Published on 4 August 2020
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Between Two Unions  •  Brexit  •  Government

What role did unionism play in Conservative thinking during the Brexit crisis?

Prof Mike Kenny and Jack Sheldon discuss how the British Conservative Party has dealt with the dilemmas arising from its pursuit of two increasingly discordant goals: delivering Brexit and maintaining the domestic Union.

Support for the integrity of the United Kingdom has long been regarded by commentators on British politics as a core element of the Conservative party’s political identity.

But the depth of its commitment to unionism has been questioned in recent years. There have been a number of claims that leading figures in the party have put other goals, like Brexit, ahead of a focus on preserving the Union, and the current Conservative government is set on a collision course with the devolved administrations over its proposals for regulating the UK’s internal market.

Delivering Brexit became the party’s overriding priority in the wake of the 2016 referendum. But, given that 62% of voters in Scotland and 56% in Northern Ireland voted Remain, whereas majorities in England and Wales voted Leave, this was bound to generate new tensions between the constituent parts of the UK.

In a newly-published paper in the journal Political Studies, we explore how the Union featured in the thinking of Conservative party’s elites during Theresa May’s premiership, drawing on interviews with politicians from different parts of Britain, and analysis of key parliamentary debates during the Brexit crisis.

Our research leads us to question the contention that the Conservative Party has abandoned its unionist heritage. Instead, we identify the emergence of a more assertive and self-conscious species of unionist discourse, and an associated policy agenda – which we label ‘hyper-unionism’ – that has displaced the more pragmatic unionism of previous decades.

The rhetoric of leading Conservatives on this topic has shifted notably in recent years. The 2017 Conservative manifesto depicted the UK as ‘the most successful political union in modern political history’. An increasingly muscular approach has been taken towards the devolved governments, and the Scottish administration in particular, and appears to be favoured by senior figures in the Johnson administration.

However, our interviews also revealed considerable uncertainty in the minds of individual Conservatives about how the UK’s territorial constitution should be interpreted. Some MPs emphasised the ultimate authority of central government in relation to Brexit, while others placed greater stress on taking into account the perspectives of the devolved governments.

As the Article 50 negotiations entered their later stages, the question of how Northern Ireland should be treated in the Withdrawal Agreement became the main sticking point in negotiations with the EU, and this brought to the fore the ambiguous place of this territory within the UK.

During May’s premiership, Conservative politicians commonly asserted that placing Northern Ireland in different customs and trading arrangements from the rest of the UK would undermine its position within the Union. When the EU published its first draft of the ‘backstop’, envisaging such differential treatment for Northern Ireland, May declared that ‘no Prime Minister could ever agree to it’.

The influence of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Conservatives’ confidence-and-supply partners following the result of the 2017 general election, was undoubtedly one reason for this kind of rhetoric. But our interviews with backbenchers and former ministers suggest that a ‘Northern Ireland-only’ backstop would also have caused major problems within her own party at this time, even if the DUP had not been so important.

Delivering on the mandate of the 2016 referendum became an important priority for many Conservative MPs, but that goal appeared increasingly to be in tension with the preservation of the domestic Union. In the contingent and fissile circumstances created by the political crisis at Westminster in 2018-19, they were put in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between these different priorities. 

When the Withdrawal Agreement ultimately negotiated by May, featuring a fairly limited set of differential provisions for Northern Ireland, was debated in Parliament, claims that it threatened the integrity of the Union figured regularly in the contributions of Conservative participants.

49 different backbench MPs suggested that the deal would have negative implications for the Union, with concerns overwhelmingly focused on the backstop, and this contributed to it being voted down in the three meaningful votes that took place in spring 2019. Boris Johnson argued at this point that it would ‘not be good enough to say to the people of Northern Ireland that after all those promises we accept that they must be treated differently from the rest of the UK’.

But, after he became Prime Minister, the same Conservative MPs who had objected to May’s deal overwhelmingly supported a revised Withdrawal Agreement that included greater divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Johnson’s deal was presented as the last chance to deliver Brexit, following Labour’s pivot towards a second referendum and the emergence of a Commons majority opposed to no deal. In these altered circumstances, Conservative MPs were now willing to break with the DUP, and they appeared to put achieving Brexit above their previous concerns about Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.

In our article, we explore the ways in which Conservative MPs made sense of this change of stance. Our analysis points to the enduring role and changing nature of unionist sentiment in Conservative thinking, with concern about what different outcomes might mean for the Union an important influence on the behaviour of these MPs at key moments during the Brexit crisis. But we also identify a considerable uncertainty, and some disagreement, in Conservative circles about the nature and constitutional character of the multi-level Union that devolution has created.

In the context of continuing tensions around devolution over issues such as how the UK’s internal market will be managed after the end of the Brexit implementation period, and growing support for independence in Scotland,  the assertive brand of Conservative unionism that our research identifies is now an important new factor in the UK’s territorial politics. Whether this more demonstrative approach, and the potentially confrontational policy agenda it entails, will be effective in tackling nationalist politics in Scotland is now one of the key questions determining the future of the UK.

The full article, ‘When Planets Collide: The British Conservative Party and the Discordant Goals of Delivering Brexit and Preserving the Domestic Union, 2016-2019’, can be read in the journal Political Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Professor Michael Kenny

Inaugural Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Professor Kenny is the Inaugural  Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Biography Before he arrived in Cambridge, Michael held positions at: Queen’s University, Belfast; the University of Sheffield,...

Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon worked at the Bennett Institute Public Policy as a researcher on the ESRC-funded project ‘Between Two Unions: The Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit’. He is currently...

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