US News The End of the United Kingdom May Be Nearing

14:27  20 november  2019
14:27  20 november  2019 Source:   msn.com

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  The End of the United Kingdom May Be Nearing © Shutterstock/Getty With the general election campaign picking up momentum in mid-November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a moment to gaze patriotically into the future. “In 10 years’ time, I confidently prophesy, we will all be citizens of a proud, strong, and whole United Kingdom—more united than ever,” he told an audience at an electric-car factory in central England on Nov. 13.

That such a comment could be framed as a bold prediction rather than a platitude shows the scale of the chaos the country has found itself in since voting to leave the European Union in 2016. While England is split over how—or whether—to deliver Brexit and move the country forward, the political dynamics in the three other constituent parts of the U.K. seem more about whether the country should exist at all.

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In Scotland, where every voting region chose to remain in the EU, the Scottish National Party is gunning to retake districts it lost in 2017’s snap election by calling for another independence referendum. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, Brexit has pushed the question of Irish unification to the forefront two decades since the Good Friday Agreement largely settled it. The governments in London and Dublin are concerned that any upset to the delicate balance of power might reignite sectarian violence. Even in Wales, which backed leaving the EU, a recent poll suggested more people are flirting with the idea of divorcing the English. A party there seeking to break away is aiming to win a record number of seats and set up a commission to look into how independence might work.

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  The End of the United Kingdom May Be Nearing © Getty The Dec. 12 election was supposed to break the deadlock in Parliament so the U.K.’s psychodrama over its relationship with continental Europe could finally be resolved. Yet an even bigger question now shadows the campaign: Will the country that came together and built a global empire ultimately implode?

“We have a really special opportunity to escape the chaos in Westminster and to build a future for ourselves,” says Stephen Flynn, an SNP candidate running in the Scottish oil city of Aberdeen. “Our core message is to escape the Boris Johnson Brexit disaster that is looming.”

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  The End of the United Kingdom May Be Nearing © Getty

Johnson was quick to visit Scotland on Nov. 7, a little more than a week after elections were declared, in an attempt to drum up support for the 312-year-old union. Yet many of Johnson’s core constituents couldn’t care less about holding on to the north. In a mid-November poll by Sky News, 41% of Brexit voters said that leaving the EU would be worth losing Scotland, while only 18% said they disagreed; 17% said they’d be happy to see Scotland secede from the U.K. regardless of the circumstances.

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Scotland has already voted once on independence. The 2014 referendum ended with 55% opting to stay in the U.K. Johnson—like his predecessor as head of the Conservative Party, Theresa May—has refused to sanction another one, and another Tory insider said it simply wouldn’t happen while the party ran the U.K.

a close up of a mans face: Share of Scotland Residents in Favor of Independence © Bloomberg Share of Scotland Residents in Favor of Independence

But if Brexit has shown anything, it’s that predictions can prove foolish. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader, is adamant that Scots should get another vote now that the circumstances in the U.K. have changed, demanding one as early as next year. Some of her more restless troops are suggesting Scotland push ahead without official sanction from Parliament, a move she’s balked at so far. Sturgeon could yet have her way: She’s made an informal coalition pact with Labour, the U.K.’s biggest opposition party. Should Johnson’s Conservatives fall short of a majority again, the SNP’s price for supporting a new government led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would be a fresh vote on independence.

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Touring Scotland in early November, Corbyn was eager to put the focus on his socialist agenda, particularly spending on health and taxing the rich. He said there could be another Scottish vote, just not in the first two years of his government. The latest polls show the outcome of any referendum would be too close to call. The SNP, which has run Scotland’s semi-autonomous administration the past dozen years, is confident it can win back many of the 21 districts it lost to rival parties in 2017, when the Conservatives ended up needing gains in Scotland to keep power. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson quit after Johnson took the helm, weakening the party there.

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In the affluent North Sea seaside town of Stonehaven, 15 miles south of Aberdeen, Conservative parliamentarian Andrew Bowie is using pictures of Sturgeon on his campaign leaflets rather than Johnson as he defends his seat. “She’s leader of the SNP, she keeps threatening to bring more bitterness, more division to this country,” Bowie says. “I would love over anything not to be talking about independence.”

The integrity of the U.K. is also occupying the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest pro-British group in Northern Ireland. (When the Catholic-dominated republic gained independence in 1922, the mainly Protestant north remained in the U.K.) Before Johnson came back from Brussels with a revised Brexit deal in October, the DUP’s 10 lawmakers in London had aligned with the Conservatives to give them a majority. But they recoiled at Johnson’s agreement, which would treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K. after Brexit, thus potentially weakening its ties with the rest of the country. That, ultimately, could push it toward a “border poll,” a referendum on whether to reunite the island of Ireland.

The DUP’s biggest adversaries, the nationalists of Sinn Fein, are campaigning with the slogan “Time for Unity.” Sinn Fein is looking at the math needed to unseat lawmakers opposed to a reunification vote. In fact, across the U.K., some candidates are stepping aside to give would-be rivals with the same position on Brexit a better chance of victory. In leafy and affluent south Belfast, where the DUP is vulnerable, Sinn Fein declined to oppose nationalist candidate Claire Hanna of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. She’s observed a palpable shift toward a border poll. “There is a change: People are beginning to discuss the possibility in a way that wasn’t happening before the Brexit referendum,” Hanna says at a cafe. Around the block, red-white-and-blue British flags still fly over apartment buildings.

Although Hanna says the time isn’t right yet for a vote on Irish reunification, because of the febrile political situation over Brexit, the upcoming general election could be another catalyst for one if the nationalists gain enough ground. Should the parliamentary math in Westminster eventually lead to another Scottish independence referendum, then calls would grow louder for one in Ireland.

Ultimately, as with Scotland, the prospect of a border poll in Ireland depends on the British government, and the criteria for when one can be held aren’t precise. The Good Friday Agreement states that there can be a vote if the U.K. minister in charge of Northern Ireland sees a likely majority in favor of a united Ireland. That’s hard to judge. “Every Northern Irish election is like a mini-referendum on unity,” says Richard Bullick, a former adviser to DUP party leader Arlene Foster. “But we also have to be careful about overinterpreting the results.”

If the DUP were to lose just two lawmakers to nationalist parties, however, that may be clear enough. Add that to an emphatic SNP triumph in Scotland, which the polls suggest is likely, and the U.K.’s future would look shaky at the very least. —With Kitty Donaldson and Greg Ritchie

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