Boris Johnson described the new year’s severing of ties with the EU as “an amazing moment” for Britain, but he faced warnings that Brexit could hasten the disintegration of his own country.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, intends to put Brexit at the centre of her campaign in May’s Holyrood elections, at which the Scottish National party will campaign for a second independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon, who wants to lead an independent Scotland back into the EU, wrote on Twitter: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.” Scotland voted 62:38 to stay in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The first minister claimed an independent Scotland would be “a bridge to aid understanding between the EU and UK”, as she kicked off a year that could have a profound impact on the future of the union.
Writing for Politico, she added: “We have been inside the European Union family of nations for nearly 50 years. We didn’t want to leave and we hope to join you again soon as an equal partner as we face the opportunities and challenges of the future together.”
Mr Johnson has vowed to block a second Scottish independence referendum — which would have to be approved by Westminster — arguing that the 55:45 vote in 2014 for Scotland to stay in the UK was meant to settle the issue for a generation.
The British prime minister’s claim that Brexit had put “freedom in our hands” and that the UK would be able to do things “differently and better” outside the EU is not widely shared in Scotland.
“This is an amazing moment for this country,” Mr Johnson said in his New Year’s message, released to coincide with the end of the Brexit transition period and the end of Britain’s 47-year legal and institutional ties to the EU.
The prime minister has downplayed the “non tariff barriers” to trade with the EU thrown up by Brexit — including an estimated £7bn in bureaucracy for business — and their potential impact on the integrity of the UK.
Aside from inflaming nationalist sentiments in Scotland, Brexit has also placed new obstacles to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; the region, which also voted against Brexit, remains part of the EU’s customs code.
The prime minister insists his trade deal with the EU — which has a tariff-free arrangement for goods at its heart — had been achieved while extricating Britain from the EU’s legal structures.
But Mr Johnson’s critics have long warned that such an agreement would inevitably lead to friction at the border, as companies faced a wave of new checks, controls and paperwork to trade across a previously open frontier.
Ministers fear there could be disruption at ports on Monday when business returns to normal after the festive break; freight on New Year’s Day was running at a fraction of normal levels and few problems were reported.
Emmanuel Macron, French president, said in his New Year’s message that Britain would remain “our friend and ally” but he said Brexit was “the child of European malaise and lots of lies and false promises”.
However, Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative party, spoke of the joy of Eurosceptics that the Brexit saga had reached its conclusion. “I just wish I was 21 again,” he told the BBC. “My goodness what prospects lie ahead of us for young people now: to be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again.”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson hinted in an article for the Telegraph at the “state activism” he intends to pursue to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus crisis. Many Tories believe Brexit will allow the UK to be more versatile in deploying state aid to boost growth.
The prime minister said it was “thanks to government scientists” that Oxford university had partnered with AstraZeneca to develop its Covid vaccine and “thanks to government cash that the vaccine was developed”.