Ben Wellings is deputy director of the European and EU Centre at Monash University, and the author of English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace
The decision by the British Supreme Court to give Parliament a vote on Brexit is a win for representative democracy and it should be welcomed as such. But it also pushes Scotland closer to a second referendum on independence and hence weakens the fragile unity of the United Kingdom even further.
The Supreme Court's decision has reasserted the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. That principle had been temporarily undermined by the popular sovereignty implicit in the referendum device and challenged from above by the government's desire to leave the European Union without consulting the Westminster – or any other – Parliament in the United Kingdom.
The Court's 8-3 decision against the government's appeal means that the Westminster Parliament will get a say on when and under what conditions Britain will trigger Article 50 and begin negotiating its way out of the European Union.
This is a welcome balance to the referendum vote of June, 2016. A referendum is part – but only one part – of the democratic process. The extent to which the democratic process in its entirety was attacked by unelected tribunes of the people was one of the more alarming effects of the referendum campaign and its aftermath. No one voted for the Daily Mail. But when that newspaper branded the three judges of the U.K. High Court late last year as "enemies of the people" for having the temerity to suggest that Parliament should have a say on when the U.K. left the EU, Britain really did start to resemble Germany in the 1930s.
So today was a good day for democracy in Britain, but it also further tears at the unity of the United Kingdom. The Supreme Court also ruled that the devolved parliaments and assemblies in the smaller nations of the U.K. will get no say in the process of leaving the EU – for which Scotland and Northern Ireland did not vote. This will only harden the position of secessionists and pushes them toward a risky independence vote.
This matters because the greatest opposition in whatever debate takes place in Parliament will not come from the Labour Party that has committed to respect the U.K.-wide vote. The most cogent opposition to Her Majesty's government will come from the Scottish National Party. The Court's decision, in addition to Theresa May's choice for a "hard Brexit," has made the prospect of another referendum on Scottish independence more likely.
These drivers of domestic politics will have international consequences. Getting Britain out of the EU is only part of a wider project to keep the United Kingdom united. Brexit is, in truth, an expression of English nationalism, a project of the southern English middle classes seeking a return to the global greatness they feared they had lost after the Second World War.
So as the government attempts to both leave the EU and maintain the U.K., it needs to rely on old friends. It is this need that is pushing the U.K. toward Donald Trump's America faster than many would have imagined or wished. This suits the Trump administration, too, which likewise needs friends of any sort to secure its legitimacy. Hence the unusual spectacle of President Trump signalling the possibility of a free-trade agreement with the U.K. after having just killed off the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Monday.
With Brexit looming and Ms. May's meeting with President Trump this week, a new global order is coming into a sharper focus. This reordering poses risks as well as potential gains for middle powers, but especially those in the so-called "Anglosphere," such as Canada and Australia.
With a renewed U.S.-U.K. partnership in the works, the risk for middle powers is that the U.K., in signing free-trade deals with old friends to replace the EU, will draw others into a politically-fraught situation driven by an English desire to reassert U.K. dominance through the Conservative Party.
The Supreme Court decision has re-asserted parliamentary sovereignty in the United Kingdom. It is a win for representative democracy. But it does heap more fuel on the fire of secessionism in the United Kingdom.