The Irish question – and democracy

The latest twist in the Brexit saga throws a harsh light on the crumbling inadequacies of our old political culture.

It seems that Theresa May is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. She has no parliamentary majority, so is dependent on the support of the DUP, and, crucially, the unity of her own party. Within that parliamentary party it’s said that there are 35-40 diehard Brexiteers who will not brook any but the “purest” of Brexits. She seems to have decided that this extremely marginal bunch of zealots needs to be kept on side at any cost. And so we lurch from one impossible position to another.

The delusion of the zealots is exposed almost every day, most recently in Liam Fox’s suggestion that the Irish border question could only be resolved through trade talks.

I understand the fantasy which inclines him to say this. The lunatic fringe sometimes seems to think that a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU is going to be possible outside the customs union and Single Market, and argues that if this were achieved then there would be no need for a hard border anywhere on the island of Ireland, or between that island and Great Britain.

The trouble is this is fantasy. As the Irish EU agriculture commissioner has explained (yet again) achieving free trade means much more than removing tariffs (the latter is the easy bit). It’s about harmonising standards and agreeing common procedures. It entails having a quasi-judicial body to look at disputes between participating countries, disputes which are far more likely to be about standards than tariffs.

The rocks of reality

These things have been achieved in the EU through the Single Market and the customs union, overseen by the European Court of Justice, and have facilitated an unparalleled degree of free trade. If the UK does not want to be part of these arrangements (and they are totally unacceptable to the lunatic fringe) then any trade deal it could achieve with the EU will be substantially less “free” and more limited in its scope.

This is just reality. And it means the only way of avoiding a hardening of the border between the north and south of Ireland is for the UK to remain part of the customs union, and perhaps the Single Market too (otherwise goods and people passing between the two zones will have to be checked). This is not the trade deal Liam Fox has in mind. There has been talk of a “special status” for the north, but this would mean a hardened border between the province and the mainland, which the DUP has already declared totally unacceptable (and for once they have a point).

I’ve argued since the referendum that Brexit would sooner or later founder on the rocks of reality, and it seems increasingly that the rocks of Ireland could cause the first and maybe fatal impact. It’s not surprising that the dim English nationalism of the hard Brexiteers should have failed to consider the Irish problem, so there’s a pleasing irony in the possibility it could frustrate them.

No way out?

Within the framework Theresa May has set up for herself she has no good options. The Irish government has, with the full backing of the EU 27, declared that there can be no trade talks without a firm prior commitment to maintaining the free movement of goods and people between the north and south. They have rejected the UK’s woolly words on the subject, demanding concrete proposals about how this freedom is going to be maintained. It is apparent the UK has no answers, which is not surprising when there is literally no way of maintaining an open border while there are different trade regimes on either side of it.

In short, it seems right now that the Irish question means Theresa May will either have to sign up to the customs union, and perhaps even the Single Market, or accept the return of a hard border in Ireland, alongside the nuclear “no deal” option for Brexit.

The hardliners claim not to be worried about this nuclear option, and they probably don’t care too much about peace in Ireland. It’s unlikely that the pragmatic Mrs May shares this view, but she continues to let it influence her government’s position.

Whatever her reasons, she needs to revisit them. Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier is making encouraging noises about the possibility of a trade agreement, and the UK has upped its offer on the budget settlement to the level it was always going to have to pay, so it seems that easiest of obstacles is out of the way despite some grumbling from the Right. But the Irish question cannot be resolved without conceding decisive EU jurisdiction over UK affairs. The Irish government has understandably laid down very little room for manoeuvre.

The enemy within?

The curious question is why May has boxed herself into this corner. The conventional answer is that without a majority in the Commons she can’t afford to alienate her hardliners. I have no inside track on Westminster but I wonder if this is really true. There is after all an overwhelming majority in parliament for at least a softer Brexit (because most MPs are not lunatic zealots). Labour could hardly oppose May if she moved towards their own stated position, which now appears to be indefinite transitional membership of the Single Market.

If she defied the loonies (in the process sacking Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and probably David Davis, if only because he’s proved himself useless at his job) what would happen? The risk is not parliamentary defeat, because a large majority would support a softer approach to Brexit. The risk is from her own wider party. The loonies would no doubt scream blue murder, and might even attempt to force a leadership election, counting on the hard right instincts of the broader membership to return a leader who was minded to pursue their treasured hard Brexit.

But is this likely? The election of Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg really would split the Tory party, and senior party figures would move heaven and earth to stop it happening. Weirdly, Theresa May is in a far stronger position than the loonies suspect. I suppose it’s yet another sign of her haplessness that she hasn’t yet worked this out.

But she needs to, partly for the sake of Anglo-Irish harmony, partly to sidestep colossal economic self-harm.

I continue to believe the most rational course ahead would be to cancel Brexit altogether, and that far from this being a political impossibility it would only take a bit of decent political leadership. But now is not the moment. It will take some time and the continuing intrusion of the real world.

In the meantime, whatever else happens on the way, at the very least our politicians have an obligation to seek the best possible terms for the future. Those optimum terms do not in any possible universe include falling back on WTO rules. May needs to find the honesty and the courage to say that (she already knows it’s true).

Off with the blinkers

And here’s the thing. It’s an irony of our first-past-the-post system that twice in the last ten years it should have produced exactly the kind of result that it’s supposed to avoid: a minority government. But our political culture and habits remain rooted in the tribal norms of majority government. Minority government in contrast demands the skills of compromise, openness and some manipulative guile that are characteristic of proportionally-elected coalitions.

Mainstream wisdom suggests we’ve reached some kind of democratic impasse, but if that’s true it’s because we’re suffering a clash of two very different ways of thinking about democracy: the blinkered tribalism of “winner-takes-all” (which is distorting any thoughtful interpretation of the referendum result) and a system designed to embrace the realities of an increasingly pluralistic society.

It’s been wisely said that politics is the art of reconciling different and often conflicting interests. With that in mind it’s time we (and particularly our politicians) threw off the blinkers. It’s time May started working with the majority opinion in her parliament, rather than the hysterics of a lunatic fringe.

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