Opinion: many potential scenarios for the future of Britain lie ahead in the wake of the departure from the EU 

By David Thunder, University of Navarra

Britain is poised to leave the European Union on Friday next. Many speculate that Brexit may be the catalyst for the break-up of the United Kingdom, or the end of Britain as we know it. The effective break-up of the constitutional settlement that has held for over three centuries in Britain opens up a bold new arena for political and constitutional experimentation.

The Scottish independence movement, which was overwhelmingly favourable to EU membership, may find a new lease of life as it seeks to distance itself from English Brexiteers and align itself more closely with Europe. And the closer economic alignment of Northern Ireland with the Republic arguably pushes the north further along the path toward separation from Britain.

Under these circumstances, the likelihood of the United Kingdom surviving as a political unit into the medium to long term looks rather slim. The question this naturally raises is what might a post-Brexit Britain actually look like 20, 30, or 50 years from now?

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Evidently, there are too many factors in play to predict which political and constitutional arrangement will end up prevailing in the medium to long term. However, we may at least speculate about some likely contenders. One possible long-term outcome of Brexit is the division of Britain into three independent nation-States, roughly miniature versions of the British State – England, Scotland, and Wales – and the eventual absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland.

In this scenario, the prevalent model of statehood on these islands would remain relatively intact, but would be multiplied and transferred to new political territories. So instead of a single British state neighbouring the Irish Republic, we would have four separate states: England, Wales, Scotland, and a united Ireland.

Of course, it would likely be in the interests of these newly emerging States to cultivate enhanced relations of economic and political cooperation, common travel areas, and substantially overlapping legal frameworks. This would be especially so in the case of those territories that constitute the island of Britain, with their longstanding historical, economic, and political ties.

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But this scenario is not the only possible outcome of the current constitutional crisis. A more innovative response to Britain's constitutional crisis would entail the adoption of new models of polity, quite different to the relatively centralised Westminster model. The traditional model of the centralised sovereign state might be surpassed if the impetus toward devolution of power and local political independence spread to the regional and municipal levels. This would usher in forms of local autonomy inconsistent with centralised parliamentary rule. In this case, the turn away from British unity would go hand in hand with a rejection of the relatively centralised and majoritarian British model of Statehood; and a turn toward a more far-reaching form of political decentralisation.  

One familiar way to combine political decentralisation with some measure of central coordination would be to structure the new emerging states along federal lines. A federal arrangement would grant substantial economic and political autonomy to relatively small political units, bound to a shared constitution and an overarching government with limited powers, such as we now find in, say, the Swiss confederation.

The idea that Brexit may mark the birth of a federal tradition on the island of Britain may appear fanciful. But then, Brexit appeared rather fanciful just a few years ago. Few predicted that Britain would now be embroiled in a serious constitutional crisis.

The current constitutional crisis contains within itself the seeds out of which a new future may be constructed

Furthermore, it could be argued that the very dynamics that propelled Britain out of the European Union may have already planted the seeds of federalism in the bosom of Britain. After all, the decisive regional split in the Brexit vote – among others, between a pro-Brexit rural vote and a pro-Remain urban vote – seemed to demonstrate, quite palpably, that the interests of the people of Britain diverge along regional lines, and may not be effectively managed from a single sovereign parliament. There may now be a growing appetite among disgruntled voters for a decentralised federal arrangement in which local needs and interests can be managed locally, and distinguished quite clearly from those interests that unite the nation at large.

Of course, the challenges of balancing local and national interests, and structuring peripheral and central powers in a stable and sustainable way, so that the centre does not overpower the periphery, and the periphery does not collapse into anarchy, are not to be underestimated. Nonetheless, there are plenty of historical examples of federal polities that have survived for centuries, including the medieval Hanseatic league, the United States of America and the Swiss Confederation.

Political predictions are notoriously difficult to get right, even more so in the context of a constitutional crisis the likes of which Britain has not seen in centuries. But the current constitutional crisis, like every other one, contains within itself the seeds out of which a new future may be constructed. Only time will tell which of these seeds takes root.

Dr David Thunder is a Researcher and Lecturer at the Institute for Culture and Society (Religion and Civil Society Project) at the University of Navarra


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ