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Just another brick in the (red) wall?

Image by yorkshireman from Pixabay

Sometimes, it pays to go back to basics.

If Brexit ever really meant Brexit, it meant the United Kingdom (UK) transitioning from being a member state of the EU to being a non-member state, otherwise known as a “third country”. The UK had the option of cushioning the effects of resignation from the club by preserving close connections with it, what one might loosely call associate participation, especially by remaining aligned to the rules of the single market and/or customs union. But it chose not to do so.

However, in the context of its withdrawal agreement, the UK agreed that Northern Ireland should remain effectively part of the single market for trade of goods. As night follows day, the net effect of this had to be that goods exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be treated in much the same way as exports from any third country to any member state, subject to the same prohibitions, restrictions, limitations, checks and rules.

This was established as the broad framework for the future as far back as December 2019, not today, nor yesterday. While details were hammered out over the following year, the shape of things to come was already clear. Moreover, it was also the UK’s choice not to avail of a longer transition period between full EU membership and full non-membership — which would have allowed more time to finalise any intricacies in the Protocol before initial implementation. And, again moreover, the UK was a member state for 48 years. The single market has been “a thing” for almost three decades and the UK was particularly influential in shaping its rules. So the UK is well acquainted with the processes around managing exports into the EU from third countries to ensure compliance with that market’s rules.

Despite all that, the UK is touting as a legitimate grievance the notion that it should be expected to comply in a timely and complete fashion with the obligations to which it freely committed. Pacta sunt servanda. “Agreements must be kept” might reasonably be seen as the beginning and end of an adequate response, especially an agreement arrived at not in any haste, but as the culmination of a tortuous four year process.

Some of the UK’s “arguments” are straightforwardly juvenile. They didn’t have enough time, they didn’t realise what the commitment entailed or that the EU would expect them to comply punctiliously rather than “broadly” (“broadly” in this context means license to apply it a la carte), or that they signed under duress as the only way to “get Brexit done”.

Some are disingenuous. Although no longer a member state, the UK continues contingently to observe EU standards in traded goods. So, strict checks are unnecessary in its view. But, the UK refuses to move to the next step of committing to continue to maintain those standards into the future, only to retain undefined “high” standards, is self-professedly anxious to diverge from the EU rule book and is already inking in new trade agreements that would do exactly that.

The weightiest arguments are around the fact that movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland are unique because they happen within the same country rather than between two separate countries. The barriers to trade imposed by the Protocol differentiate Northern Ireland adversely from Great Britain, even if its unique continued participation in the EU single market differentiate it advantageously.

The UK has raised the stakes though by suggesting that the Protocol is more than just disruptive of existing patterns of life but also a threat to the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. So, application of the Protocol with any level of rigour could lead to persistent “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” which, within its own terms, might justify the UK suspending some or all of the Protocol’s provisions — even if it should go through various dispute resolution hoops first.

Three observations on that line of argument.

First, it required no great foresight to imagine that the Protocol would not be universally welcome within Northern Ireland. The UK Prime Minister, Government and Parliament endorsed and adopted it in that foreknowledge.

Second, the British Government has been pusillanimous, defensive and contradictory in its messaging about the Protocol. On one hand, it cannot deny that it is an integral part of the Brexit deal which it negotiated, adopted and commended to the people. On the other, the UK gives succour to the notion that it is an excessively burdensome imposition on Northern Ireland in its detail if not its essence.

Third, repeating the patterns of history, the British government has played with the fire of implicitly endorsing loyalist violence as a mode of politics. The argument is by way of hop, skip and jump steps. First, loyalist backwoodsmen are raging about the Protocol and threatening violence unless it is repealed. Second, loyalist violence is therefore possible. Third, such violence would be somewhat understandable. Fourth, it would therefore be somewhat reasonable. Fifth, it would therefore not be altogether illegitimate. Sixth, it may therefore be inevitable. Finally, if and when it happens, the blood will be on the EU’s hands, not Britain’s. That is positively dangerous, not just mischievous.

So, the British government have been engaged in a four track approach to handling the Protocol. First, make a slow bicycle race of setting up the physical and digital infrastructure, recruiting people and laying out processes to implement the Protocol checks at Northern Ireland ports. Second, take unilateral action to suspend parts of it. Third, threaten to ditch it altogether. Last, all the problems are the EU’s fault so it is solely up to the EU to provide “solutions”. Less a case of the dog eating the homework than the homework being just too much trouble to be worth persevering with.

We had the same prickly brinkmanship approaching the climax of the negotiations on both the withdrawal agreement late in 2019 and the trace and co-operation agreement a year later.

In part, that may be a matter of negotiating style. Back in 2018, Boris Johnson was reported to have said enviously of the then US President:

If Donald Trump was negotiating Brexit, he would create chaos right at the start of negotiations.

It might be stretching it to describe the negotiating atmosphere between the UK and the EU as collaborative when Theresa May was Prime Minister. But during Boris Johnson’s reign it has been confrontational, antagonistic and attritional; the hardest hardball.

Be unpredictable. Be deliberately inconsistent. Don’t reveal your bottom lines. Commit reliably to nothing until everything is to your liking. Take as much time as you want to engage and respond. Be grudging, never effusive. Be ready to walk away at any time. And any agreement you do make is always provisional and subject to renegotiation at your option. Project unremitting self-confidence and indifference to the outcome and your opponent will melt to a gibbering jelly.

This is not the place for detailed analysis, but the eventual shape of both the withdrawal and trade agreements does not demonstrate the efficacy of that approach as a negotiating strategy. It is hard to see a single aspect of either deal that represents a significant win for the UK or a serious sacrifice by the EU. The overall landing zone on both was entirely predictable from far out and no better than “par” given each side’s respective “red lines”. Each side held only their own cards.

Of course, most negotiations conducted under the media spotlight contain a performative dimension. Fighting a demonstrably good fight, maintaining tension over whether a deal will eventually be done and bringing things right down to the proverbial wire are par for the course in negotiating theatre, but generally bounded by an interest in not gratuitously souring the overall negotiating “atmosphere”. But British Government interlocutors have evinced an unusual level of public hostility to their negotiating “partners”. Whenever Mr. Johnson speaks of “our friends and partners in the EU”, it reeks of ill-concealed insincerity and disdain.

So, what are Mr. Johnson and his colleagues playing at? Are they just ignorant boors and bounders or might there be something smarter going on?

One possibility is that the tempest and tension in relations is an extension of normal negotiating showmanship, choreographed between the EU and the UK to project turbulence to the outside world while they proceed calmly into shared harbour. That seems unlikely but we should not assume it to be altogether impossible. It is possible that both sides are putting on a show for us while getting on with things in private, however laboriously.

But I think the reason for the appearance at least of drama lies elsewhere.

In April, The Economist published a thoughtful piece under the heading: “The red wall reconsidered” with a subhead:

Look beyond the post-industrial misery. Comfortable suburbs are the source of the party’s newfound support

In the 2019 UK general election:

Boris Johnson flipped four dozen more seats across Wales, the Midlands and the north of England, granting him a big majority and unbuckling the Labour Party from its former heartlands. The so-called “Red Wall” they comprise has become a synonym for towns fallen on hard times and a working class “left behind” by a metropolitan elite, personified by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Brexit warriors…

But the dilapidated high streets of former industrial towns, which are sometimes compared to the American rustbelt, are only half the story of Mr Johnson’s new domain. For they are often surrounded by gleaming new suburbs: a British counterpart to the American dream, where a couple on a modest income can own a home and two cars and raise a family. “The Tories didn’t win the poorest bits of England,” says a Labour shadow cabinet member. “They took a load of places where, frankly, life is pretty good, and it is more surprising that they were still voting Labour before.”…

The constituencies that make up the “Red Wall” are poorer than the rest of Britain, and as elsewhere, productivity and wage growth have been weak. But money goes a lot further here: these seats have some of the lowest housing costs in the country, and a greater share of home owners…

According to the periodical, the typical red wall suburban voters work in the private sector, rely on state services like schools and hospitals, but not state welfare and rely on their own cars to get around.

As long as mortgages remain affordable and petrol is cheap, it is not a place that worries much about politics.

The Economist returned to this theme in its edition of 12 June. Its columnist, Bagehot, painted a profile of the generic “Geordie Tory”, a new version of the “Essex man” so assiduously wooed by Tony Blair around the turn of the century.

The London-based commentariat has convinced itself that Geordie Tory is a left-behind loser who voted for a Brexit and Boris spit-roast to express his rage at globalisation. This is only a small part of the story. For the hidden truth about Geordie Tory is that he is actually doing rather well for himself. He did not go to university (thus avoiding a pile of student debt), but quickly found a job at a local firm, and his money goes much further in the north than it would in the south. He lives in a four-bedroomed semi-detached, has a couple of cars in the drive and can rely on two sets of grandparents to chip in with child care. He zips to work or Asda in a few minutes, thinks the local school is doing an acceptable job and looks forward to his next holiday in Florida, providing the government can stop faffing about. He pities his school friends who went to university, moved down south and now either live in a crowded flat or (before the covid-19 pandemic) spent a couple of hours a day on a packed train.

Geordie Tory has long been attracted by the Tory party’s pro-business, low-tax philosophy, but continued to vote Labour out of habit. Two things gave him permission to switch: Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Whether he voted for Brexit or not he was unhappy with attempts to overturn “the people’s will”.

While some Geordie Tories did not vote for Brexit, the North East delivered the third highest vote (58%) among the English regions in favour of leaving the EU, behind only the East and West Midlands which also coughed up significant “red wall” gains to the Tories in 2019.

He is nevertheless far from being a defender of the government, let alone a Tory activist. He thinks about politics as little as possible, except when it impinges on his life. But something profound has changed in the past few years. The “sod you” factor that has always been such an important aspect of regional politics has found a new target. During Labour’s glory days from 1945 to the early 21st century the “sod you” factor favoured the left. The Tories were the party of the southern elite with its soft hands and namby-pamby ways. Today it favours the right. Geordie Tory doesn’t so much like Boris Johnson as loathe the Guardian-reading, Britain-bashing, virtue-signalling metropolitan establishment that holds Mr Johnson in contempt.

Brexiteer zealotry comprised not merely a desire to part company with the EU, but also a repudiation of the EU, all who sail in it and all their baggage. Leaving the EU wasn’t merely a sensible thing to do, but the only sensible thing for a self-respecting nation to do. That injection of adversarial rancour polarised Brexit, raising its status from being a project to part company with the EU to one of being on one side or the other of a broader fundamental divide: sovereignty versus servitude; global Britain or vassal Britain.

The Economist columnist doesn’t say so but, I suspect that for Geordie Tory, his view of individual points of contention arising from Brexit is determined by his being on the side of Britain, come what may. Whatever good comes out of Brexit is to Britain’s credit, whatever bad comes out of it, the EU’s fault. So Mr. Johnson has a free pass to deal with the EU just as he likes and is incentivised to give vent to bouts of EU bashing from time to time, to top up Geordie Tory’s reservoir of patriotic fervour.

Some of us might aver with confidence that Brexit is an act of gratuitous national self-harm by our nearest neighbour. But, that harm is revealing itself more by way of a slow puncture than a sudden blowout, emerging in trickles rather than in floods, its ill-effects difficult to trace quickly to their source. It is unlikely to manifest itself easily and painfully to Geordie Tory, unless, perhaps, if the present incipient trade wars lead to tariffs being imposed on the export to the EU of cars from the Nissan plant in Sunderland. For Geordie Tory, the politics of Brexit remain spectator rather than participatory sport. He has only emotional skin in the game or so he thinks. He just waves his Union Jack scarf from the comfort of his sofa.

Labour is ignoring Brexit altogether, hoping desperately that doing so will accelerate its retreat into the recesses of voters’ memories. The Liberal Democrats are quiet keepers of the fragile flame of an eventual restoration of at least closer relations with the EU. Mr. Johnson exults in his party’s exclusive, enthusiastic ownership of a John Bull Brexit. Alignment with 52% of voters on an issue that matters to them is a huge electoral wedge in the Tories’ favour. Brexit being both “done” and still “in process” suits the Prime Minister fine — for now at least, whatever the collateral damage to the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe (reminder: the UK is still part of Europe) and further afield, and provided his bombast doesn’t cause his longer standing blue wall to be infected by political mica.

One thing for sure though, except as a stick with which to poke the EU, Geordie Tory couldn’t care less about Northern Ireland, and that’s something on which Northern Ireland should reflect carefully.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.