The meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and the leaders of the United Kingdom’s devolved administrations was a significant moment in setting the tone for the Brexit negotiations ahead.
May has pledged to advance a single UK position when negotiations with the EU begin next year. This pledge could be interpreted in either of two ways. She could be attempting to compel the nations of the UK to conform to the Westminster government’s Brexit position, or she could be opening the door to other positions in the hope of destabilising the moves towards leaving the EU. The former is the most likely, however May cannot be seen to be overtly imposing the will of the Brexiteers on the devolved institutions without risking political consequences.
In the case of Scotland such consequences are well advertised. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to at least keep Scotland in the single market and, really, her ultimate goal is to stay in the EU. The Scottish people voted to remain, which Sturgeon is interpreting as a solid mandate to oppose moves in London to take Scotland out.
Similarly, Northern Ireland voted to remain. The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, warned of dire consequences if it is also taken out of the EU, both economically and constitutionally. Only Wales and England voted to leave, which was enough to deliver a Brexit vote.
A large minority
May’s problem is that the Remain vote (although the minority) was very large across the UK, at 48%. It was also sufficiently clustered to embolden Sturgeon and McGuinness to take the UK government to task. Westminster is sovereign, so there is no legal recourse for the devolved institutions to stand up to the UK government in the manner that they are doing but they do equally have a mandate to speak up for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Remain voters in England and Wales are also sympathetic to Scotland and Northern Ireland’s cause. Although Leave won the referendum with 51.9% of the UK vote, democracy is never a single event. No subject – especially one as significant as this – in a mature liberal democracy is ever answered fully by a referendum. Put simply, the debate continues as Leave voters know all too well.
The debate also continued after 1975 when the UK voted to stay part of the European Economic Area, it continued after the passing of many treaties in bills in the House of Commons, and it would have continued if Remain had won in 2016 (particularly if it was only by 51.9%). It is disingenuous of Leave supporters to now argue the “people have spoken” and expect the debate to end. The majority have spoken but the substantial minority are significant enough to pose a constitutional, political, and economic risk to the UK if Brexiteers continue believing they have an “overwhelming” mandate. Indeed, what is surprising about the mandate is its smallness.May, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and the other Brexiteers in the government (and on the opposition) have no option but to listen to Remainers – especially those representing nations that voted to stay, such as Sturgeon and McGuinness. The consequences of not doing so would be dire for relations within the UK during the Brexit talks and possibly afterwards if Scotland is seen to be treated as little more than an afterthought by the Brexit government.
So far, the hubris of the Brexiteers appears to be clouding their judgement. The task ahead is substantial. The stakes are not just the future economic prosperity of the UK but also questions of whether the UK will remain together. At this point there is a real risk that, by the end of this process, Wales and England will stand alone as a UK outside the EU and shunned by the world.
A kingdom at stake
So, how can May demonstrate she is listening? She can first acknowledge that the referendum result was a slim victory for Leave. It is not a huge endorsement for a hard Brexit. Indeed, it is a slim endorsement for something which no one appears to understand. By acknowledging the slimness of the vote it will give her room to manoeuvre which she desperately needs.
May also needs to acknowledge that for Scotland and Northern Ireland “remain means remain”. They want to remain a member of the European Union and the single market. Regardless of it being a United Kingdom vote, it would be constitutionally and politically bold to ignore that. Should May attempt to do so, it is highly probable that a second independence referendum in Scotland could occur. Whatever the result of that, the symbolism would be very negative.
The possible consequences in Northern Ireland could include growing calls to remain in the European Union through reunification with Ireland. If faced with significant economic decline these calls could become very convincing if the UK is seen to be acting in a detrimental manner and failing to take the peace process seriously. These are big issues that May and the Brexiteers simply can’t afford to ignore in favour of pursuing their victory. But they look increasingly like they are running off the edge of a cliff knowing full well what they are about to do.