The 2016 Brexit referendum has largely been framed as the United Kingdom’s voting to return sovereignty from Brussels to London. But in answering one nationalist call, the country has unleashed yet more nationalist forces that threaten to fracture its union.
The United Kingdom is made up of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In the three years since the vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s independence movement, which was stymied by a failed referendum in 2014, has resurfaced. Calls for a similar poll in Northern Ireland, which would raise the prospect of reunification with the Republic of Ireland, have grown. Even in Wales—which, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, favored leaving the EU—nationalist sentiment appears to be increasing.
Brexiteers have largely branded Brexit as an independence movement—one which, after nearly half a century of EU membership, will enable Britain to reclaim control over its laws, its regulatory standards, and its trade. But the notion of transferring power from lawmakers in faraway capitals to local populations long predates Brexit here in Britain.
The promise of returned sovereignty was used by the British government, to some extent, to keep Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales in the union. All three have long held various powers of their own, but the process of “devolution” gathered speed in the late 1990s with the creation of legislative assemblies in Scotland (otherwise known as Holyrood), Northern Ireland (Stormont), and Wales (Senedd). Since the 2014 Scottish-independence referendum, further powers have been devolved, on region-specific issues including education, housing, and local tax.