamic into the constitutional flux with uncertain consequences.

Sovereignty in the United Kingdom

9To understand the nature of that change requires setting Brexit into the longer history of the Union and the assumptions that have underpinned it.

10Both in constitutional and political terms, Brexit was an assertion of British sovereignty. The driving force behind the slogan “Take back control” could not have been clearer; those promoting Brexit argued that Brussels was sapping the ability of the UK to manage its own affairs and this was an intolerable intrusion on the right of the British people to determine their future. Power should revert to the proper repository of sovereignty, the UK Parliament.

11That proposition carried both instinctive and ideological appeal. It spoke directly to the concerns of those, particularly in England, who felt that the governance of the country no longer reflected their interests or their values.

12The argument was based on at best a half-truth. Of course, the UK had voluntarily pooled part of its sovereignty within the EU and had thereby bound itself to decisions taken by a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers and to the rulings of the European Court of Justice. That portion of sovereignty could be won back, but less was said about the myriad of other international arrangements that the UK has bound itself too, from NATO to the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, by way of hundreds of trade deals and technical agreements that govern the relationships between nations at both bilateral and multilateral levels. As long as the UK remains part of the international legal order, its ability to exercise its sovereignty will remain bounded.

13The return of pure sovereignty in an international context was, then, always a myth. But so too was the idea of untrammelled sovereignty of the UK Parliament in a domestic setting. The notion of the UK as a unitary state with the Crown in Parliament as the unfettered arbiter of national life remains true in constitutional theory but has been substantially eroded in constitutional fact. The UK Parliament accepted in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the right of the people of Northern Ireland to choose their own future, as part of the UK or in a unified Ireland. In the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012, the UK government formally acknowledged the sovereignty of the Scottish people in granting the right to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum on independence. Although there is no immediate prospect of the question being asked, such a right could not logically be denied the Welsh people too.

14Moreover, the Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 enshrined in statute the permanency of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd. In theory, both of these acts could be repealed by the UK Parliament, as could the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This and future Prime Ministers might be tempted to chip away at the edges of the devolution settlements, but it is difficult to conceive of the circumstances in which a UK government would prompt the UK Parliament to seek to abolish the devolved institutions, at least without the consent of the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland as expressed through a referendum.

The evolution of the Union

  • 5 A now obscure dispute in which Parliament sought to impose an Anglican (English) form of church gov (...)

15In recognising in statute the right of a measure of self-government for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, those Acts of Parliament are in keeping with the long history of the UK Union and the way in which successive British governments had sought to manage the territorial governance of these islands. The Act of Union of 1707 recognised the right of the people of Scotland to sustain their own institutions, in particular the Church of Scotland and Scottish law, and did not seek to impose an Anglicised culture on Scotland. Although intemperate Tory governments did at times seek to breach that self-denying ordinance, for example through the Patronage Act of 17125, by and large it held until the late 20th century. The salience of Presbyterian Protestantism as a binder of Scottish self-identity may have faded, but Scotland retained its own legal system, its own education system, and its own administrative structures throughout its pre-devolution history.

16The Union of England and Wales predated that of England and Scotland; unlike the 1707 Act of Union, it could hardly be described as a voluntary affair. The influx of large numbers of English to work in the mines and steelworks of the Principality threatened, but ultimately could not subsume, a distinctive Welsh culture. From the late 19th century, UK governments accepted the right of the people of Wales to be served by their own administrative institutions, which led over time to the establishment of the office of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh Office in 1965.

17The long and blood-soaked history of Britain’s involvement with Ireland followed its own trajectory, although the Act of Union of 1801 and the later attempts to find a solution to the Irish Question through Home Rule acknowledged that peace on the island could only be secured if the Roman Catholic majority were reconciled to their place in the Union. After the secession of the south in 1921, the British state did not bestir itself much over the governance of the north, leaving it in the hands of a Protestant-dominated Stormont, until the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s forced Northern Ireland back onto a UK agenda.

18Therein lay the ambiguity of the British constitution. The UK Parliament was sovereign but the supremacy of the formal power of the state was masked by a habit and pragmatic practice that acknowledged the pluri-national nature of the United Kingdom. As long as the integrity of the state was not threatened, the centre saw no particular need to distract itself by unnecessary assertion of one version of Britishness in its own territories. The Scots in particular could hold to the view that this was a voluntary union of two sovereign powers and that the popular sovereignty of Scottish tradition remained intact.

19The Thatcher government of the mid-1980s was a rude interruption to this pattern of governance. Wedded to her view of economic development and social relations, she was deeply impatient with the notion of territorial exceptionalism. Nor was she any more sympathetic to the demand for devolution for the territories of the UK. The plans for devolution for Scotland and Wales that had died in the referendums of 1979 were left where they lay. Nor was there to be any respite from the impact of her policies on the traditional industries of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices sought to smooth off the edges of raw Thatcherism but to limited effect.

20In Scotland in particular, the experience of the Thatcher years galvanised opinion behind a renewed drive for devolution. Never again, ran the argument, were the affairs of Scotland to be so exposed to the depredations of a UK government for which the Scots had not voted. The Constitutional Convention drew the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties together with a large swathe of civic Scotland into an agreed prospectus for devolution. There was no serious challenge when this was described as the settled will of the people of Scotland.


21The incoming Labour government in 1997 duly introduced devolution bills for both Scotland and Wales. A referendum in Scotland on the proposed scheme of devolution was won handsomely, the referendum in Wales by a whisker. The prospect of a return to devolved government to Northern Ireland after a long period of direct rule reemerged with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Here was a chance to reset relations between the different parts of the UK; in the long tradition of governance in the UK, the centre would step back from direct engagement in many of the domestic affairs of the three smaller territories – the old dispensation revived under the new guise of devolution.

22But the devolution prospectus did not work out quite as anticipated. When the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, described devolution as a process, not an event, he could barely have predicted just how much devolution has evolved since its inception. The Wales Act 1998 proved inadequate for its purpose. It took three further acts, the last in 2017, and another referendum, to give the Welsh Senedd functioning law-making powers under a reserved powers model. Even then, the continued reservation to Westminster of police and justice powers leaves many in Wales asking whether the devolution settlement still has a gaping hole at its heart.

23Another prediction made at the time of devolution in Scotland proved even less prescient. As shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, George Robertson claimed that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead. How wrong he was. When a demoralised and disorganised Labour Party failed by the narrowest of margins to maintain its position as the largest party in the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP seized with alacrity the opportunity to prove themselves as a competent, albeit minority, government of Scotland. Power in the Scottish government allowed the nationalists to comprehensively outflank Labour as the party that could speak up best for Scottish interests.

24The response of the then Labour government at the UK level was to establish the Calman Commission as a way of creating an alternative prospectus to independence through further devolution of powers to Scotland. Although the Commission and its purpose was adopted by the Coalition government in 2010, its efficacy was swept away by the unexpected triumph of the SNP in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections and their subsequent formation of a majority government. Independence became a real prospect when the Coalition government ceded the holding of a legal referendum on independence for Scotland.

25A long and hard-fought referendum campaign saw the polls tighten sufficiently to seriously worry the Unionist parties. Late in the day, they combined to offer yet more devolution, a promise fulfilled in the Smith Commission and the Scotland Act 2016 which devolved significant further powers to the Scottish Parliament, including over taxation and welfare.

26Devolution in Northern Ireland followed its own tortuous course. After a stuttering start and the reimposition of direct rule in 2002, the St Andrew’s Day Agreement of 2006 rebooted the power sharing agreement. Always on an edge, it took another high-level intervention by the UK and Irish governments in the form of the Fresh Start Initiative of 2015 to keep it on track.

27So devolution to the three territories of the UK advanced to no overarching plan. Each settlement was distinct, each adapted to the particular circumstance of its own territory. Meanwhile, the centre of government at Westminster and Whitehall barely adjusted to this most significant of changes to the UK constitution. Habituated to administrative devolution, Whitehall departments saw no need to invest in a refreshed understanding of territorial governance as now changed by devolution. A lacklustre system to manage inter-governmental relations was more honoured in the breach than the observance; UK government ministers found it more convenient to settle issues with their devolved counterparts bilaterally and on a political network. The management of its own territory barely evinced more interest and commitment at the centre of the British state than it did in the days of empire.

28England, unsurprisingly, continued to be neglected. The only territory in the UK without its own specific layer of governance, England was to make do with English Votes for English Laws, a sop thrown by David Cameron to appease those snapping at his heels from the right as he committed to hand further powers to Scotland. England remained highly centralised; the ad hoc emergence of city deals and metro-mayors barely troubled the surface of what remained a unitary system of governance.

29Consequent on devolution, or at least not stayed by devolution, the UK also experienced a territorial polarisation of politics. Northern Ireland had always danced to its own political tune; attempts by the main UK parties to establish a presence there had failed abjectly. The Conservative vote in Scotland had shrunk in the Thatcher years, to be followed by the dramatic collapse of the Labour party in the 2015 Westminster elections. The SNP took 53 out of the 56 seats, an outcome exaggerated by the first past the post system, but nevertheless a thumping assertion of the new dominance of the nationalists over Scottish politics. While the Conservatives were the dominant party in England, Labour held their own in Wales, remaining by a large margin the largest party and seeing off the challenge from the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. They did so not least by holding their place as the party best placed to speak for Welsh interests, a soft nationalist position wrapped in a unionist overcoat.

The shock of Brexit

30This was a union already under pressure. The Scottish nationalists showed no sign of believing that the outcome of the 2014 referendum was the end of the story; support for independence remained at an all-time high. The peace process in Northern Ireland remained fragile. Labour in Wales sustained its place in the political pecking order by an increasingly assertive Welshness. Opinion in England showed no overwhelming commitment to the Union. This was the Union that had to absorb the shock of Brexit.

31And shock it was. Many remained confident right up to the closing of the polls on referendum day that “Remain” would win. Few had done any planning for a different outcome. There was no agreed version of what Brexit might mean. Prime Minister Cameron had forbidden any contingency planning by the UK government for a majority vote for “Leave”. There was no common reference point against which to calibrate the various post-referendum possibilities.

32For the Scottish government and the SNP, Brexit was a sufficiently “material change”6 in constitutional circumstance to justify a demand for a second referendum on independence, even though the first was still fresh in the memory7. This was the position that Nicola Sturgeon took as soon as the result was known. The Scottish government went on to argue that, pending such a referendum, the negotiations with the EU should seek to keep the UK – or at least Scotland – in the EU single market and customs union.

33The Welsh government was in a more nuanced position; Wales had voted to leave the EU. But Carwyn Jones as First Minister also took the view that the UK staying in the single market and customs union was the best outcome for Wales and that is the argument he took to the UK government. The collapse of the Executive left Northern Ireland without a political voice in the inter-governmental debates about the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, though that did not stop the parties individually making their views known. Sinn Fein, unsurprisingly, used Brexit as reinforcement for the case for Irish unification. The DUP sought to leverage its position as power broker in the minority government of Prime Minister May after the June 2017 election to achieve an outcome that would protect the place of Northern Ireland in the UK internal market, only to overplay their hand and to discover the limits of UK government loyalty when Prime Minister Johnson negotiated a trade border down the Irish Sea.

34Those positions held, broadly, through the tortured tenure of Mrs May, the final negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement by Prime Minister Johnson and to the conclusion of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. For all the pains they took to set out their positions, the political parties in the devolved parts of the UK had little to show for their troubles. They never got a seat at the table in the negotiations on withdrawal or the new relationship with the EU. A series of inter-governmental meetings on the UK’s negotiating position under the auspices of the Joint Ministerial Committee delivered little of substance. Short of no deal at all, the agreement finally negotiated by Prime Minister Johnson was about as far as it was possible to be from the visions set out by the Scottish and Welsh governments.

35The process of Brexit thus underscored the fact of Brexit. The way that Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted counted for nothing in the eventual outcome. The position of the governments of Scotland and Wales made no dent in the UK’s negotiating position. This was confirmation, if confirmation were needed, of where power lay in the British constitution, with the party that could command a majority in the House of Commons. Not much else mattered.

The response of the UK government

36The UK government behaved at times as though it was conscious that Brexit might be damaging the Union. Mrs May’s government persisted with the inter-governmental exchanges through the Joint Ministerial Committee, though without much enthusiasm. The initial hard line taken on the handling of returning powers from Brussels in the EU Withdrawal bill in 2017 was softened in order to secure a legislative consent motion in the Welsh Senedd. Mrs May even toyed with a more formal role for the devolved governments as part of a last desperate search for expedients that might get her withdrawal agreement through parliament. She expended much political capital in seeking to secure a deal which would protect the position of Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit UK. But the disaffection of the devolved parts of the UK was subsumed in the noise of the internecine conflict within the Conservative party and the agonies of the UK Parliament as it tried, and failed, to unite around any one position on Brexit.

37The arrival of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister did nothing to improve the situation. With the focus on getting Brexit done, the interests of the devolved governments remained on the side lines. Notoriously, of course, he was prepared to row back on his promises to the DUP and accept a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to get his withdrawal deal over the line.

38Indeed, the tension between the return of sovereignty to the UK Parliament through Brexit and the reality of shared sovereignty within the UK became apparent. In private moments, Johnson has made no secret of his disdain for devolution, describing it in November 2020 to Conservative MPs as a “disaster”.8 The Internal Market Bill, introduced in mid-2020, which set out to govern the sale of goods and services within the UK post-Brexit, was imposed on Scotland and Wales without the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Senedd and in the teeth of bitter opposition from both the Scottish and Welsh governments.

39With accompanying policies to spend money directly in areas of devolved competence and the assertion of symbols of Britishness, the UK government showed every sign of adopting a species of so-called ‘muscular Unionism’ which sought to constrain the powers of the devolved institutions. Needless to say, there has been no willingness to contemplate acceding to the demand from the Scottish government for the legislation required to allow another legal independence referendum, in spite of the majority won by the combined forces of the SNP and Greens for the nationalist side in the May 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections.

40In practice, muscular Unionism has been tempered with a more emollient approach to relations with the devolved governments, one which seeks to win over the people of the devolved parts of the UK by demonstrating a commitment to their interests and a willingness to cooperate with their governments, the so-called “reasonableness” agenda which prevailed through much of David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister. In the current government, the champion of this positioning has been Michael Gove, who holds responsibility for Union issues in the Cabinet. He has supported work to reform the system of inter-governmental relations, to put it on a more formal basis and with a greater emphasis on dialogue to reach consensus on shared policy interests. He has also nuanced the UK’s government’s refusal to countenance a second independence referendum by accepting publicly that one should be held if it appeared to be the “settled will” of the Scottish people. Supporters of this approach in the government have argued that the government should spend less time talking about the risks of independence and more on demonstrating the practical benefits of the Union.

41This confusion at the heart of the British state’s handling of devolution was well illustrated through the Coronavirus crisis. Initially, it looked as though the UK government recognised that the proper response to a global pandemic was to bring the devolved governments into the tent and to work with them to coordinate the response across the UK, in a way which would have had the additional benefit of demonstrating cross-Union solidarity and the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom. In practice, this promising start gave way to a more disjointed approach and a failure to distinguish properly between what was within the scope of UK government action and what lay with the devolved administrations. This created a platform for devolved politicians to stake out a distinct approach to dealing with the virus. Outcomes might in practice not have been much different, but perceptions certainly were. With unfavourable comparisons made between the calm handling of the crisis by the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and that of Boris Johnson, it is perhaps no surprise that support for independence in Scotland reached new highs in late 2020. It was left once again to Michael Gove to re-build relationships, through a painstaking commitment to weekly meetings with devolved ministers, to demonstrate that cooperation could lead to better outcomes than confrontation.

The UK Union – an unstable equilibrium

  • 9 What Scotland Thinks, “How would you vote in a Scottish independence referendum if held now (asked (...)

42Where does this leave the Union? Opinion remains, at best, unsettled. Support for independence in Scotland rose to as high as the mid-50s in 2020 but has subsequently dropped back to around 48%.9 There has been some sorting of voters as a consequence of Brexit; Remainers have drifted towards the nationalist camp, Leavers to the Unionists, in particular the Conservatives. Identity is now the main determinant of how people vote. “Middle Scotland”, those who are not fully committed nationalists or Unionists, identify more strongly as Scottish than British and, if they vote, vote in greater numbers for the SNP. These voters do not want a referendum in the immediate future but their adherence to the Union is far from secure.

43In Wales, Mark Drakeford used his reputation for competence and sensible governance through the pandemic to re-confirm Labour’s position as the natural party of governance in Wales in the May 2021 elections to the Senedd. He has done so in part by continued positioning of Labour as a soft-nationalist option for Welsh voters, the party best able to represent Welsh interests. This has kept Plaid Cymru in check, despite support for independence for Wales reaching unprecedented levels over the last year or so of over 30%, which number includes about a third of Labour voters.10

  • 11 See for example Ciaran Barnes, “Latest poll reveals 49% back Northern Ireland remaining in United K (...)

44Support for unification with the south in Northern Ireland has not yet consistently broken the 50% barrier, which would require the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to enable a border poll. But since Brexit there has been an upward trend in support for unification, which has reached over 40% in a number of polls over the last two to three years.11

45Meanwhile in England, support for the Union is characterised as much by indifference as by affection. Polls suggest that at best a slim majority of people would still actively prefer Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to remain in the Union.12 There is no evidence of a strong groundswell of opinion that would back decisive UK government action to buttress the Union.

46This looks like an unstable equilibrium. On the one hand, in no part of the UK do the nationalists have sufficient momentum to force decisive change in the near term. The Scottish government cannot compel the UK government to grant a legal referendum and almost certainly won’t contemplate holding an illegal one. There is no serious pressure on the UK government to grant a border poll in Northern Ireland and support for independence in Wales is far from lift-off velocity.

47On the other hand, there is little to suggest that there will be an imminent resurgence of support for the Union. In all three devolved parts of the UK, demography appears to be on the side of the nationalists; support for independence or unification is very much higher among the younger age groups. It is not inevitable that these attitudes will persist as these younger generations grow older; nevertheless, the concept of independence or unification is normalised with these age cohorts in a way it was not previously. It is unlikely that attitudes to their own identity will shift markedly and a fair chance, therefore, that they will carry current political leanings towards nationalism with them as they grow older.

48Under the political surface, the tropes and symbols that had long buttressed the UK Union have steadily eroded. The solidarity of a shared Protestantism and the allure of empire are long since gone. The binding effect of the post-war welfare state has weakened through an era of parsimonious, means-tested austerity. The memory of shared endeavour in armed conflict has faded. Only the NHS stands out as an institution which many across the country regard as British; paradoxically, given that health has been a devolved policy area since 1999. In keeping with experience in other parts of the world, the declining visibility of Britishness aligns also with the secular trend for people to look for security and reassurance in a globalising world in a more localised politics which speaks to their most immediate identity.

49Will the lived experience of Brexit counter these long-terms trends that have undermined a sense of shared Britishness? There might be such an effect if there were to be unequivocal economic and wider benefits from Brexit, leading to a tangible improvement in quality of life across the UK. That is unlikely, at least in foreseeable circumstances. While Brexit impacts have been occluded by the pandemic, most economic forecasts continue to estimate that the new trade barriers to the UK’s most important market will knock 4% or more off GDP over the next decade or so.13 The UK will still grow but will grow more slowly than it would have done if still inside the EU. Some things may be made possible by Brexit, but the net effect over time is likely to be a negative one. Brexit as it is experienced is unlikely to compensate for the damage it has done to sentiment towards the Union.

50Most people, of course, are too sensible to live their lives in a constant state of political ferment. Not many would articulate the effect of Brexit as a shattering of the ambiguities of the British constitutional settlement in a way that overwhelmed democratically expressed opinion in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Union has so far survived the shock of Brexit; despite the best efforts of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein, Brexit has not led to an unstoppable shift in popular support that makes independence or unification inevitable.

51But the fact of Brexit cannot now be erased. The likelihood of the UK as a whole rejoining the EU any time soon is vanishingly small. Buyer’s remorse or not, the popular and political will is simply not there for an early return. It is true that Brexit complicates the prospectus for independence. An independent Scotland, or Wales for that matter, could not simultaneously be in a UK internal market and the EU single market. The special status of Northern Ireland is unlikely to be on offer to independent states wishing to accede to the EU; in any event, even the Protocol requires a trade border. Nevertheless, Brexit stands as a constant reminder of the limits of self-government in the devolved parts of the UK. Insofar as support for independence is, at heart, a demand for self-government, Brexit reinforces the argument of the nationalists that the UK Union in its current form is not fit for purpose.

52In Northern Ireland, the longer-term political and economic impact of the Protocol remains unpredictable, not least given the unsettled state of the Protocol itself. If it survives in more or less its current form, it is likely that access to the EU single market through the south will exert a gravitational pull on the Northern Irish economy away from the British market. If that is so, will it be accompanied by a further shift in sentiment in favour of unification?


53For a Union that was already under some pressure, Brexit was not a sensible prescription. That was well known before the 2016 referendum; those arguing for Brexit chose to promote the leaving of one union over the sustaining of the other. That gamble may pay off, but it is likely to require a substantial renewal of the British state in a way visibly to remake the case for the Union to sceptical people in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Such constitutional renewal is not in the British tradition as the accretion of defunct institutions amply demonstrates. But it is possible. Without such renewal, the erosive effect of Brexit on the cohesion of the pluri-national British state will remain. Nothing is inevitable under the political sun; the UK Union may survive in more or less its current form for decades to come. But that prospect is now less certain.

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Barnes, Ciaran, “Latest poll reveals 49% back Northern Ireland remaining in United Kingdom”, The Belfast Telegraph, 29-08-2021, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

Curtice, John, “The Changed Foundations of SNP Support”, What Scotland Thinks, ScotCen, 27-11-2020, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

Devine, Tom, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present London 2017

Office for Budget Responsibility Economic and Fiscal Outlook October 2021 Last accessed 11 March 2022

Savanta ComRes, ITN, State of the Union Poll (Wales), 04-03-2021, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

What Scotland Thinks, “How would you vote in a Scottish independence referendum if held now (asked after the EU referendum”, ScotCen, from 24 June 2016 to 18 January 2022, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

What EU Thinks, “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the European Union?”, NatCen Social Research, from 1 August 2016 to 2 February 2022, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

YouGov, “GB support for Scottish independence”, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

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1 The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the agreement between the UK and the EU on the UK’s withdrawal from EU membership. It governs the terms of trade between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the EU in order to avoid the necessity of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

2 Northern Ireland voted 55% to remain and 45% to leave in the EU referendum in 2016. All the main political parties, other than the main Unionist party, the DUP, supported remain.

3 What EU Thinks, “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the European Union?”, NatCen Social Research, from 1 August 2016 to 2 February 2022, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

4 John Curtice, “The Changed Foundations of SNP Support”, What Scotland Thinks, ScotCen, 27-11-2020, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

5 A now obscure dispute in which Parliament sought to impose an Anglican (English) form of church governance on the Presbyterian (Scottish) church in terms of appointment of church ministers. See Devine, T Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present London 2017 pp.30-31

6 See Scottish party leaders’ debate in 2015 election campaign. Last accessed 9 March 2022

7 ‘So there is no doubt that yesterday's result represents a significant and a material change of the circumstances in which Scotland voted against independence in 2014.’ Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on 24 June 2016. 9 March 2022

8 Last accessed 11 March 2022

9 What Scotland Thinks, “How would you vote in a Scottish independence referendum if held now (asked after the EU referendum”, ScotCen, from 24 June 2016 to 18 January 2022, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

10 Savanta ComRes, ITN, State of the Union Poll (Wales), 04-03-2021, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

11 See for example Ciaran Barnes, “Latest poll reveals 49% back Northern Ireland remaining in United Kingdom”, The Belfast Telegraph, 29-08-2021, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

12 See for example YouGov, “GB support for Scottish independence”, Last accessed 11 March 2022.

13 See Office for Budget Responsibility report, October 2021, p. 58 Last accessed 11 March 2022.

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Electronic reference

Philip Rycroft, After Brexit: The State of the UK UnionRevue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVII-2 | 2022, Online since 15 June 2022, connection on 28 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Philip Rycroft

Philip Rycroft was a civil servant in the UK for 30 years. He worked at a senior level for the devolved government in Scotland before moving to the Cabinet Office in London where he led civil service work for the UK government on the constitution and devolution. His last posting was as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU. He is now an Honorary Professor at Edinburgh University and a visiting fellow at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University.

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