It’s looking like 2020 is going to be a knock-down drag-out in UK politics. On December 12th, Brits went to the polls and sent Boris Johnson and his Conservatives back to Westminster with a commanding majority government. English voters were clearly fed up with years of Brexit back-and-forth, and felt voting Tory would draw a line under the whole messy affair. Problem is, they may have just made things worse for themselves.
A decisive election may seem like good news for Britain, but the Tory win underscores centuries old divides. Looking at the electoral map, it is clear where the battle lines are drawn: Northern Ireland and Scotland. December’s poll may have solidified England’s stance on Brexit, but it is just a starting point for those who never wanted it in the first place.
There was a scene as Nicola Sturgeon and other SNP supporters watched the results. The camera’s caught their reaction as the extent of the party’s victory became clear: jubilation. Just as Boris had swept England and most of Wales, the SNP took home 48 of the 59 seats available north of the Anglo-Scottish border.
In her call to congratulate Johnson, Sturgeon wasted no time in putting a second Scottish referendum on the table. While the Conservative leader has stated in the past that he has no appetite for IndyRef2, he may find himself with little choice. Scotland voted to remain in 2016, and with mosts Scottish voters placing their support behind the SNP, it is clear that many would rather see an independent Scotland in the EU, than maintain the status-quo Union.
Johnson, as well as others in his party, have started making arguments that the SNP should focus on domestic concerns, and not bother themselves with large ambitions like independence. They say that Scotland’s 2014 referendum should stand, and that promises were made then that it would be a once in a generation vote. However, as Sturgeon has pointed out: Brexit changes everything.
Johnson may be able to hold off IndyRef2 for a bit, but not forever. There is a clear democratic argument to be made that Brexit changed the terms under which Scots had voted to stay back in 2014. That material change, plus the SNP’s landslide in the December election, make clear Scotland ain’t buying what Boris is selling. At some point, Westminster will have to transfer powers to Holyrood for a referendum.
Things are not as clear, and are more dangerous, in Northern Ireland. Like Scotland, voters in Northern Ireland chose to Remain in 2016. Like Scotland, voters sent a message in the December election. Unlike Scotland, Northern Ireland is also the UK’s only land border with the EU. Then, there’s The Troubles. An element that can neither be ignored or underestimated.
Johnson’s main ally in Northern Ireland is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The rest of the UK, and the world, got a taste of DUP intransigence when the party propped up Theresa May’s government. Started by the fiery and divisive preacher Ian Paisley as a bulwark against ‘papists’, the DUP maintains a siege-like mentality. In the 1980s, the DUP staunchly opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It also added fuel to a sectarian war, and helped to perpetuate even more death and destruction. I say this only to highlight the lengths the DUP is prepared to go to block any progress that may lessen Northern Ireland’s ‘British-ness’.
Given the DUP’s desire to hold onto its precious Union, why the party backed Brexit in the first place is a bit of a mystery. Then again, the DUP always viewed EU human rights legislation as a damper on it’s bigoted parade. Regardless, December’s election signalled a new and worrying trend for the party – times have changed.
Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s voice in Westminster, lost his seat to the Irish nationalist SDLP in North Belfast. For those unfamiliar with the electoral history of Belfast, this is a major development. In fact, the DUP was only able to hold on the most loyalist district of East Belfast – known for it’s Orange Parades and support of loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The rest of the city turned hues of green on election night.
Sein Fein, the second largest political party in Northern Ireland also lost some of it’s vote share, but held on to key ridings. Both the SDLP and Alliance made gains. In short: the Unionist vote is down and the Irish nationalist vote is up.
Despite losing ground to what has become a pan-Nationalist front in Northern Ireland, Boris Johnston seems willing to double down. In the Speech from the Throne, it was announced that the ongoing legacy trials against British soldiers regarding war crimes committed during The Troubles, will be scrapped. Already, the SDLP’s newly elected member of Westminster, Colm Eastwood, has stated he will oppose the move in the Commons. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, and opposition remains political and not armed.
Currently, much will depend on the ongoing negotiations to reopen the Northern Irish Assembly, Stormont. The DUP is continuing to hold out, particularly against any notion of majority rule. The party wants to maintain it’s veto, despite the fact that it no longer has the numbers. With pressure coming from both inside Northern Ireland, and with a pro-Irish government in Dublin, for the first time in history the DUP may not be able to gerrymander and bully their way out of things.
Perhaps sensing that she may have to start paying rent on Balmoral, the Queen described 2019 as, ‘a bit bumpy’. If the monarchy can be relied on for anything, it’s making sweeping understatements. Much like the very creation of the UK as a state, Brexit has, from the start, been an England first policy. But empire’s end, and things change. Western liberal democracy has never, nor should ever, reside in the being of any one or two states. Instead, it should reside in the hearts and minds of people, and be expressed accordingly. For the Scots and the Irish, 2020 may finally be that expression.