Is the United Kingdom on the brink of a break-up?

Credit: PA

Wherever you go in the UK - it’s just too quiet. The Covid pandemic has brought a silence to our streets which disturbs and disorientates.

But underneath those streets, as we emerge battered from this crisis - a political earthquake is brewing. Downing Street is so worried about it, the Prime Minister himself has formed a special committee to try to head it off.

After all the turmoil we’ve endured in the past five years, the biggest rupture yet could be coming - the break up of the United Kingdom itself.

As Scottish parliamentary elections loom, leading - some believe - to a big SNP win and a second independence referendum; as anger bubbles in Northern Ireland over a Brexit deal which has created a border in the Irish Sea; and as even in Wales there is growing discontent - the Tonight programme has been out and about across the country to try to get a sense of why this United Kingdom feels so disunited. 

We’ve commissioned a special poll in all four parts of the UK to try to gauge it.

There are some surprising outcomes - not least in Wales - and sure enough, we find that less than 30% think our country is united.

Listen as the ITV News Politics Podcast explores the battle for independence:

In Scotland, the political atmosphere is febrile.

Since last summer, more than 20 polls have suggested a clear majority would vote for independence, overturning the result of the 2014 vote.

But our poll suggests that’s on the decline - from a high point in October of 58% wanting independence, to a narrower margin of 53-47 if the vote were called tomorrow.

That’s within the margin of error. Another poll, released on Sunday, suggested it was neck-and-neck.

The Savanta ComRes poll for the Tonight programme found:

  • 53% of Scots would leave the UK, with 71% of ‘Yes’ supporters believing the country would fare better without the UK

  • 39% of people in Wales are now in favour of independence - the highest levels of support for Welsh independence ever recorded

  • 43% of people in Northern Ireland would vote to unify with the Republic of Ireland, with 72% reasoning that the country is historically Irish

  • More than a third of older English adults (36% aged 55+) stated they would not care at all if Scotland became an independent country

The reason here may well lie in the toxic battle spewing out of Scottish politics between Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond.

If it brings down Ms Sturgeon and shatters faith in the institutions of government there - does the peak moment for a push for a second independence referendum fade?

Can Nicola Sturgeon provide hope to those wanting an independent Scotland? Credit: Tonight

It’s been fascinating to hear why there are such strong divisions north of the border.

Here, there are three big factors: Brexit, Covid and political leadership.

For one young woman we spoke to - who voted against independence in 2014 but would vote yes if she was given another chance - it’s down to all three.

Deni Smith says she feels utterly disconnected from all that Westminster and Boris Johnson represent. And to say she’s a fan of Nicola Sturgeon and her handling of the pandemic would be an understatement.

Deni calls her "The Mother of Scotland".

Deni describes Nicola Sturgeon as 'a warm hug'. Credit: ITV Tonight

"Boris Johnson just doesn’t portray what Scotland portrays. He kind of curls me a little bit," she says.

"Whereas Nicola Sturgeon I think is a warm hug. I think she’s got her arms around us and she’s completely cared for us though this whole time."

For Deni - independence is a matter of heart and soul.

But just as in 2014, for others who are digging in against the idea of a second referendum, it’s a matter of raw economics - not least that it would be held against a far worse economic backdrop than the last one.

In Northern Ireland, because of that Brexit deal - there is talk of a border poll on unification for the first time in years.

Unionists will be happy to see that our poll suggests the majority of voters would currently vote to stay in the UK - but there is huge anger amongst them - they know Brexit has rocked the stability of Northern Ireland back on its heels.

'The union’s my whole life,' says cafe owner Stephen: 'I’m proud to be a British citizen.' Credit: ITV Tonight

Cafe owner Stephen Gough doesn’t mince his words.

"Ever since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921, there’s been a history of betrayal by the British government," he says.

"But the union’s my whole life - I’m proud to be a British citizen.

"Economically Northern Ireland is a better place to live - with the NHS, the vaccines and the financial assistance [during the pandemic] we’ve had from the treasury is first class."

But of all the fascinating insight our polls offers - there is one stand out figure.

In Wales, independence is polling at its highest level ever - at 39%.

Support for Welsh independence is at its highest level ever recorded. Credit: ITV Tonight

For the stablest part of the union - joined to its bigger neighbour since the mid-16th century - this is startling.

In Wales, one in three would support a referendum in the next 10 years.

The drivers here are not Brexit (the Welsh voted Leave too) but that Wales sees itself as having different social attitudes - and that there is a growing sense that historically Wales is a separate nation.

And the big factor is young voters.

They’ve grown up under devolution - with a strengthening sense of Welsh identity and connection with its language.

In May, 16-year-olds will be voting for the first time in elections to the Welsh parliament.

'I don’t think there's the appetite for us here in Wales being left with a kind of rump of the UK,' says Prof Laura McAllister. Credit: ITV Tonight

And one political scientist told us many are watching closely what happens in Scotland.

"If there’s going to be a drive for Scottish Independence, I don’t think there's the appetite for us here in Wales being left with a kind of rump of the UK," says Professor Laura McAllister from the University of Cardiff.

"I think that would probably be the greatest propellant towards independence Wales could ever have".

So this is an issue that draws every corner of the UK in.

We also speak to a man who wants proper devolved government to Yorkshire.

Bob Buxton is the leader of the Yorkshire Party, calling for Yorkshire to have its own Parliament. Credit: ITV Tonight

So in England too, there are stirrings - not necessarily towards the entire fragmentation of the UK, but towards fundamental change.

When he became PM, Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing St and pledged his commitment to what he called "The Awesome Foursome".

He’s going to have to re-commit and by some measure, before what divides us becomes more important than what unites us.

A UK government spokesperson told Tonight that the Prime Minister remains fully committed to strengthening and levelling up all parts of the country and that he has been clear that all parts of the UK are stronger together and he will always stand against those trying to separate the United Kingdom.

UK: The End of the Union? - Tonight is broadcast on ITV on Thursday 4 March at 7:30pm and catch up on the ITV Hub.

About the poll

Savanta ComRes interviewed 1,008 Scottish adults aged 16 and above, 1,003 Welsh adults aged 16 and above, and 510 Northern Irish adults aged 18 and above.

The interviews were carried out online from 18-22 February 2021.

Savanta ComRes also interviewed 1,924 English adults aged 18 and over from 19-21 February 2021.

Data has been weighted to be representative of English adults by age, gender, region and 2016 vote; Scottish adults by age, gender, region, 2014 and 2016 votes; Welsh adults by age, gender, region and 2016 vote; and Northern Irish adults by age, gender, region, religious community and 2016 vote.