In the second of two articles on the outcome of the UK’s general election, George Candon questions whether nationalist success in Scotland and Northern Ireland is everything it’s made out to be.
Much has been made by the commenterati that the majority of MPs returned in both Northern Ireland and Scotland represent nationalist parties. Dizzy chatter in some quarters predicts the imminence of Scottish independence, Irish reunification and the break-up of the union.
But while it has rightly been said that Brexit, the ERG and UKIP/Brexit party have done more for the cause of Irish reunification in a few short years than the Irish republican movement has achieved in a hundred, it is too early to sound the death-knell of the UK just yet. Two major reasons stand out.
First of all, the tide of nationalism in Northern Ireland isn’t quite what it seems.
Northern Ireland has admittedly marked an historic milestone by returning for the first time ever more nationalist than unionist MPs – a combined nine for Sinn Féin and the SDLP compared to eight for the Democratic Unionist Party. Tactical voting and election alliances worked spectacularly well in the province. Possibly the biggest upset of the election saw Sinn Féin’s John Finucane, Lord Mayor of Belfast, unseat the DUP’s erstwhile Westminster leader Nigel Dodds. In similar fashion the SDLP dislodged the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly in South Belfast. Both constituencies saw the other nationalist party stand aside in an anti-Brexit pact that claimed these two DUP seats and denied them a third, North Down, which neither nationalist party contested. Northern Ireland’s wealthy and solidly unionist ‘gold coast’ was expected to go to the DUP once the previous incumbent, independent unionist Lady Sylvia Harmon, had decided to stand down at this election. Instead, it went to the non-aligned Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), who mopped up all of Lady Harmon’s votes, and then some. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) decision to stand in the constituency for the first time since 2005 was also probably instrumental in denying the DUP the seat.
But the North Down result underscores the potentially bigger story in Northern Ireland politics, which is less a triumph of nationalism than a triumph of centrism, a significant milestone in the progressive normalisation of politics in the province. Lumping Sinn Féin and SDLP results together paints a facile and somewhat lazy picture of nationalist dominance; the truer picture is to compare the centre parties with the hardliners. Looking through that lens, we see a significant swing of 12% away from Sinn Féin and the DUP to the centrist Alliance Party and SDLP.
Secondly, because the number of nationalists returned in both Northern Ireland and Scotland hides a more complex story on the figures.
The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system massively skews results. The main two Northern Ireland nationalist parties’ share of the vote was 37.7%, compared to 42.3% for the DUP and UUP combined. Likewise in Scotland it would be foolhardy to axiomatically equate the landslide win for the SNP (48 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats) with overwhelming support for Scottish independence, when we understand that the party took over 80% of Scotland’s seats on only 45% of its vote. That means that 55% of votes in Scotland went to British parties opposed to independence (Tories, Lib Dems and Labour, in order of Scottish seats).
But the now-inevitable Brexit adds considerable grist to the SNP’s independence mill, and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has lost absolutely no time in banging on about her mandate for an ‘indyref-2’ following the SNP’s landslide. Probably with half an eye on developments in Catalonia, Ms. Sturgeon has remained cautious and consistent in saying she wants independence by legal means only – she understands that her ultimate aim of an independent Scotland joining the EU will only stand a chance if she can get a legal and orderly exit from the United Kingdom (Scexit, anyone?).
The Scotland Act gives Mr Johnson the legal right to deny a referendum, but it’s the political right that matters. If not sooner, that right will be defined and tested at the latest after the next elections to Holyrood, to be held by May 2021. The SNP needs to secure only three more seats to have an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament. Should they achieve this, it would make demands for a second referendum politically impossible to resist.
It has been said that the self-styled ‘minister for the union’ will not want to go down in history as the prime minister who oversaw the break-up of her Britannic majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I’m not so sure. He also said he would ‘die in a ditch’ before accepting a further extension to Article 50, but later capitulated, saying it had been forced upon him. His get-out-of-jail card then was his double-missive to the European Commission. Mr. Johnson is nothing if not chameleon-like.
His first appearance at the dispatch box following the election was hardly a full-throated defence of what has been called the most successful political union in modern history. A pledge to ‘politely and respectfully’ defend the union sounds like someone whose heart isn’t in the fight looking for a way out. Mr. Johnson also knows on what side his bread is buttered, and that keeping his party in power relies on keeping English voters onside. He will be fully cognizant of the research published in October 2019 which found that more than three-quarters of English Conservative leave voters would be willing to accept Scottish independence as the price for Brexit.
Ms. Sturgeon’s premise for wanting a second referendum is that Scotland does not want to leave the EU, which she is repeating ad nauseum. She is probably counting on English leave voters getting fed up with this narrative. If they do, Mr. Johnson might just accede to her request.
But securing the right to hold a referendum is no guarantee of its outcome. Neither does a vote for the SNP in a general election necessarily equate to support for Scottish independence: the electorate is more complex and sophisticated than it is generally given credit for.
But should the SNP secure a second referendum, and through it, independence, the very political foundations of Northern Irish Unionism will have disappeared. Irish reunification wouldn’t be far behind.
 -6.7%, -5.4% +8.8% and +3.1% vote share respectively.