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The suicide of Britain? Not yet, and here's how it can be avoided

The election has put the Union at risk. Here's how it can be saved. 

The Suicide of Britain. Shocking as this sounds, this was the title of an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times two days after the general election. The article warned that the forces of nationalism were now on the brink of overwhelming the 300 year old Union. It was not wrong.

The election and the Scottish referendum have sent a message loud and clear from all parts of this island that the constitutional status quo is no longer tenable. This is more than just a case of rampant nationalism. The country as a whole, all of it, rejects and repudiates the Westminster bubble. Those Labour activists knocking on doors during the referendum will know what we mean when we say that the anti-Westminster feeling in Scotland was all too familiar. It was the same angry disenchantment found on doorsteps in Doncaster and Dudley, not just Dundee. It is now clear that the defining mission of the future and of our party is nothing short of a constitutional revolution to save our United Kingdom. Like every cause worth fighting for it will be a struggle of the highest order. It will be a desperate battle and carry the most enormous risks. It will involve actually leading people not just listening.

Yorkshire votes for Yorkshire Laws

The ‘vow’, the Kelvin Commission and the Silk Commission were all about powers to the nations, but do nothing to address our country’s rotten, increasingly irrelevant core. Yes, devolution has caused deep imbalances in our constitution. Of course there must be changes so that English MPs can scrutinise English only legislation, but in reality there are few truly English only pieces of legislation. ‘English votes for English laws’ is just the sort of divisive, wedge-driving populist dissimulation the Tories would champion. The imbalances in our constitution go beyond that and now mean that London MPs vote on Yorkshire issues such as transport, but Yorkshire MPs do not have a say on London’s. The answer cannot be one that demotes MPs from other parts of our country and creates constitutional chaos, with different majorities needed depending on the given issue.

Therefore the answer to these problems lies in devolution within England itself - moving power away from the centre. A Devolution that is more than just money and city deals. A Devolution, which is more radical and far reaching than we have ever contemplated before. Ignore what happened before in another political age when Scotland was painted political red and Labour understood middle England – regional government is back. While the Tories and SNP promote politics of division in order to secure power, our abiding mission will be winning power to give it away. Let the forces of conservatism and nationalism play north against south, England against Scotland, rich vs. poor and public vs. private. We will recognise the strength of our common endeavour as a union whilst pushing power down beyond national assemblies and town halls. Putting power as close to citizens as possible as the only sensible policy in this age of permanent technological revolution.

The British are coming

We must also understand that nationalism, be it the SNP version or the English brand the Tories have created, is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. The real issue continues to be disenchantment with our system and if we are honest the failure of Labour to connect with the voters who swept it to power in three successive elections. Labour’s founding father, a Scot, said that our fight is not with a class but against a system. He argued that we must offer a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. Such a platform exists that reflects our Party’s values. It is a greater, more expansive, nationalism than Sturgeon or Cameron offers. A confident nationalism that is resilient and outward looking. A nationalism that embraces those of many identities. On its platform and with its values we created institutions such as the NHS - won conflicts to protect the freedoms it stands for. It won a referendum in Scotland and dominated our Olympic Games. It is Britishness.

The article ‘The Suicide of Britain’ lamented that no one was making the argument for our country’s future. That no one was leading the charge for Britain. This is strange - not because support for Britain is so weak, but because the reality is if it were articulated properly its strength would be unbeatable. It is the British mantle that Labour must pick up. Championing a Britishness built on the values of tolerance, creativity, fair play and an outward looking approach to the world. Yes, there is a big tent for Labour to use on the path back to government. Attlee and Blair used it before. Its name is Britannia.

Tim Roca was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Macclesfield, and tweets at @timroca85. Michael Payne was Labour parliamentary candidate for Newark, who tweets @MichaelPayneUK.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”