It is high time Brexiteers admitted they must either choose Brexit, or the preservation of the UK, but they cannot have both, says John Stevens.
There is a spectre haunting Brexit: the spectre of the break-up of the United Kingdom. All the powers of the Brexiteers have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn and Jeremy Hunt, Steve Baker and Seamus Milne. In vain. For it is becoming daily more apparent that if Brexit is to be delivered for England, it will be for England alone.
The anticipated arrival of Mr Johnson in Downing Street has increased the risk of our leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement. His clear refusal to extend the Article 50 period beyond its 31st of October expiry date makes the prospect of any re-negotiation of the current WA well-nigh impossible. Moreover there is now a firmly entrenched perception amongst the other 27 member states of the Union, but particularly in Ireland, France and Germany, that were we to leave without a WA, we would not readily remain very long in such a situation and so would soon return, in a greatly weakened position, to the negotiating table.
Parallel with, but also contributing to this perception is the conviction that the only way of solving the Irish border issue in such circumstances would be by a rapid move to a united Ireland. The financial burdens this would entail are far less than those resulting from the undermining of the Single Market and Customs Union by inadequate border arrangements. Ireland would thus be entitled to expect its partners to pay a significant share. Plans are already advanced to generate international support for this not just across the EU, but also in the United States Congress, the body which will of course be responsible for approving any post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. The European election results and recent polling strongly suggest that re-unification would now have majority support in Northern Ireland as well as in the Republic. They also suggest that it would have majority support in England, Scotland and Wales.
The real prospect of Irish unification would surely have a considerable impact on attitudes in Scotland towards independence. The UK government has much more control over another independence referendum in Scotland than over a border poll in Ireland, on account of the Belfast Agreement, and the Scots have less international leverage than the Irish on account of the latter’s lobby in the US. Nevertheless, in the event of a No Deal Brexit, and with moves towards Irish re-unification underway, it is easy to see such a referendum coming next year, even in the face of a UK government refusal to give it legal status. The Scottish National Party has already explored this scenario with the European Commission and the possibility that if the Scots then voted for independence, Scotland would be deemed to have remained in the EU, in a manner comparable to the automatic accession of East Germany in 1990. Again, the European election results and recent polling strongly suggest that this time the Nationalists would win. They also suggest that a majority in England and Wales would be, at best, indifferent to Scotland leaving the UK.
Such insouciance is emphatically not shared by what still passes for the British Establishment.
Fear of a break-up of the UK undoubtedly drove Theresa May to seek the extension of the Article 50 period. It is what is now driving the cross-party campaign to prevent a No Deal Brexit. It is even beginning to be reflected in the increasingly frequent pro-Union protestations of leading Brexiteers, including Mr Johnson. Hitherto, they have either ridiculed the risks of Northern Irish, Scottish and certainly Welsh secession as fanciful flourishes of the wider Remainer-generated “Project Fear”, or as a potentially most welcome opportunity for England to shed expensive underproductive and traitorously pro-European encumbrances. Now however they seem finally to be beginning to understand that nothing would more swiftly and decisively demonstrate that their project has been a disaster which must be reversed, and even reversed completely, with our embracing full membership of the euro, Schengen and “ever closer union”, than the break-up of the UK.
For Scotland leaving the UK and joining the EU would be massively damaging and disruptive to England’s efforts to secure a stable post-Brexit relationship with our largest trading partner and closest neighbours. It would severely weaken our trade negotiating position, notably in sensitive sectors such as fisheries and energy. It would precipitate a further deterioration of our international credit rating, thus weakening the Gilt Market, especially in the event (which was widely anticipated in 2014) that an independent Scotland sought, and succeeded, in evading any responsibility for servicing and repaying its theoretical share of outstanding UK debt. The creation of a Scottish pound, until it is subsumed in the euro, would increase the volatility of sterling. Edinburgh could drain significant business from the City of London, even before Scotland joined the single currency. England would face an immediate rental payment for, and then the early loss of the Faslane Trident submarine base. We would also face the loss of the Scottish element in the Army, notably in front line infantry. It is even possible that the Monarchy would be de-stabilised. Cumulatively, this would constitute a serious erosion of English power and a tarnishing of the English global brand. But the most dangerous result could be the reaction against the creation of an avowedly English national state by the some 30% of residents in England who do not consider themselves (for a variety of reasons) as English, and who are concentrated in economically vital parts of the country, notably London.
All of which explains why, notwithstanding the rococo rhetoric of his leadership campaign, so many Brexiteers believe (or hope) that Mr Johnson will actually do anything, short of reneging on the deadline of October the 31st, to ensure that the UK leaves the EU with a WA. And the only WA which can satisfy such a timetable is the one originally agreed by Mrs May with a Northern Ireland only Backstop. It is the only WA the EU will sanction which can also command the support of the European Reform Group, since Britain would not be tied by Northern Ireland to a possibly indefinite membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market. There would be reluctance certainly on account of the WA’s other arrangements, but it would be overcome by the consideration that Mr Johnson, as a Leaver, unlike Mrs May, can be trusted to negotiate a satisfactory final form of Brexit in the trade negotiations, for which the WA is merely the preliminary condition. It should be supported by all those Conservative Members of Parliament objecting to a No Deal Brexit. Only the handful of advocates of another referendum would be likely to hold out. And against them must be set those Labour MPs who are determined to secure Brexit with a deal: the 26 who signed a letter last month rejecting another referendum, and maybe more.
This should be easily sufficient to offset the opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party. Some of Mr Johnson’s supporters even do not rule out forcing the DUP to come into line, perhaps under cover of some guarantees on not allowing the calling of a border poll (which under the Belfast Agreement requires the approval of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) for an extended, but defined period, and other more material inducements, since the alternative would probably be a general election that could put into power a coalition even more hostile to Ulster Loyalist interests. They are probably mistaken in this. But the crisis of Brexit has already led some of the more far-sighted members of the DUP to recognise that if the UK leaves the EU at all, with or without a WA, a united Ireland is inevitable within a matter of years (or even months) rather than the generation or so (or even never) of earlier expectations. They are preparing for the possibly pivotal position they might enjoy between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in Dublin politics by overtures to the former (just as the latter have already forged an alliance with the Social Democratic and Labour Party).
Thus abandoning the Union with Northern Ireland may well allow the UK to leave the EU with a WA on October the 31st. But it will not save the Union with Scotland, nor prevent all that would flow from its loss. This is not simply because of the fundamental fact (a critical factor in the Unionist victory in 2014) that an independent Scotland can only join the EU (the form of independence desired by the overwhelming majority of Nationalists) if the UK leaves the EU (the Catalonia issue). If Northern Ireland obtains privileged access to the EU under the Backstop, albeit on a path to joining the Republic, the Scots would justifiably feel they are entitled to similar arrangements, albeit on a path to independence. Moreover, since the whole purpose of doing Brexit with a WA is to negotiate a close future trading relationship between the UK and the EU, this course greatly reduces the risks of an independent Scotland being excluded from the English single market (another critical factor in the Unionist victory in 2014). Scotland would clearly benefit from the collective strength of the EU in its own negotiations with England on separation. In short, the case for a rapid accession by Scotland into the EU would be strong, again suggesting a second independence referendum next year. That would of course require the approval of the Westminster Parliament. But it is very likely the Scottish Nationalists would still secure the support of the EU in demanding a legal vote. The issue of Scottish independence (like Irish unification) is recognised by Brussels as a most valuable instrument in the trade negotiations with the UK which will begin as soon as the WA is signed.
So in the context of Brexit the Union is indeed indivisible in the sense that removing one part risks the whole structure. And it is high time that Brexiteers admitted that they must either choose Brexit, or the preservation of the UK, but they cannot have both. At no stage during the 2016 referendum was this choice remotely aired, let alone adequately debated. It might perhaps be possible to claim the referendum constituted a mandate to destroy our Union with Europe even on WTO only terms. But it is impossible to claim it constituted a mandate to destroy our British Union, our Union with ourselves, on any terms. Something so essential, so existential, must rally all Unionists to demand another referendum on our membership of the EU as soon as possible, and to campaign for Remain. And nothing would be more efficacious for preserving the UK than a victory for Remain won explicitly in the cause of British as well as European Unionism.