Brexit places the Union of the United Kingdom at risk, with politicians “underestimating the struggle” that will follow if the UK leaves the European Union, argues Tony Blair in a new interview with IfG Director Bronwen Maddox.
The former Prime Minister, the prime architect of devolution that, 20 years ago, reshaped the UK’s constitution, handing more power to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, adds that Brexit risks pushing “us into a position where that kind of gets Scottish independence over the line”. Blair was also concerned that the “destructive force” of Brexit in Northern Ireland could create “a feeling towards a border poll that just wasn’t present during the years that I was in office.”
He was speaking to the IfG ahead of the 20th anniversary of those radical reforms, in which the UK changed the structure of its government with a speed that confounds its international image as a country bound by tradition. You can download a PDF transcript from this page, read online or watch the full video below.
Following Labour’s 1997 manifesto promise to hold referendums, Scotland (by a large majority) and Wales (by a whisker) voted for more devolution. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were elected for the first time on 6 May 1999 and, later that year, unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland formed a ‘power-sharing’ coalition, following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The United Kingdom’s constitutional map was redrawn, with these reforms placing decisions on education, health, environment and agriculture, in the hands of politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Despite once writing, in his autobiography, that he was “never a passionate devolutionist”, Blair believes that devolution has, for the most part, accomplished what he set out to do. “If we hadn’t done devolution we would have had an unstoppable pressure for Scottish independence and I think if we hadn’t done the Good Friday Agreement, you’d have had a very ugly situation in Northern Ireland,” he argues.
Blair also rejects the suggestion that devolution helped to fuel a big rise of English nationalism, and attacks politicians like “the Boris Johnsons, the Rees-Moggs, who say they’re vigorous Unionists but are actually really playing on English nationalism.”
While he is a passionate supporter of a second vote on the UK’s membership of the EU, Blair accepts that if the component parts of the Union vote in different ways again – such as England voting to Leave in an overall Remain result – then the referendum would not immediately bring the UK closer together. Blair acknowledges that “if you are looking for the ideal way out of this mess, it doesn’t exist”, but believes that a “healing process” could be possible if the Government were to “grip this back from Parliament” and set out a process which ends with a referendum.
As for the future of the UK, after Brexit or, in Blair’s ideal scenario, after stopping Brexit, the former Prime Minister calls for a renewed effort to work out what it means to be part of the UK. “We should think more carefully about how we have a British and UK identity, and not just an English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh identity”, suggests Blair, who calls for politicians to be “more active and passionate in our defence of the Union.”
This interview is part of the Institute for Government’s work to mark the 20th anniversary of devolution. On 3 May we will launch a major data-based analysis of 'Devolution at 20', and in June we will publish a collection of essays – including the interview with Tony Blair – on whether devolution has been a success.