After ‘Brexit,’ 3 Centuries of Unity in Britain Are in Danger
By MAX FISHER
WASHINGTON — When people discuss the stakes of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, they often talk about implications for the “European project,” the continuing post-World War II effort to unify the Continent politically and economically. But within hours of the polls’ closing on Thursday, it appeared that something much more basic could be at risk: Britain as a multinational state.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as it is formally known, is one of only a handful of countries that consist of multiple nations, politically and legally distinct but united under a common government.
That system of government has been the subject of far less frenzied commentary than European unity, because it is smaller, and because it has seemed so stable. But the crisis-ridden, relatively young European Union may well outlast the 300-year-old United Kingdom, a prospect that speaks to both the underappreciated audacity of Britain’s multinational experiment and the strength of the forces that could now put it to an end.
There has long been political jostling among the four nations that constitute the United Kingdom, but the so-called Brexit referendum has divided them in ways that mean they may not come back together again. England and Wales voted to leave the union. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay. Within hours, Scottish and Irish politicians raised the possibility that their nations would leave the United Kingdom so they could remain in the European Union.
“This outcome tonight dramatically changes the political landscape here in the North of Ireland,” said Declan Kearney, the chairman of the political party Sinn Fein, which has legislators in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and has long sought their reunification. Mr. Kearney said Sinn Fein would seek a referendum to have Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom and join Ireland, an independent country (and European Union member).
Scotland rejected a proposal to quit the United Kingdom in a referendum in 2014, in part over concerns that as an independent country, it would be unable to join the European Union and would suffer economically. On Friday, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, said her party would “prepare the legislation that would be required to enable a new independence referendum to take place.”
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the calls to leave the United Kingdom may focus on the economic benefits of European Union membership, but they will also overlap with — and, if they are to succeed, rely upon — more visceral desires for independence.
After all, the world has spent much of the last few centuries organizing itself under the principle of national self-determination, in which people with a common identity acquire their own state. Think of Italy for the Italians in the 1870s, Algeria for the Algerians in 1962, Tajikistan for the Tajiks in 1991 and so on.
While this idea has brought liberation to much of the world, it has also contributed to countless wars, including Nazi Germany’s invasions to “unify” with the German people of Austria and Czechoslovakia, the violent breakup of Yugoslavia along ethno-linguistic lines and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
What makes the United Kingdom so unusual is that it brought together four nationalities who see themselves as distinct yet have chosen to coexist. Multinational states are rare. Some, like China, are undemocratic and oppose political organizing by minority groups, including Tibetans and Uighurs. Others, such as Russia and Nigeria, have struggled to peacefully and effectively unify.
In this way, the United Kingdom has been what the European Union always aspired to be but never accomplished: an honest-to-god political union that respects national identity while overcoming the complications of nationalism that helped make the 20th century the bloodiest in world history.
Still, questions of national identity have pulled at the country since 1707, when the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland merged to become the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Because the English have so dominated the country’s politics, culture and economy — they are the largest group, and England’s capital, London, became the kingdom’s — Scots have long pushed for greater autonomy.
These questions have been even harder for Northern Ireland, which experienced a violent internal conflict, partly over whether to remain in the United Kingdom or to join Ireland, for much of the 20th century’s latter half. The long road to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement illustrated the difficulty of keeping a multinational state together, and the calm in Northern Ireland since the agreement shows the value of such a state.
Having survived nationalist yearnings from Scotland and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom could now succumb to the nationalism of its largest and most powerful group: the English.
“The referendum campaign, to most people’s surprise — and alarm, even — has brought out English identity,” Robert Tombs, a historian at the University of Cambridge, said in an interview before the vote.
The English voted most heavily to leave the union. While many analysts say this grew out of opposition to immigration or skepticism about Europe, Mr. Tombs suggested another driver: an English sense of being underrepresented in their own country.
In recent decades, the United Kingdom has kept unity by “devolving” political authority to the three non-English nations, allowing them greater autonomy and independent institutions. Only England, for example, does not have its own Parliament.
It is hard to miss the significance that voters in one of the world’s most successful multinational states just chose to leave the world’s largest multinational government. And it is striking the degree to which the United Kingdom’s four nations seem to have disagreed on that choice.
The European Union was explicitly founded to address problems of national and political identity. Britain, its most skeptical member, dealt with those very same problems — sooner, and with more success.
Now the country could be about to abandon that project, even as the union, for all its setbacks, carries on. But it speaks to the promise of multinationalism that its most committed adherents in the United Kingdom are not the largest and most powerful group, but rather the minority Scottish and Irish so eager to be tied to something larger, even if that means leaving the old partnership to remain in Europe.