Show Hide image

Brexiteer denial over Ireland is a sad indictment of Britain’s intellectual direction

The only reachable pub where I grew up was across the border; our nearest shop was too.

Just after the referendum last year, I tweeted some cranky thoughts about Brexit, seeking to express my fears about its possible effects on Northern Ireland, and my anger over how little this issue had been mentioned during any of the debates. I was struck by two things: how many people replied saying the ramifications for Britain’s only EU land-border had never occurred to them, and the number of Brexit supporters, none of whom were from Northern Ireland, dismissing my thoughts as preposterous scaremongering.

This view was, of course, Brexit orthodoxy. “Of all the scare stories propagated by EU supporters” argued Leave luminary Daniel Hannan in late 2015, “The idea that the UK and Ireland would impose borders after 94 years is the silliest.”

A year and a half later, Brexit’s ramifications for Northern Ireland have finally become nightly news, and the prospect of a hard border doesn’t seem quite as preposterous as it once did. Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar brought the issue back to the fore when he expressed concern and frustration over how Theresa May’s team are dealing – or failing to deal – with it.

“It’s 18 months since the referendum,” he said, with a bite uncharacteristic of a man so thrilled by his first visit to Downing Street, he gushed to the press about how much it reminded him of Love Actually. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”

For this observation, the leader of Britain's closest ally was decried as an “Brexit buffoon” and told to “shut his gob” by The Sun. Then came a tidal wave of assenting voices from the right-wing commentariat, none of which saw fit to challenge Varadkar’s point. While insisting there will be no hard border, the UK has flatly refused to compromise on any of the measures, such as customs or immigration, that would make anything but a hard border possible. In response to this, Labour’s Kate Hoey – who fancies herself left-wing since she’s passionate about border controls AND saving elephants – says that if there is a hard border, “Dublin will pay for it”.

Such Trumpian nonsense would be laughable were the stakes not so high. The only reachable pub where I grew up was across the border; our nearest shop was too. Having to present documents to armed men just so we can commute to work, visit next-door neighbours, or access the amenities we have used our entire lives, would not only be wildly impractical, but a cruel thing to demand of law-abiding citizens. Moreover, as I’ve specified here before, a militarised checkpoint would massively erode the self-determination of all those who identify as Irish, contravening the Good Friday Agreement and imperiling the peace process.

The severity of the situation may best be demonstrated by the Taoiseach having said anything at all, since Varadkar is not in the habit of talking back to the woman now occupying Hugh Grant’s famous desk. This argument doesn’t wash with Andrew Lilico, the executive director of Europe Economics, who claimed “the Irish government [is] seeking to edge Northern Ireland away from the UK with a view to eventual reunification”, an analysis so unmoored from the political reality that it’s equivalent to calling Theresa May a communist. 

Even if he wasn’t already dealing with the resignation of his party’s deputy, Frances Fitzgerald, in the most calamitous week of his premiership, Varadkar is unlikely to have his eyes set on pursuing reunification. Despite being popular among some voters, it would likely prove eye-poppingly expensive, socially ruinous, and politically disastrous for any Dublin government. A good deal more expensive, even, than militarising the entire 300-mile stretch of border that a hard brexit would entail.

Elsewhere, Iain Duncan Smith showed his own ludicrous ignorance of Irish politics by telling Channel 4 News that Varadkar's hard line was motivated by "a presidential election coming up". In fact, the presidential election, such as the one due next year, selects Ireland's head of state and does not, affect the position of An Taoiseach, nor the nation's cabinet.

Undigested nonsense like this from Duncan Smith, Lilico, Hoey or Hannan is a sad, but unsurprising indictment of the intellectual direction in which Brexit Britain is headed. In the end, however, it’s not deluded fanatics tweeting from the sidelines that present the biggest threat. The intransigent cynics at the heart of May’s cabinet know full well their actions risk redrawing the map of Ireland. Unless they’re willing to compromise, we’re heading into dangerously uncharted territory.


Show Hide image

Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.