Dr. Philip Rycroft, Centre for Constitutional Change, University of Edinburgh; Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.
Pour écouter l’introduction de Valérie André (LERMA-OREMA): https://medihal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02395516
Thank you for the opportunity to come to this beautiful part of the world to talk about a less beautiful subject, Brexit.
The UK is deep in its own peculiar political agony just now, unable to go forwards, unable to go backwards. The political class has given up on trying to resolve this themselves and have called on the electorate to help them out.
The UK faces another general election, perhaps the most important in the post-war era and one of the most uncertain. With politics across the UK fractured, calling the result in our first past the post constituency system is difficult. Voter sentiment is volatile. The pattern of politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is now distinctive and different from England. In England, many constituencies up and down the country are now more open contests than they have been for decades. Relatively modest swings in voter sentiment could have a very big impact on the eventual outcome.
I’ll come back at the end to what paths might open up after the votes in this election have been counted. But I want to use this lecture to look a bit deeper and longer term, to ask what Brexit says about identity in the United Kingdom and what Brexit portends for the future of the UK as a Union state. These are big issues, erupting from time to time in the political discourse, but rarely the subject of structured political debate. We risk in the UK re-making our country without really understanding what we are doing or why.
I’ll start by reviewing briefly the UK’s relationship with the EU, to seek to discern the factors that led to the rise of Euroscepticism and the eventual promise of an in-out referendum by David Cameron. I’ll look at the referendum campaign and explore how the argument for leave resonated with wider discontents to ask what this says about deeper divisions within the UK.
I’ll look at the different outcomes of the referendum in the different parts of the UK and seek to understand how those outcomes relate to underlying questions of identity in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. I’ll assess what this means for the cohesion of the Union of the United Kingdom before concluding with a brief survey of the forthcoming election and what different outcomes might mean.
First, the UK and the EU.
It is probably fair to say that the UK has had a more complex relationship with the EU and its predecessor organisations than any other member state, current or prospective. Initially standing aloof, it wasn’t until the European Communities had been well established that Prime Minister MacMillan concluded that the UK might, after all, be better off as a member state. President de Gaulle, presciently conscious of British exceptionalism, was not persuaded and twice vetoed British membership. It wasn’t until the government of Prime Minister Heath in the early 1970s that serious accession negotiations could get underway, with the UK eventually joining in 1973. Even then, the incoming Labour government in 1974 felt the need, not least for management of internal party tensions, to test that young membership in a referendum on the back of a partial renegotiation of the terms of British entry.
What drove the awkwardness of the British relationship with the European Communities in those early days? To some extent, no doubt, a British aloofness to a continental enterprise that seemed very far distant from more immediate British concerns: the disengagement from empire, the restructuring of a post-war economy, the building of a welfare state, the dawning realities of the UK’s place in a newly bi-polar world dominated by the rivalry between the US and the USSR. And it was that aloofness that drove de Gaulle’s concern that the UK would be too in thrall to its relationship with its former colonies on the economic front and with the US in the diplomatic and defence sphere to ever be a reliable partner in the European Communities project.
It took the growing disparity between continental and UK economic growth rates to persuade sufficient among the British political class, mainly in those days Conservatives, but with enthusiastic support from a proportion of the Labour party, that membership of the EU was necessary to turn round Britain’s economic performance.
And therein lies a clue to the nature of the UK’s adherence to the European project that marked it apart. This was a transactional relationship, a means to an economic end, never a wholehearted commitment to the enterprise of ever closer union. For most other member states, then and subsequently, membership of the EU has a deeper emotional resonance, a deeper connection to their being as democratic polities and as free nations. For other member states, there was, and is, no contradiction between the pooling of sovereignty in the European process and the sustaining of their own democratic vitality.
For the original Six, the European Communities were a route out of centuries of conflict and the shattering devastation of war on the European continent. For Greece, Spain and Portugal, membership was confirmation of a democratic future, free of dictatorship. For Ireland, membership allowed the country to emerge from the economic shadow of its neighbour. For the countries of eastern and central Europe, the EU has been the guarantor of a post-Communist future.
That emotional bond has never really worked in the UK. It is not surprising that the time when the UK appeared to be at its most comfortable in its membership was through the development of the Single Market and in driving forward the process of enlargement, both endeavours that enhanced the economic effectiveness of the enterprise without necessarily requiring the deepening of political union. For the rest, the UK has been an edgy partner, arguing over money, opting out of Schengen and the social chapter, refusing to contemplate membership of the Euro, picking and choosing amongst the Justice and Home Affairs policies. This was never a wholehearted and unequivocal commitment to membership, more membership with one foot in and one foot out.
Even that equivocal membership has proved too much for many. Initially it was the left of British politics that jibbed at membership of the European Communities. Herein the origins of the evident Euroscepticism of the current leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, who claims that his views have not materially changed in 50 years. The milieu in which he formed those views was one of deep suspicion of the EU as a capitalist project, designed to thwart the building of a socialist state. His predecessor Michael Foot went into the 1983 election with a manifesto promising to take the UK out of the EU; little good that did him in a campaign that sealed the political dominance of Mrs Thatcher.
But just as the Labour party began to wake up to the potential of the EU to actually buttress workers’ rights and contain market excess, so began to grow a different sort of hostility to the European project, one which was founded in doubts that had never really gone away, that membership of the EU was an unacceptable secession of British sovereignty.
This is a nationalist creed at heart, though whether one founded on Britishness or Englishness is a moot point. This is very far from the empirical, pragmatic approach that took the UK into the European Communities as a means of addressing relative economic decline. This is ideological and comes with a deep emotional attachment to a sense of Britain’s – or England’s – historic character and place in the world. It finds constitutional expression in the assertion of the overarching sovereignty of the UK Parliament. It finds comfort in the trappings of nationalism, flag and monarchy and military, and draws its emotional strength from the mythology of a buccaneering nation, at one at the same time both a formidable power in the world and a victim of cunning European conspiracies to sap its vitality and freedom.
This is assertive nationalism, confident in the ability of the British state to carve out a new economic and diplomatic future free of the ties of the EU; and defensive nationalism, fearful of its ability to sustain its character through the compromises consequent on the pooling of sovereignty in an economic and political partnership. It is a nationalism of a sort that can be found in pretty much every other member state of the EU and is often as hostile to EU membership as it has been in the UK. But uniquely in the UK the appeal of this nationalism has proved able to overwhelm the far weaker emotional attachment to the EU.
The vehicle for that success was of course provided by David Cameron’s referendum promise of 2013 and its realisation in 2016. Historians will debate long and hard whether Cameron was right to cede the principle of an in, out referendum. He has argued that it was democratically unsustainable to continue to deny the British people a say in the UK’s membership of the EU; far better for that to be done under the auspices of a Prime Minister who would at least argue for continued membership rather than a government unequivocally committed to exit.
There is, I think, some truth in that. Both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats had at one time or another promised referendums on membership, only to cool on the idea when the implications of their commitment became clearer. The pressure on the Conservative party from outside, with the rise of the UK Independence party, and from within, with an increasingly organised phalanx of hard-line Eurosceptics, was becoming intense. For Cameron, a referendum was the way to deal with the pressure once and for all, confident as he was that he would win it.
That was, of course, a colossal misjudgement. In that overweening confidence, Cameron did not appear to understand the scale of the fight he had on his hands and did not prepare his ground accordingly. He went for a short campaign, on the back of a rushed renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership, the tangible gains of which he had no time to sell. There was no attempt to oblige the leave side to set out a manifesto for life outside of the EU. He prioritised Conservative unity after the referendum over force of argument in the referendum, holding back on criticism of members of his own cabinet who supported leave. He ran a desiccated campaign, focused almost exclusively on the economic arguments for membership, seemingly almost averse to finding the emotional key which had worked for him in the Scottish referendum.
And so the equivocation that had been the hallmark of the UK’s membership of the EU throughout proved its undoing at the end. Weakened by years of sniping by British politicians, not least Cameron himself, the appeal of a relationship that had always been seen as predominantly economic and transactional was unable to resist the siren voice of unbridled sovereignty and national self-determination.
The Leave campaign would argue that it won 17.4 million votes by unleashing the innate hostility of the British population towards the EU. The evidence does not support that contention. Even in the UK, the number of people who wake up in the middle of the night sweating with worry about the supremacy of the European Court of Justice or the extension of co-decision procedures between the European Parliament and the Council are a distinct minority. In the run into the 2015 general election, not many people had Europe in their list of top concerns. What the Leave campaign did so successfully was to ally their cause with deeper discontents. Voting to leave the EU became a means to poke a distant and seemingly uncaring establishment in the eye. It was, as the Leave slogan had it, a way to take back control.
In so doing, the referendum campaign made manifest latent divisions in British society. The broad demography of the outcome is clear: an age divide, with the old leaning to leave and the young to remain; a geographic divide, with rural areas and coastal towns leaning to leave and the metropolitan areas leaning to remain; an educational divide, with the less well educated leaning to leave and the university educated leaning to remain; and a prosperity divide, with the less well-off leaning to leave and the better off leaning to remain.
This helps to explain the seemingly irrational choice made in the referendum by voters whose economic well-being is directly threatened by exit. Despite what has been said since, there was absolutely no doubt that voters understood the economic risks of exit; it was almost the only refrain of the remain side throughout the campaign. But people who feel marginalised and with little or no stake in the status quo have little reason to trust the institutions of the state. And the referendum gave them a chance to kick the biggest institution of the lot, the European Union and all its works, a conveniently distant bureaucracy whose reputation had been trashed by generations of tabloid horror stories.
That’s a generalised picture which holds good to some extent across the UK. But the story is more interesting than that. For on top of that broad socio-economic pattern was a distinct national pattern, as the debate unfolded in the different parts of the UK. It’s that pattern I want to focus on and to explore what it says about identity in the UK today.
The UK is an odd construct. It has been best described as a union state, made up of three distinct nations – England, Wales and Scotland – and Northern Ireland, itself defined through its two dominant communities, one that cleaves to Britain, the other to its Irish identity. Through different routes, British governments over the last three decades have sought to strengthen the union state by devolving power to three of the component parts in a way that met the aspiration for self-governance but within the overall construct of the United Kingdom.
Devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1998 has led to a steady divergence of politics from those of England. Governed at first by a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, in 2007 a minority nationalist government took power in Scotland and the Scottish National Party has been dominant in Scottish politics ever since. Labour, once the natural party of government at every level of politics in Scotland, is now reduced to a shell of its former self, managing only a miserable fifth place in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections with a meagre 9.3% of the vote. The Conservative party under the energetic leadership of Ruth Davidson saw something of a revival in its fortunes in the 2017 Westminster elections, taking its tally of seats from one to 13. But the party has failed to break through the 30% mark in popular support and looks unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Politics in Scotland dances to a different tune to England.
In Wales, Labour has not lost an election in over a hundred years. Labour has dominated the Welsh Assembly since its formation, sometimes on its own, sometimes in coalition. When England elected a Conservative government in 2015, Labour in Wales still had twice as many Westminster MPs as the Conservatives. There are signs that the Labour ascendency may be beginning to fade in Wales as it has in Scotland. In the European elections, the main beneficiaries of that were the Brexit party and Wales’ own nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, which, for the first time, garnered over 20% of the vote. Wales too is no longer in lock step with England when it comes to political allegiance.
Northern Ireland has always been different. British political parties have never succeeded in getting a foothold and the voting pattern is still dominated by community allegiance, with the Democratic Unionist Party the dominant force for Unionism and Sinn Fein for the nationalist community. The complex arrangements for power sharing put in place by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 mean that the DUP and Sinn Fein have had to work in tandem to run the Northern Ireland Executive. The strain of that proved too much after the 2016 referendum and Northern Ireland has been without a functioning executive since January 2017.
The one part of the UK that has no direct representation is England. This, on the face of it, is bizarre; the nation that makes up 85% of the population of the UK has no means to express its interests in the counsels of the land, with one minor exception. That exception is a complicated piece of Parliamentary procedure, put in place by the Cameron government in October 2015, which requires a majority of English MPs to pass legislation that affects only England. This is known as English Votes for English Laws, or by its acronym EVEL. It is fair to say that the majority of the English population will be wholly unaware of its existence; its impact has been slight indeed.
This lack of an English voice is evident even in the arrangements that govern the relations between the four governments of the UK. The Joint Ministerial Committee was set up after devolution and is the forum in which the four governments can discuss matters of mutual interest or, more often than not, argue about points of political difference. But while the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are represented round the table by their First and Deputy First Ministers, the voice of England is heard only through that of the UK Government in the person of the Prime Minister.
This then was the backdrop against which the 2016 European referendum took place. A question that was principally about identity was asked of a country which already faced existential questions of identity within its own borders. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of the referendum and its aftermath looks different in different parts of the UK. I will look at each in turn, before asking what this might mean for the future of the United Kingdom itself.
Let me start with Scotland.
The EU referendum followed hard on the heels of the 2014 Scottish referendum. That was a tough campaign that lasted over two years and came far closer to the breakup of the United Kingdom than most had thought possible. At the start of the campaign, the Nationalists were polling barely over 30%. By the end, they topped 45%. Turn out in the referendum was very high, close to 85%. After the event, it transpired that the side for the union had been more successful in getting its vote out. If the nationalist side had been as successful, the result would have been very close indeed.
Since the referendum, opinion polls have shown consistently that Scotland remains a country divided. Scotland went in to the 2016 referendum with the independence question still very much top of mind.
The outcome was decisive; 62% for staying in the EU, 38% against.
Why was this so different from the result in England? Scotland is not so different from England in its socio-economic make up or, indeed, in underlying social attitudes, for example towards immigration. So why did the Leave campaign fail to motivate a protest vote in Scotland similar to that seen in England and Wales?
The brief answer is that the Nationalists had already provided a channel for the sort of anti-establishment discontent that the Leave side mobilised so successfully in England. The characteristics of former Labour supporters in Scotland who moved to the Nationalist side in the 2014 referendum are not so different to those of the former Labour supporters in England who voted leave in 2016 and now lean towards the Brexit party. The nationalists had already garnered that protest and bent it towards their cause. Voting ‘remain’ to keep Scotland in the EU was politically consistent, if not necessarily logically consistent, with voting ‘yes’ to independence. Both stances turned on antipathy to English politics and expressly English discontents.
That Scotland voted remain while the UK as a whole voted leave has, self-evidently, profoundly shocked Scottish politics and Scotland’s sense of itself in the UK Union. This is not least because continuing membership of the EU was such an important factor in the 2014 Scottish referendum. Those who argued for Scotland to stay in the UK deployed a powerful argument that Scotland as an independent nation could not guarantee continuing membership of the EU. The rest of the UK, as the continuator state, would remain in membership; Scotland would exit and have to reapply. This was not just UK government propaganda; serious figures in the EU, including Prime Minister Rajoy of Spain, made it clear that a successionist state would not be welcomed into the EU with open arms. The reasons are obvious and one does not have to look very far south-west of here, to Catalonia, to understand the neuralgia about an independent Scotland and EU membership.
But now Scotland is, probably, going to be forced out of the EU against its will. What was a central plank of the case for the UK union has broken. The majority of those who voted ‘no’ to independence in 2014 voted to remain in the EU in 2016. For some, their sense of European identity runs very deep. Whereas their kith and kin in England have no choice in the matter, in Scotland there is a possible route to a rapid return to EU membership, through Scottish independence.
That is why there has been a recent uptick in support for independence in the polls, which now run close to 50:50. But there has been more churn beneath the surface than the simple numbers would suggest. For there were perhaps 300,000 or so former ‘yes’ to independence voters who defied the SNP’s position in the EU referendum and voted to leave the EU. Will they continue to prioritise leaving the EU over Scottish independence or will they swing back to support the independence cause in a future referendum? On the answer to that might hinge the future of the United Kingdom.
To put it at its starkest: polling makes clear that a majority of people in Scotland have either already voted yes to independence or now say that they would vote for independence. If the SNP and its allies can mobilise all of that vote in another independence referendum, the Union is finished.
What about Wales?
The vote for leave in Wales was 52.5%, just a little lower than the English vote at 53.4%. The contrast with Scotland is stark and evidence of the different trajectory of Welsh politics since devolution. The nationalist voice in Wales, as articulated by Plaid Cymru, has not to date achieved anything like the success of the SNP in Scotland. The history of Wales is different. Union with England, though achieved through violence, predates the more peaceful union of the crowns, then later Parliaments, of Scotland and England. The demography of Wales is different, with a greater admixture of families of English origin who came to work in the coalfields and steel mills of south Wales in the nineteenth century. The borderlands are more integrated with heavy population concentrations on both sides, particularly in the north, compared with the sparsely populated hill lands of the Scottish – English border.
But like Scotland, the socio-economic make up of Wales is not so different to that of England, particularly to that of the more disadvantaged parts of Northern England. Here was old Labour territory, bubbling with discontent in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, ripe for exploitation by a campaign that aimed to overturn the status quo. The Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government was not a strong enough counterweight; Wales voted to leave.
But the story does not end there. The Welsh Government, under first Carwyn Jones and now Mark Drakeford, has vigorously asserted its opposition to the Brexit policy promoted by the UK government. More or less in lockstep with the nationalist government in Scotland, Welsh Assembly ministers have insisted that the UK should as a minimum stay in the single market and Customs Union. They have been loud in condemning the flirtation with a no deal outcome and will not support the Withdrawal Agreement Bill if and when it comes back to the House of Commons after the election.
All this is eroding the certainties of Welsh politics. As evidenced by the Euro elections, Plaid Cymru under a dynamic new leader, Adam Price, is edging up in the polls. A recent opinion poll on a straight yes/no question independence had support for independence over 30% for the first time. More people in Wales are becoming indy-curious. No seismic shift as yet, but a sufficient tremor to suggest that Brexit has further capacity to shake the structure of Welsh politics.
Let’s turn to Northern Ireland, the part of the UK with the most complex history and the most complex relationship, past and present, with the British mainland.
Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, 55.8% to 44.2%. Of all the Northern Ireland parties, only the DUP advocated leaving the EU.
Of all parts of the UK, the consequences of Brexit are most profound for Northern Ireland. This is part consequence of the land border with the Republic of Ireland. An exit which involves leaving the Single Market and Customs Union is in effect an exit that re-establishes a border between the UK and the EU. The impact of that is economically hugely important, but less visible when managed through sea crossings or at airports. The physical manifestations of a land border are far more intrusive. When that border is one with all the historical baggage of the Ireland – Northern Ireland border, it is unsurprising that it has become the most difficult issue of the withdrawal negotiations.
For the invisibility of that border, due to common membership of the EU, was one of the vital underpinnings of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 1998 which brought to an end the long story of the Troubles that had cost so many lives. For Nationalists, it was part of the symbolism that allowed them to sustain their Irish identity as part of the wider deal that kept Northern Ireland in the UK for at least the time being. For all in north and south, a frictionless border was part and parcel of the integration of the economy that was instrumental in reviving economic fortunes across the island of Ireland.
The backstop negotiated by Mrs May as part of her Withdrawal Agreement emerged from her recognition that the resurrection of a hard border on the island of Ireland was a direct threat to the peace process. Better to keep the UK within the EU Customs Union until such time as the Northern Ireland – Ireland border could be managed without recourse to physical infrastructure; an ambition that most trade experts believed would take years in the realisation, if ever.
Prime Minster Johnson rejected the backstop as an unwarranted restriction on the UK’s ability to leave the Customs Union and strike its own trade deals. His solution, a front- rather than back- stop, is to keep Northern Ireland in both EU and UK customs unions, with a de facto customs border down the Irish sea, more or less the solution that the European Commission had put forward in March 2018. In return, the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, agreed to the principle of consent, whereby a simple majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly could vote in 4 years’ time to end the agreement.
What does all this mean for Northern Ireland? There is no doubt that Brexit will have deep and long-lasting implications for the future of the province. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the UK Government is bound to hold a border poll – a poll on whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or unite with the rest of Ireland – if opinion polls indicate that a majority would favour such an outcome. Already polls are showing a shift in sentiment, not yet decisive enough to trigger a border poll but indicative of a change in mood. Indeed, a mid-September poll had a slight majority in favour of unification. As importantly, younger people are more likely to vote for unification than the older generation. There is already a longer-term drift of demographics in favour of the nationalist community; Brexit appears to be accelerating the day when the UK Government will be obliged to hold that poll.
And what about England?
England voted 53.4% to 46.6% to leave the EU. It is in England that the leave – remain demography, city v small town and rural; young v old; qualified v less well qualified; richer v poorer, is at its clearest. But was the English response to the referendum, as it was elsewhere in the UK, also driven by a question of identity, English identity and English nationalism?
English nationalism was long the dog that didn’t bark in British politics. For most of the 20th century and before, there was an elision between English and British; politicians would talk easily about England when they meant Great Britain or the UK. No mainstream political party has ever adopted an explicit position on England in the Union, other than the recent commitment to the process to deliver English Votes for English Laws.
But England is a nation as ancient as any. As powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England can no longer assume that it speaks for the whole. The boot is on the other foot; England is now the polity without direct representation and without a voice.
Social attitude surveys show clearly that those identifying as more English than British are more likely to be hostile to membership of the EU and less committed to the Union of the United Kingdom. A startling Yougov poll in June 2019 showed that 63% of Conservative party members thought Brexit more important than keeping Scotland in the Union, this finding consistent with the work of Edinburgh University on attitudes of leavers more generally. A similar proportion felt the same way about Northern Ireland.
Even given an understandable impatience with lack of progress on Brexit, this is extraordinary. Who would have thought that a majority of members of the party traditionally most committed to the preservation of the concept of the United Kingdom, of conserving its constitutional and territorial integrity, would be seemingly willing to ditch a 300 year old Union, where the ties at every level run so deep, in order to come out of a 40-year old Union, mainly economic in its intent and purpose? It is frankly almost impossible to imagine a similar situation occurring in any other European country.
It begs the question. Has Brexit laid bare the fragility of the UK Union? Will the UK fall apart as much due to indifference in England as to active nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
A final reflection before I end with a short look forward to the possible outcomes of the UK election. Is there something that unites the upwelling of national identity that is apparent in different ways in different parts of the United Kingdom? Are the forces that are pulling identity inwards now stronger than those that held the UK together? Certainly, the factors that drove Britishness in the 19th and 20th centuries and earlier have long weakened; Protestantism, Empire, threats from a dominant power on the Continent. There was some compensation in the second half of the 20th through the common endeavour of the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state and a common cultural identity forged by the BBC. But with devolution, that sense of a national health service is increasingly focused on choices made locally by the different governments of the UK and the common cultural experience is eroded by the explosion of media content and personal choice.
The bonds of Union are weakening. For Scotland and Northern Ireland, Brexit asks again but with greater intensity the questions that were already manifest. Should Scotland take its place as an independent nation among other small countries in the protective embrace of the EU? Should Northern Ireland seek its future in unification with the south?
For Wales, the question emerges that was barely asked before. Should the Principality remain tied to its big and truculent neighbour?
For England, Brexit gave an answer. By a bare majority, English people opted for a future that prioritised being English over being European. The numbers who hanker after the certainty of national identity outweighed the numbers who believe that the UK’s best interests lie in a common European future. Given the demography of such attitudes, a sobering counterfactual of British history will be whether the Cameron referendum was held at just about the last time that such an outcome was possible.
And so, briefly and finally, to what comes next.
There are three plausible outcomes to the forthcoming general election.
Prime Minister Johnson could secure a majority for the Conservative party. In that case, the UK will leave the EU on 31 January 2020 and begin the negotiation of a free trade agreement with the EU that prioritises trade deals with other countries over close regulatory alignment with the EU. This will be a hard Brexit, with no concessions to the wishes of the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland for a future as close as possible to the EU. In this world, watch for the outcome of the May 2021 Parliamentary elections in Scotland. Can the Nationalists use that moment to win a majority on a referendum ticket? In which case, it would be very difficult for the south to refuse another referendum in Scotland and it would take a brave person to predict the outcome of that referendum.
The second plausible outcome is that Johnson fails to secure a majority and Jeremy Corbyn succeeds in piecing together some sort of agreement to form a government, to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and hold a referendum on the outcome. Such a government would be inherently unstable and dependent on the support of the SNP for its survival. It seems clear that the price of that support would be two referendums for the price of one, in other words a commitment to hold a second Scottish independence referendum as well as another European referendum.
The third plausible outcome is a hung Parliament with no party capable of pulling together a majority with other parties. That would probably mean another minority Conservative Government and a continuation of current uncertainties.
In all scenarios, Brexit uncertainty will continue to eat away at politics in Northern Ireland. Expect further shifts in opinion as the impossibility of reconciling Brexit realities with the economic status quo bites.
This is not a cheerful prospect. I happen to believe that people in the UK, with a broadly tolerant and liberal disposition and a long and robust democratic tradition, will pull through to a better future. We will have a good and close relationship with the EU because it is in the overwhelming economic and security interests of all. The economy of these islands will be an open, trading economy because that is the only way we can earn our living in the world. Brexit is radicalising a younger population who will embrace a more globalised future.
But whether we will reach that future as the UK or as separate nations remains to be seen. The dark night of the British political soul is far from over. Wish us luck.