The Best Laid Schemes (Part 2), by Duncan Sutherland

Guest post.

As may be readily gathered from the cartoon on the front page of today’s issue of The New European, which is what Brexiteers refer to as a Remoaning rag, the notion of halting the Brexit process appears to be gaining traction, at least among the chattering classes. How realistic might this prospect be, particularly in view of the fact that the talk in Blighty is actually overwhelmingly of softening Brexit rather than abandoning it?

As Lord Adonis, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, succinctly puts it in an article in that publication today, “The position of the DUP is critical to the internecine strife. Because of the Remain majority in Northern Ireland, and their desire to avoid a hard border with either Ireland or the British mainland, the DUP support membership of the single market and the customs union.”

The Democratic Unionist Party, as you will doubtless be aware by now, is the small non-nationalist northern Irish parliamentary contingent, comprising 10 MPs, whose support is expected to provide the Tories with a tenuous overall majority in the House of Commons. The DUP’s opposition to a hard Brexit, for the reasons stated, would appear to rule that option out now. But how practical might it be to secure a soft one in view of hard-line Tory Brexiteer reluctance to accept that and the European Commission’s apparent determination to make Brexit as difficult and unpalatable as possible for the British in the hope that they will give it up? Lord Adonis notably credits President Macron with the capacity to influence Brussels orthodoxy on the key question of freedom of movement of labour in such a way as to accommodate a soft Brexit. But he may not be minded to do so, preferring instead to dissuade the UK from leaving, as recent utterances seem to suggest.

It should be borne in mind that the importance of the infinitely complex Irish question in this context cannot be overstated, as an external land border between the European Union and the UK is to be established for the first time between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, disrupting the Common Travel Area arrangements which predate Irish and British membership of the economic community which has become the EU, and in view of the fact that Great Britain is a substantially important market for the whole island of Ireland, much as the EU is for the UK. It is, furthermore, pertinent to note that involvement of the DUP in a formal governing arrangement at UK level threatens the impartiality of the UK government in the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement between nationalists and unionists, in accordance with which Whitehall is still mired in the seemingly impossible task of restoring Northern Irish devolution, which has collapsed thanks to Sinn Féin, which has no more interest now in doing the UK any favours than it has ever had, on the basis of the generally accepted if slightly deranged proposition of proponents of Irish reunification that the UK’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. So, if the DUP props up that nice Mrs May at Westminster, direct rule in Northern Ireland may have to continue, with dire consequences for peace and economic prosperity there. A constitutional melt-down would appear to be a not indistinct possibility… and I have not even touched on Scotland yet.

On the subject of Scotland, a curious phenomenon has come into play following the UK general election. As before, the pro-independence Scottish National Party has more of the Scottish seats in the House of Commons than all of the Anglo-unionist parties put together, but, with fewer MPs than it had in the last parliamentary session, it is now ironically in a position of potentially greater power and influence there than it was then, for the simple reason that the Tories have lost their overall majority and are going to be relying not on a formal coalition but rather on an unstable and highly dubious confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP which, as Sinn Féin has not been slow to claim, undermines the delicate constitutional arrangements which have been designed, with utmost difficulty, to accommodate Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom in accordance with the wishes of the majority of its population.

The SNP group now has 35 of the 59 Scottish seats and is thus still the third largest parliamentary group in the House of Commons. Were the UK government to offer the SNP a soft-Brexit deal which it could not refuse along the lines which that party has itself proposed, the UK government would have no need to fear that it would fall and would not need to rely on a constitutionally hazardous alliance with the DUP, whose socially conservative prejudices are anathema to the majority of the UK population. There could, however, be no question of a formal arrangement between the Tories and the SNP. A purely tacit one would have to suffice and could not include support for ideologically obnoxious Tory manifesto measures, which no doubt goes some way towards explaining why such items were excluded from the “threadbare” Queen’s Speech the other day. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The Scottish National Party having found that there is only so much upheaval that the people of Scotland are willing to contemplate at any one time, sensible folk that we are, it seems highly likely that the statement expected from First Minister Sturgeon next week on the subject of a further referendum on Scottish independence will include assurances that the matter is not to be pursued until the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU have been settled. It is also likely to be stated that the legislative consent motion which it is reported that the Scottish Parliament is to be requested to pass for the purpose of facilitating the implementation of the Great Repeal Bill (ending UK membership of the EU and incorporating EU law into UK law) can be given favourable consideration provided that favourable consideration is also given to Scottish Government proposals designed to protect vital Scottish interests of one kind and another in the Brexit process in accordance with the criteria established by the Scottish Government.

The said Scottish Government proposals essentially amount to a soft Brexit involving either UK membership of or favourable access to the Single Market and the customs union or Scottish membership of or favourable access to the Single Market and the customs union while Scotland is still part of the UK even if the rest of the UK or not all of the rest of the UK is not to enjoy this status. Improbable though it may seem, the Greenland precedent makes it legally possible for the second option to be negotiated, but, of course, political and economic considerations mean that it is realistic to consider only the first option as a possibility, as there is no way in which the UK government would be willing to countenance any arrangement which gave Scotland economic advantages which were not also available to England.

Here you have a sample of the difficulties which lie ahead along the primrose path to Brexit. It is difficult not to conclude that it is a maze which it would be better not to enter, as the sum total of those difficulties do appear to be nothing short of overwhelming, in view of the fact that there is no appetite among the British for entering upon a period of sacrifice and hardship for the sake of a chimera of economic sovereignty and migrationless nirvana. All routes to Brexit appearing to be characterized by such an unacceptable degree of difficulty that a satisfactory outcome seems impossible, I am reminded of a famous line which the Scottish novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave to his creation Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Improbable though it may seem, therefore, to coin a phrase, the electorates of the territories which currently form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will find, I venture to suggest, that, when the various and numerous adverse economic consequences of Brexit take shape in the course of the UK’s laborious negotiations with the EU, the option of withdrawing the Article 50 letter will come to seem desirable. Furthermore, if Mrs May will not come down off her high horse and accommodate the not unreasonable and well researched proposals of the Scottish Government, or something very similar, she will find herself tumbling out of 10 Downing Street in the not very distant future, whereupon we shall conceivably have yet another UK general election, in consequence of which the Labour Party may come to power, if the latest opinion polls are to be believed, possibly propped up by the Scottish National Party if its terms are met.

Surveying the devastated political landscape of the UK and the remnants of a once stable state, little seems certain other than the criminal folly of the Conservative Party for creating this discombobulated shambles, in which only one other thing seems certain, and that is that a further EU referendum needs to be held once the consequences of Brexit can be made clear to the general public. It is the only way out, but it has a major disadvantage so far as the guardians of the unity of the United Kingdom are concerned. It would set a precedent which would make it quite illogical for a further referendum on Scottish independence to be refused, refusal of such a referendum being one of the high-handed and arrogant policy positions of the present UK government, which for that reason alone deserves to fall, as the only supreme leader which a democracy can abide is democracy itself.

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