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Will the UK Break Up After Brexit?

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Whether the United Kingdom will stay united after Brexit is a surprisingly fraught question.

People have quite definitive opinions on the subject, which has a strong political component. As with all things political, it’s not really possible to say with certainty what will happen, even in the near future, as popular opinion can swing quite wildly.

The theme of Brexit is that the result of the election caught most observers by surprise. In the interest of not becoming too invested in one view or the other, let’s review the situation and some potential alternatives.

Why Leave Again?

Following the results of the vote, many were quick to point out that there was a clear separation in the voting intentions across the constituent countries of the UK.

England and Wales, concentrating the majority of the population, voted leave. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. This led to the argument that these two countries might want to leave in order to remain.

Scotland, in particular, was relevant, because of the prior referendum on whether Scotland would stay part of the UK or seek its own independence.

During the campaign, the “remainers” of the time argued that staying in the UK was necessary to remain in the EU, and this was one of the arguments many Scots gave to vote to preserve the union of the crowns.

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Even if Northern Ireland and Scotland were to vote to leave the UK, they would not be able to automatically return to the EU.

This has been a clear stance from Brussels since the beginning. There is an alternative for Northern Ireland to vote to unite with the Republic of Ireland. But such a proposal would threaten to reignite the sectarian conflict in the area.

Even after Brexit, polls showed just 20% of the population supported joining the Republic.

Which brings us back to the difference in votes between the countries. On a map, it looked pretty clear-cut. But the difference between leave and remain in Northern Ireland was only 9 percentage points.

In Scotland, it was 62-38% to remain, with the lowest turn-out of all the countries. The difference was a little more than 600K votes in a nearly 4M electorate.

Repeat Until They Vote the Right Way

Scotland would, therefore, be the best candidate to leave the UK as a response to Brexit, but that’s not exactly a new development.

Scotland has been making overtures to leave for, well, centuries. The latest was the already mentioned 2014 referendum, which was referred to as a “once in a generation” event. The purpose was to settle the issue of independence.

However, the pro-independence movement has not been idle. On Jan 29, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill calling for a new referendum on independence.

The law is not binding since it would require consent from Westminster to go into effect, like last time. And Prime Minister Johnson soundly rejected the notion.

The latest poll (released three days after the bill was passed) showed a 51-49% split, narrowly (as in, within rounding range) favoring staying in the UK.

In conclusion…

There is no guarantee for the future, but in the short term, the political conditions are not such to facilitate a referendum that would lead to the breakup of the UK.

The British government at least would argue to see Brexit through before addressing any issue of sovereignty, and that likely would require a substantial shift in the polls first.

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