Britain’s Great Unraveling
Why 2015 could be the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.
This week's D-Day commemorations recall a time when Britain was still widely viewed as a great power. Despite subsequent relative decline, Britain's sizeable political, military, and economic influence has been preserved, internationally, some 70 years after World War II ended.
Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd asserted in 1993 that Britain has been able to "punch above its weight." That statement is still true today -- but may now be under threat, with consequences that could undermine both the United Kingdom's political influence and economic prosperity.
Two risks jeopardize the domestic underpinnings of Britain's international success: its shaky commitment to the European Union, and Scotland's uncertain commitment to the United Kingdom.
This week’s D-Day commemorations recall a time when Britain was still widely viewed as a great power. Despite subsequent relative decline, Britain’s sizeable political, military, and economic influence has been preserved, internationally, some 70 years after World War II ended.
Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd asserted in 1993 that Britain has been able to “punch above its weight.” That statement is still true today — but may now be under threat, with consequences that could undermine both the United Kingdom’s political influence and economic prosperity.
Two risks jeopardize the domestic underpinnings of Britain’s international success: its shaky commitment to the European Union, and Scotland’s uncertain commitment to the United Kingdom.
Driven in part by the growth of Euroskepticism in Britain, the governing Conservative Party has promised that if it wins an outright majority in the May 2015 general election it will hold an “in or out” referendum on staying a part of the EU. As the recent European Parliament elections underlined, such a plebiscite could well see the United Kingdom vote to leave. Remarkably, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) — a party built around a policy of British withdrawal from the EU — last month became the first party other than the Conservatives or Labour to win a national election in over 100 years, only underlining the growth of anti-Brussels sentiment in Britain.
The second, more immediate, potential earthquake is the prospect that Britain itself will break up later this year if Scotland votes for independence in September. While polls indicate that more Scottish voters want to stay in the union than leave it, surveys generally show in recent months growing support for independence.
Should Scotland secede or U.K. Euroskeptics win the day in any eventual EU membership referendum, it would represent a body blow to Britain’s international influence. Moreover, the unraveling might not even end there: The continued union between England, Northern Ireland, and Wales would potentially be in jeopardy too.
And the issues could feed into each other. Scots, in general, are more favorable toward continued membership in the EU than the English — who account for a majority of Britain’s population. Thus, with polls indicating the United Kingdom as a whole may be more or less equally divided on whether to leave the EU, if Scotland does vote for independence, and thus does not participate in a subsequent EU referendum in Britain, this could tip the electoral balance in a tight vote.
Exit from the EU would not only disadvantage the United Kingdom, but also the rest of Europe, which widely acknowledges the value of continued British membership. The United Kingdom is often a source of competing ideas in Brussels, and has played a major role in conceiving and pushing forward key initiatives such as the European Single Market.
It is also unlikely that some of the claims of Scottish nationalists about an independent country would, ultimately, be fully delivered for the Scottish people. This includes assertions about an automatic right to EU membership which would, in reality, require potentially complex and protracted negotiations.
All EU countries need to agree to the accession of a new state, and the Spanish government, worried about secessionist sentiment in Catalonia, has already voiced opposition to automatic Scottish membership. Even if the Scots were to accede after an extended period, the terms on which they’d do so could be significantly less favorable than those that Britain originally negotiated. For instance, an independent Scotland might not enjoy the significant EU budget contributions rebate that the United Kingdom has. It is also unclear whether Brussels would require a newly acceded Scotland to join the euro (a requirement that might meet with the objections of a Scottish government), as other recently joined member states have been required to do.
The likely aftershocks of these potential earthquakes for Britain, while not all immediate, could be profound in the long run. On the European front, for instance, the U.K.’s influence and prosperity are significantly enhanced by EU membership. Imperfect and in need of reform as Brussels is, the British economy would undoubtedly suffer if the country leaves the European club.
Some British people might still like to see themselves as being at the center of the world, but the facts clearly show that’s no longer the case. The United Kingdom now accounts for less than 1 percent of global population, and around 3 percent of world GDP. As former Foreign Secretary David Miliband rightly said, “Our role in Europe magnifies the power of our ideas, and strengthens our international clout in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.” For example, in trade negotiations, such as those with the United States now over the proposed U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), London’s bargaining position is enhanced by being part of the EU — the world’s largest trading bloc — which accounts for some 20 percent of global GDP, and approximately 500 million people.
The influence that EU membership confers on Britain also helps drive foreign direct investment (FDI). The United Kingdom is now the fourth-largest recipient of FDI in the world. Japanese-headquartered firms have been particularly vocal in threatening to reconsider their investments if Britain opts to leave the EU. This is because many of these companies see their U.K. operations as an effective way to access the whole of the European market.
The impact of Scottish independence would also undermine Britain’s influence in multiple ways. For instance, a U.K. Parliamentary Committee rightly warned earlier this year that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces. These budget cuts could even threaten the future of Trident, Britain’s expensive sea-based nuclear weapons program, which is due for potential renewal in coming years. Another complication is that many of Britain’s Trident submarines are based in Scotland. But Scottish nationalists nonetheless insist that an independent country would become a non-nuclear nation within five years. Relocating these bases would be an expensive, protracted process which the U.K. Ministry of Defence asserts would cost billions and take at least a decade.
Budgetary cuts forced by the loss of Scotland’s tax base could also impact Britain’s sizeable annual overseas aid budget, which promotes goodwill abroad. The United Kingdom is the world’s second-largest provider of international aid after the United States, and the only G-7 state in 2013 to hit an internationally agreed target of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on overseas aid. The British government contributes to stabilization and humanitarian operations in many countries including, for instance, Syria, where it is ensuring over a million people get food, medical care, and shelter.
Scottish independence would also undermine Britain’s voice in key international forums, from the United Nations, G-7/8, G-20, and NATO, in part because, as former Conservative Prime Minis
ter John Major has argued, the union would be perceived to be harmed “if a chunk of it voluntarily chose to leave… In every international gathering that there is, the voice of Britain … would be growing weaker because we would have had a political fracture of a most dramatic nature and that makes people wonder about the stability…. What would happen to Wales, what would happen to Northern Ireland?”
Perhaps most prominently, the breakup of the union could be seized upon by some nonpermanent members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), and/or other U.N. members, to prompt a review of the U.K.’s seat on the council. To be sure, reform of the UNSC is overdue. However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided with less favorable terms for Britain than might otherwise be the case.
Taken overall, the United Kingdom would be notably damaged and diminished by Scottish independence and leaving the EU. And the fact that Britain would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage would also adversely affect its ability to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile. Even the American president has weighed in, noting on June 5 that the United States has a “deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united, and effective partner.”
This week’s 70th anniversary of D-Day is a fitting time to remember the U.K.’s proud tradition as a long-standing promoter of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Continuing this long into the 21st century would be best secured through a continued union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, buttressed by membership in a reformed EU.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and a former special advisor for the U.K. government.
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