The Irish border issue – the greatest obstacle to a Brexit deal – was largely ignored during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. Debate was instead dominated by anxiety over immigration (legal or otherwise) and apocalyptic economic forecasts.
Yet there were prescient exceptions. In an article for the New Statesman, the former US president Bill Clinton wrote that he feared “the future prosperity and peace of Northern Ireland could be jeopardised if Britain withdraws”. Tony Blair and John Major similarly warned that Brexit could lead to a “hard border” between the north and the south on the island of Ireland. On 21 June 2016, two days before the UK voted to leave, Theresa May asked: “If you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and has access to free movement?”
All grasped a basic truth: that the UK’s withdrawal from the customs union and the single market would necessitate a new border either on the island of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson, blithely insisted that the border would be “absolutely unchanged”. In his resignation speech on 18 July, the former foreign secretary claimed that the Irish question “had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble”. This was never so.
Brexiteers now sanctimoniously charge the EU with attempting to “break up our country” by insisting on the “backstop” of a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But had the Conservatives not pledged to leave the customs union – in deluded pursuit of valuable new trade deals – there would be no need for a new border at all.
The Brexit project is undermining one of the greatest achievements of UK statecraft: the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The success of that pact lay in ending the forced choice between British and Irish identities and enabling people and goods to move freely across an island border with 208 crossings (compared to 20 during the Troubles). Yet peace in Northern Ireland, which has had no government since March 2017, is not permanent; it must be assiduously renewed. It was with good cause that Northern Ireland voted to Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent, and Scotland by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. In response, the Conservatives could have proposed a “soft Brexit” – one under which the UK would leave the EU but preserve essential economic and national ties. By committing the government to a “hard Brexit” in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017, however, and signing a pact with the reactionary, hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, Mrs May has pursued a wilfully divisive course.
The UK has been the world’s most successful multinational state, yet a new federal settlement is surely essential for its survival. Brexit, however, threatens something even more disruptive: Scottish independence and the reunification of Ireland. In short: the end of the UK. But as it succumbs to ideological fantasies, the Conservative and Unionist Party should pause to ask how it became an agent of chaos and chief conspirator in the break-up of Britain.
The people’s march
Modern politics is too often defined by division and rancour. Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of national populism across Europe have exposed deep fissures in Western societies.
In this age of extremes, we are told that our democratic settlement cannot hold, but such doomsaying ignores the great civic reawakening that has followed the shocks of 2016. On Saturday 20 October, an estimated 700,000 people – a higher figure, incidentally, than the combined memberships of Labour and the Conservatives – took to the streets of London to demand a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Among the crowd calling for a “People’s Vote” were many women, pensioners and children. They made their case peacefully, with good humour and grace, and without rancour. It made for a heartening contrast with the ugly machismo and violence of the far right and paranoia of the Brexiteers.
The marchers’ calls for a new poll are unlikely to be heeded, but that does not mean their efforts were wasted. Britons are responding to political upheaval by exercising their democratic rights and are doing so with respect for and within the law. Long may that continue.
This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash