Since taking office, Boris Johnson has promised to strengthen the Union. In his inaugural speech as prime minister, he paid tribute to the “awesome foursome”. He later declared himself to be minister for the union. And with the prime minister watching on, the Queen’s Speech was used to underline the government’s commitment to all four nations of the UK.
But Johnson’s commitment jars with his apparent willingness to leave the EU without a deal. As our latest Institute for Government report warns, such a move would be a high-stakes gamble with the Union.
With talks with the EU ongoing, and the EU Withdrawal (No.2) Act making a 31 October no-deal departure unlikely, the imminent threat appears to have decreased. But unless and until Parliament commits to another action, it remains the legal default.
In a joint letter to Boris Johnson the first ministers of Scotland and Wales warned that no deal would be "catastrophic for all parts of the UK", while David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has warned that it would have serious consquences for Northern Ireland's economy and society. Yet the prime minister has refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit, and has insisted that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October however the talks with the EU conclude.
While the devolved governments have engaged seriously with preparedness and contingency planning for a no deal, co-operation and information-sharing with the devolved administrations has declined since the Johnson administration ramped up no-deal planning. This is concerning, and has been the subject of strong criticism from the Scottish and Welsh governments.
The UK government’s own analysis of the risks of no deal warns of possible food and medicine shortages, business failures, job losses, consumer price increases and economic damage. Nevertheless, some polls of voters in England show – in some demographics – support for a no-deal Brexit. Given how strongly no deal is opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, there is likely to be much lower tolerance for negative consequences. If they do materialise, the blame will be put squarely at Westminster’s door.
Once a remote possibility, the break up of the United Kingdom is now a clear risk. The most obvious candidate for secession is Scotland, with the Scottish government saying it wants to hold a second independence referendum next year. There is polling evidence to suggest that Brexit is fuelling a swing towards independence, and a no-deal Brexit could make it harder for the Westminster government to continue to deny a referendum request.
In Northern Ireland, where the Assembly is still not sitting, the consequences of no deal will mean the imposition of direct rule from the UK. Such a move will be strongly opposed by nationalists and the Irish government, who will regard it as a violation of the Good Friday Agreement. At the same time, the border on the island of Ireland will immediately harden as the UK leaves the Single Market and the Customs Union, upsetting the delicate balance which allowed many moderate nationalists to reside in part of the UK while retaining their Irish identity.
In this context, pressure for a border poll on a united Ireland will increase – and reunification may prove attractive to both moderate nationalists and anyone inclined to retain the economic benefits of access to EU markets. Some polls have put support for a united Ireland as high as 51%.
Even in Wales, where the majority remain in favour of the union, a modest independence movement has emerged – and the Welsh first minister has warned that Welsh support for the Union is “not unconditional”.
For all the UK government’s insistence that it is committed to strengthening the Union, it should be treating the devolved nations as partners, rather than stakeholders to be consulted. The government must review the ways in which it considers devolved interests, how it improves capability in Whitehall and how it ensures that departments are held accountable for the ways they engage with their devolved counterparts. Crucially, the government needs to acknowledge that the UK is a partnership of nations, each of which has the right to self-determination.
Finally, the government must reconsider how it works with devolved governments at a political level. In partnership with the devolved governments, it must accelerate work reviewing intergovernmental relations. Preparations for no deal have absorbed almost all intergovernmental capacity, meaning progress on these vital reforms has stalled – and in the event of no deal, huge intergovernmental challenges, such as the development of common frameworks and devolved engagement in future trade deals, will need to be addressed.
There is no doubt that a no-deal Brexit will, destabilise the Union. So while the UK government has repeatedly suggested that it holds the cards in the Brexit talks, a no-deal Brexit is a high stakes gamble on the future of the Union.