For the past decade, since the decision to leave the European Union in 2016, the United Kingdom has gone through a period of economic and political stagnation. Especially after Brexit and COVID-19, the nation underwent serious political turmoil that caused a sharp decline in living standards and international trade, which to this very day is a reason for the growing distrust and disapproval of the government in London. As a result of the successive unstable conservative governments that fell last year, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces a dramatically low rate of approval. Both his administration and the British government in general have lost much of the trust people had in it.
This situation, however, is not merely a case of an administration on its way out due to mismanagement. In the case of the United Kingdom, these mounting issues and a sharp decline in the trustworthiness of the government can become a threat to the very existence of the nation if left unchecked.
The United Kingdom is not just a single entity — it is a union of four different countries spread across the British Isles that make up a single nation. In addition to England (often confused for the entire United Kingdom for being the largest and most populous member of the union), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all share political and economic power together, albeit on a limited scale. However, these constituent countries have a long history of separate national identities, which to this very day fuel sentiments for national sovereignty and independence from London.
In the case of Scotland, these sentiments have been steadily growing among the Scottish population to the point where total independence from the rest of the United Kingdom has become the only option to gain control over the economy of the country and rejoin the European Union, both of which have been the main arguments in favor of Scottish independence since 2016. London, according to Scots, can no longer be trusted with safeguarding the interests of the people and maintaining a competent political system that represents their views. As such, their only option is to break ties completely and decide for their own destiny. This mindset is not a new phenomenon at all — these thoughts were after all the driving force for the Scottish independence referendum close to a decade ago, which only failed by a remarkably small margin. With the growing dissatisfaction toward Westminster and the loss of hope for a proper reconciliation between England and Scotland, there is a chance that a second referendum can eventually end the union between these two countries.
The situation, as one might expect, is not positive in Northern Ireland either. This corner of the United Kingdom has political problems that have divided communities and caused mass violence between ethnic groups for centuries. Arguably the most notable period of this tension between the English and the Irish was “The Troubles,” a decades-long period of terrorism and violence that caused untold damage in the region. There were growing hopes for reconciliation and an end to hostilities after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but, as with Scotland, years of economic stagnation and political incompetence have eroded much of the progress that was achieved through peaceful diplomacy. Today, while still not being overwhelmingly supported, unification with the Republic of Ireland is a dream that is being shared by a steadily growing section of the population in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement does include the legal process that allows Northern Ireland to secede from the United Kingdom and unify with the rest of the island — should the current trends continue, it might only be a matter of time before this right is used to dissolve ties to London altogether.
The United Kingdom is standing at a crossroads when it comes to its future, and maintaining the unity of this diverse nation requires strong, dedicated and, above all, competent efforts to establish a dialogue between the different partners of the union. In the case of these two examples, a unified Ireland will most definitely inspire Scotland to follow the same path for self-determination, and vice versa. In essence, these efforts to secede from the rest of the union have been conducted peacefully and democratically — no one wants to return to the violent days of the past. As such, we must remain hopeful that whatever the people of Scotland or Northern Ireland decide for their future, it will not harm peace, and solutions will be reached with dignity and mutual respect.
There is, however, a small concern that can spiral out of control if proper attention is not given to it. The world we are living in right now is becoming increasingly violent and brutal, as disputes lead less toward peaceful discourse and more toward brutal and bloody conflicts. The best-case scenario for Irish Unification or Scottish Independence is the one that does not involve violence. Yet, should the need for discourse between the sides be ignored in such matters, my fear is that the situation can escalate to a Yugoslavia-style ethnic conflict that tears through the order of society. The next five to 10 years will, therefore, most likely be the most crucial period in the history of the United Kingdom and its constituent countries, and the outcome of this situation has the potential to have lasting effects on both our politics and history as a whole.
Deniz Gulay is a freshman majoring in history.