Is Nationalism on the rise?

2 Dec 2019

DRD Associate Samantha Beggs investigates whether nationalism is on the rise and what impact it might have in the General Election.

Is Nationalism on the rise?

For the last three and a half years, we’ve heard nothing but Brexit. That’s not likely to change for the foreseeable future, regardless of the promise to “get Brexit done” by the end of next year. Whilst the Brexit fatigue is palpable, in seeking to move beyond it, what are we at risk of losing?

Two of the four regions which make up the United Kingdom voted to leave, and two voted to remain (Scotland by the biggest margin). Although tensions were high across the UK in 2016, the ensuing stalemate and the toxic rhetoric that has all too often become the norm is taking its toll.

After the 2017 election, talk of a second independence referendum in Scotland may have been more muted, but it never went away. Now with a renewed sense of vigour, the SNP wants another bite at the cherry in 2020. Whilst the SNP position has always been clear, it’s not a surprise that tensions are high in Scotland – unlike its Northern Ireland counterparts, Scotland hasn’t received any ‘concessions’ despite its overwhelming vote to remain. Wales voted to leave the EU and Northern Ireland, which voted to remain, will stay in the customs union (although viewed as controversial by some). Scotland on the other hand, has had Brexit forced upon it whilst getting nothing in return. Sturgeon is confident that this, coupled with Scotland’s overwhelming desire to remain in the European Union, will mean the SNP would clinch a victory this time around. If Scotland were to break away from the UK, she is confident that it could re-join the EU “relatively quickly” (even if it means Scots have to continue using the pound for 10 years).

Whilst an independent Scotland might not be that difficult to imagine (potential economic, administrative and security headaches aside) what kind of impact would it have on the other nations of the UK? Northern Ireland – across the Irish sea yet Scotland’s closest neighbour in many ways – warrants consideration. As the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland found out, voters are split along constitutional lines. The policies filling most manifestos: the NHS, education, law and order etc. don’t fundamentally matter so much (even if people wished they did). In Northern Ireland, voting comes down to the age-old issue; Unionism versus Nationalism, and usually, that’s a choice between the two main parties. Currently the DUP has ten MPs and Sinn Féin has seven (out of a total of 18). Former independent Unionist MP, Sylvia Hermon, is standing down and given that it’s a safe Unionist seat, the DUP is likely to take it but is also at risk of losing two, possibly three seats itself. And, of course, Brexit has added another dimension to this election.

When it comes down to it, the majority of people will probably still vote along traditional party lines, but in the swing seats, including Belfast North for example, where the Deputy Leader and DUP veteran, Nigel Dodds, has a fight to hold his seat, membership of the European Union might just matter more than the Union. In this election, in these seats, every single vote will count. Given the DUP’s sudden rise to prominence throughout the UK (in 2017, “who are the DUP?” was the most asked question on Google UK) the Conservative Party’s reliance on them and their stance on Brexit, many people in Northern Ireland hold them responsible for the ongoing Brexit saga. As advocates for it, many traditional DUP and Unionist voters followed the DUP’s lead and voted to leave the European Union, whilst Sinn Féin (and Nationalist parties) advocated to remain. Having firmly set out their red lines, only to then support the Prime Minister, before being ‘thrown under the bus’ (in their view), has the party lost some credibility?

In Northern Ireland, even the Brexit vote often came down to Unionists versus Nationalists, but now the impact of Johnson’s deal on Northern Ireland has come to the fore (without the support of the DUP), will this be the first election that sees voters move beyond traditional voting lines? For the most part, the answer is no, but in key marginal seats, a handful of disgruntled voters might just make the difference.

More nationalist seats in Northern Ireland would be an indication of support for a united Ireland (or at least that would be their argument) and if Scotland was to secure a second independence referendum, expect the nationalist community (more seats or not) to call for a border poll. Of course, the likelihood of the SNP getting an IndyRef2 next year seems unlikely (regardless of whether it’s Corbyn or Johnson in Downing Street) but if YouGov’s MRP polling is right, then the hopes of the SNP getting its referendum in the next five years seems almost impossible. This is arguably more dangerous for the unionist cause – not only will Scotland have to leave the European Union (against its will), but it would, in this instance, have a Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson, giving the SNP five years to play up their grievances and to campaign for independence.

Scotland and Northern Ireland aside, what of Wales, which like England voted to leave the EU but has seen its fair share of electoral pacts this time around (Plaid Cmyru, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats)? Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru has pledged to establish a commission which would consider how an independent Wales could work. He claims that 30 per cent of people in Wales consistently advocate for independence and argues that Brexit will cause “untold damage” to the economy, particularly in the agricultural sector. Given that in 2017, 85 per cent of the land area of Wales was utilised by agriculture, this is an argument that has some traction. When talking about the commission, Price claimed that “over the past year, thousands have marched together in independence marches in Cardiff, Caernarfon and Merthyr.” Whilst there may be a growing number of people advocating Welsh independence, even Price’s figures suggest that still 70 per cent support remaining in the union (or at least are undecided). Just last month, the Welsh Assembly rejected a Welsh-only ‘Senedd Cymru’ name. Despite the efforts of the remain alliance, the data from last week’s YouGov MRP polling didn’t indicate any gains for Plaid Cymru but suggested it would merely retain its four seats. Perhaps this is an indication that Price has overestimated support for independence in Wales.

Whilst results in Wales look unlikely to change the course of the election much, the SNP is sure to increase its seats (think back to 2015) and the DUP looks set to lose one or two (whilst gaining one). In the case of a Conservative landslide, the results in the regions wouldn’t matter much but latest polls show that Labour is closing the gap on the Tories and if the last two years have taught us anything, it is the importance of small parties to prop up the Government. For this reason, CCHQ should be paying close attention to the latest polls – without the support of smaller parties, the Conservatives need a decent majority, and if come 13th December, that is not the case, then it’ll be all to play for.

Although the Brexit debate has undoubtedly injected some further enthusiasm for independence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the reality of the UK breaking up in the near future seems unlikely. The appetite might be greatest in Scotland, but the chance of holding a second independence referendum seems fairly small. The region most at risk of leaving the Union is Northern Ireland. Whilst there might be an air of inevitability about that, it only seems likely to happen when voting intentions begin to change and when the appetite for more ‘day to day’ policies outweigh current considerations, but that’s largely generational. For now, it seems safe to assume that the grandest displays of nationalism will continue to unfold in pubs around the country during the Six Nations.