Will the UK Finally Break Up?

We don’t read much about it on this side of the “Pond” – the slang term some Europeans use for the Atlantic Ocean – but the United Kingdom could be closer to breaking up than at any time since it first came into being.

That was in 1707 – well over three centuries ago.

When the Act of Union – the law that cemented the union of England and Wales with Scotland into “Great Britain” – came into being, observers from that time noted that most Scottish citizens vehemently opposed it.

One Scottish negotiator wrote, “the whole nation appears against (it).” Another observed that the union was “contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom.”

The only reason why the union occurred at all was that bribes amounting to £20,000 – an enormous sum at the time – were distributed to these negotiators in exchange for their support.

Three centuries later, political pressure is building that could undo the union of 1707, perhaps for good.

For nearly a decade, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has dominated Scottish politics. And their defining goal is independence. And while Scottish voters turned down independence once before – in 2014 – support has continued to build since then.

If Scotland eventually becomes independent, it wouldn’t the first time the United Kingdom has shrunk. In 1801, after conquering Ireland, Great Britain formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. But a century later, in 1922, after a three-year war, all of Ireland with the exception of the northernmost counties threw off British rule and declared independence as the Irish Free State; later, the Republic of Ireland.

And these northern counties – Northern Ireland – may be the next to leave the United Kingdom.

For centuries, there’s been a religious division between Northern Ireland and what is now the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland was solidly Protestant; the rest of the country was solidly Catholic. But Northern Ireland no longer has a Protestant majority. The demographic imperative that has kept it a part of the United Kingdom for centuries no longer exists. We foresee eventual reunification with the remainder of Ireland as inevitable.

And then there’s Wales; perhaps the most overlooked component of the United Kingdom. Wales has been unified with England since 1284, when King Edward I’s armies conquered it. Last December, a report from the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, found “significant problems with the way Wales is currently governed.” An opinion poll commissioned as part of the report concluded that 55% of the Welsh population favors independence.  

Then there’s the inhabitants of England itself, who as Brexit revealed, increasingly view their country as a unique sovereign entity, not one pretending to be an empire.

Not surprisingly, the Kingdom’s international partners are aghast at the prospect of a breakup. In our view, an unspoken reason why American President Joe Biden visited Ireland last week was to signal support for a proposed trade deal called the Windsor Framework.

The agreement ensures that Northern Ireland will have access to the UK’s internal market as well as the EU’s single market. But it’s opposed by “Unionists” in Northern Ireland who fear that too close an integration with the EU will spur calls for unification with the rest of the country – and they’re right.

But the real reason that the UK’s neighbors fear the dissolution of the centuries-old union between England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is that they face similar political movements in their own countries.

The Spanish province of Catalonia wants to separate from Spain. Once an independent nation, Catalonia was fully absorbed into Spain in 1714. In 2017, voters in Catalonia voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, but the results were rejected by the Spanish Parliament. Nine leaders of the independence campaign were imprisoned after being found guilty of sedition.

Italy has at least three secessionist movements: The Northern League and nationalist groups in both Venice and Sardinia. In 2014, nearly 90% of voters in the province of Venice voted for independence. The referendum was non-binding, but the vote will be impossible for Italy to ignore.

And of course, we’re in the midst of a major war for self-determination in Ukraine. Russia is determined to crush Ukraine’s ambitions for full sovereignty. Ukraine, of course, is determined to achieve it.

What makes the residents of places like Catalonia, Scotland, and Ukraine so anxious to separate themselves from their respective national governments? Humans have a fundamental drive to seek personal autonomy, and that drive carries over into our social and political lives. And, of course, smaller governments are more accountable than larger ones.

Justifying secession is easier if the region that wants to secede feels unappreciated. For instance, the area surrounding Venice – Veneto – has long been one of Italy’s wealthiest. Supporters of independence point out that Veneto receives only five euros in government services for every seven euros it pays in taxes. They claim that, with independence, Veneto would receive billions of euros annually in surplus revenue.

Naturally, new countries must compete economically, financially, and militarily. They need new sources of investment, skilled labor, and many other things to build their new nations.

Looking for a business-friendly environment in which to set up your next venture? A newly independent Scotland, if it’s smart, will roll out the red carpet to entrepreneurs.

For all these reasons, secession is nothing to fear. Indeed, for those of us seeking international opportunities, it’s something to look forward to.

Secession, anyone?

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