by Henry Hill
Monday, 19
April 2021
Response
07:00

The UK can’t be a secession free-for-all

The idea that the UK is a 'voluntary union of nations' is a dangerous myth
by Henry Hill
Credit: Getty

If the combined forces of the separatists secure a majority at next month’s Scottish Parliament elections, which seems almost certain, it will fall to the Prime Minister to hold the line against their demands for a second referendum.

But is it legitimate for him to do so? Is it not anti-democratic for Westminster to defy Holyrood’s wishes on this question?

There are those in the British establishment who seem to think so. Professor Ciaran Martin, the lead civil servant on the UK side during the negotiation of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, wrote recently that: “If there is a pro-referendum majority (and this is absolutely not the same thing as an SNP majority), there is no good reason to resist one.”

He’s wrong about that. I have previously explained how the most basic functions of the Union — redistributing cash and sharing major public investments — become very difficult to justify if one party can opt out of ‘pooling and sharing’ the moment they’re asked to pay into the pot.

But his argument raises a more interesting question about what sort of state the United Kingdom is.

Martin claims that the Government refusing a referendum “changes the Union we know, based on consent, to one that survives only through force of law” — a claim echoed by others such as the historian Robert Saunders.

But this claim is not true. Article 1 of the Treaty of Union announces that England and Scotland would be merged “hereof, and for ever after”. No exit mechanism was put in place either then or in 1801, when Ireland acceded.

Whilst a portion of Ireland has since seceded, and the Government acquiesced to the SNP testing the question in Scotland in 2014, it is a big and unjustifiable leap to go from this to the idea that the UK is merely “a voluntary union of nations” whose integrity rests on provincial elections.

As others have pointed out, it is actually a weirdly exceptionalist position. Other modern democracies, from Germany and Spain to the United States, place strong constitutional restrictions on secession bids — if they don’t prohibit them altogether. Unionists should not get memed into accepting a false conception of the British state as a sort of confederation, with less legitimate claim to its territorial integrity than its peers.

It is true that the UK has grandfathered in many divisions, in areas such as law and sport, which make it unusual. But that simply makes it even more important that its constitutional superstructure picks up the extra strain of holding the country together. You can’t pair weakness in one area with weakness in others, not if you want the UK to survive.

By standing firm on the promise of ‘once in a generation’, the Government will honour the decisive 2014 vote, protect the moral case for the Union, and defend the legitimacy of the UK as the British national state. It has no mandate, by contrast, to transform this country into the threadbare confederation envisioned by Martin.

Join the discussion


  • I think that the whole issue should at least cause a little tremor in Westminster. It is time to do something about the huge difference in wealth between SE England and the rest of the UK.
    I live in Wales and every time I travel into the country from London the relative poverty hits me between the eyes. My parents used to live in Northern England and it hits you there as well. Scotland also seems pretty poor.
    This difference is why whole areas have voted Left for the past 40 years, even though things have gone from bad to worse. It seems that the middle-class buffoons who rule the country could never understand life away from London and a vote for the Left seems to be a sort of reaction to gain attention. Unfortunately, voting Left has made things worse but there is still a barrier to stop people from switching to the Right because it means more policies to increase the power of SE England. So best not to vote! Then you get grey idiots like Mark Drakeford (who?) taking key positions with a handful of votes.
    All of this happens because of our reliance on Europe. SE England is nearer to the markets and the only proper container port we have is at Felixstowe. Perhaps, having left the EU, we will reduce our dependence on Europe, look back again at the rest of the world and develop a west-facing container port at, say, Liverpool. Then the focus will move back to the north and the west at least. But does that solve Scotland’s problem?

  • Are you kidding me? Scotland is the richest place on earth, look at all the freebies the local government throws at us.

  • Interesting perspective, however it has been clearly demonstrated by Mr Johnson that the integrity of the Union is not a motivating political concern by allowing an effective border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
    We have a farcical situation where Unionists in Norther Ireland are desperate to remain within the Union, the Scots wish to leave and the establishment wishes to deny them both! Arguing to legal precedent seems irrational given how the Government has clearly demonstrated a continued and recent disregard for them when expedient.

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