The day that changed Britain forever

History makers? These three leaders control the fate of Scotland, the UK and Northern Ireland.

Today the UK will make its decision to leave the EU official. There is upheaval in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Could this wrangling change Britain more than anything in the last century?

A vote in Scotland. A letter from the UK to the EU. And discussions among politicians in Northern Ireland.

These are all apparently undramatic events taking place this week. But they could have vast implications.

Yesterday afternoon the Scottish Parliament gave the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, permission to seek an independence referendum which could end the UK. “Are these the end of days for the United Kingdom?” asked the New Statesman.

Today Theresa May will send a letter to the president of the European Council. It will tell him the UK is activating Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and withdrawing from the EU.

Yesterday the prime minister said it was “one of the most significant moments” in Britain’s recent history.

Meanwhile talks to form a new Northern Irish executive are in peril after its parties missed a deadline for finding an agreement. The stand off could prompt the UK government to instigate direct rule, or call a snap election amid growing support for Sinn Fein.

A significant shift in power or a prolonged crisis would place Northern Ireland’s position in the UK in doubt.

Today many historians say March 1917 was a pivotal moment for the world. How will future historians regard this week’s events? Could the quiet deliberations of the UK’s political leaders change the country more than anything else in the last century?

The diplomatic wrangling will be similar to that which followed the two world wars. Britain was instrumental in creating the treaty of Versailles; after the second world war the country’s centuries-long role as an imperial power ended. Radical change also followed the election of Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

But there have also been more dramatic stories away from the corridors of power. The deaths of John Lennon and Diana, Princess of Wales have gained worldwide attention. British forces have engaged in fighting every year of the last century. There have been riots; huge marches; strikes; a depression and eight recessions.


Historians will mark this week more than any other, say some. Treaties, votes and major political decisions affect millions of people. And their impact lasts decades. Emotional, dramatic episodes in history come and go; the wrangles over the UK’s future and its place in Europe will have an untold impact on the country’s economy and social fabric.

That is overestimating their impact, comes the reply. People remember where they were when they heard about Diana’s death, or the end of a bloody war. These negotiations matter little to the average person. Politicians and journalists may over-hype them, but only those who think history is the study of the powerful will care as much as them.

You Decide

  1. Which interest you more: politicians’ decisions or dramatic stories on subjects like death and war?
  2. Will this week change British history more than any other in the last 100 years?


  1. Work in threes. Make a list of some events from history which you would have found interesting to witness. Narrow them down to your three best options. Explain to your class why you chose them.
  2. Fast forward to the year 2117. Write a two-page historical account of the events of this week. How much do people remember them? How much did they matter? Why? And what has happened since?

Some People Say...

“The decisions powerful people make rarely matter that much.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Today the UK prime minister will formally tell the EU that her country is leaving. The Scottish Parliament has given the first minister permission to seek an independence referendum, which she will now do. Northern Ireland’s leaders are negotiating in an attempt to form a new government in the province.
What do we not know?
We cannot tell what this will all mean. In particular, will it break up the UK?
What do people believe?
Scotland is likely to hold a referendum, though the UK government will control its timing. In 2014 the Scottish people voted to stay in the UK, but 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU, so the result of another referendum is tough to predict. In Northern Ireland there is concern that a peace agreement which has lasted since 1998 is under pressure.

Word Watch

Article 50
See The Day’s briefing for more.
Stand off
In Northern Ireland power is shared between unionists, who want to stay in the UK, and republicans, who want a united Ireland. In an election this month the unionists lost their majority in the province’s assembly for the first time. Now a new arrangement needs to be found. The position of Arlene Foster (the first minister until that election) is one source of tension.
Direct rule
A situation where the UK government makes all decisions which affect Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein
A staunchly republican party.
March 1917
The overthrow of Russia’s tsar prompted communism’s rise, and some of the great power rivalries which caused bloodshed throughout the 20th century.
The treaty which ended the first world war.
The Labour prime minister elected in 1945, at the end of the second world war. His government created the NHS and much of the modern British welfare state.
The Conservative prime minister elected in 1979. Her government reduced the power of unions and moved Britain’s economy towards private enterprise.

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