Theresa May called the snap election hoping for a strong majority, to give her a free hand to deal with the EU. While promising a ‘UK approach’ to Brexit, the Conservatives rejected different arrangements for the UK’s component nations or anything more than a consultative role for the devolved governments. Following the General Election, this may have to change.
The SNP has stressed the fact that 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain in the Brexit referendum. Last year it proposed that Scotland could remain in the European single market even as the rest of the UK left. When the UK Government failed to respond, it proposed a new independence referendum the only way of remaining in Europe.
Neither government presented a clear and consistent plan at the election. The Conservatives’ Brexit plans promised a new partnership with Europe, without explaining what it would entail. The SNP’s twin-track approach of a differentiated Brexit and independence in Europe confused many. Support for independence has been running at about the same level as in 2014 but support for a referendum has not. Independence and Europe may be a logical combination but the electorate has never really made the connection. So the unionist parties were able to capitalize on opposition to a referendum without having to say much about Brexit.
Both the UK and Scottish governments ‘won’ their elections in the sense of emerging as the largest parties but neither gained the political endorsement they were seeking.
An independence referendum is off the table for the time being but the issue of Scotland’s place in the UK and Europe is not. There is support across the parties for safeguarding Scotland’s economic interests, a more generous policy on European workers and ensuring that key powers coming back from Europe will go to Holyrood rather than to Westminster. The SNP have lost political support but, as the third party in a hung parliament, gained political leverage. The Scottish Conservatives, now that their independence fox has been shot, may have to adopt clearer positions and distance themselves from hard Brexit. Scottish Labour has the opportunity to strike a distinct position, given UK Labour’s ambivalence over free movement and the single market. If both of these happen, then the distinctive Scottish element in UK politics will survive the setback to the SNP.
Northern Ireland, where the Democratic Unionists (DUP) gained most seats, is even more complex and urgent. Talks on restoring the power-sharing Executive must start shortly, while the Northern Ireland border question has to be addressed in the first phase of Brexit negotiations. The DUP supported Brexit but the province voted Remain, divided on unionist-nationalist lines. There is a wide concern that Brexit could undermine the peace process. It deepens the unionist-nationalist divide. It risks creating a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU and single market as the UK leaves. The DUP’s very existence is based on keeping the border but it is open to mitigating its economic consequences. To square the circle, the DUP and UK Conservatives have promised a ‘frictionless’ border but nobody has explained what this means. The Conservatives proposed deal with the DUP further strains the settlement. That depends on the UK being, along with the Irish Government, an honest broker between nationalists and unionists. Whatever the arrangement between the DUP and the Conservatives, that is difficult to reconcile with such impartiality. Should negotiations on restoring the Executive fail and direct rule be installed, that creates an even more obvious conflict of interest.
With a hung parliament and concerns about the impact of Brexit in Wales and London, it is unlikely that the ‘UK approach’ can simply be imposed by the UK Government. The failure of the UK Conservatives to secure their mandate reopens the question not only of what sort of Brexit will be will have but of the future of the United Kingdom itself.
Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.