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Why “regulatory alignment” must apply to the whole of the UK after Brexit

The one thing which no unionist could ever contemplate Brexit delivering is the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Brexit, like all major change, brings both risks and opportunities. The role of government is to mitigate the former and to seize and magnify the latter. But perhaps even more elemental is the obligation not to add unnecessary risks that can be avoided altogether.

Whatever Brexit turns out to deliver in terms of Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU27 and, indeed, with the world beyond, the one thing which no unionist — and therefore no Conservative — could ever contemplate Brexit delivering is the break-up of the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, where I am a Scottish Conservative MSP, we have grown weary with fighting nationalism. While we may be sick of it, we are more resolute than ever. The threat of independence has not gone away. Ever since 24 June 2016 First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been seeking to weaponise Brexit to sow the seeds of nationalist division. In her Lancaster House speech the Prime Minister was alive to this, when she underscored that “we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do”.

Only a month before that speech was delivered Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party administration published a paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, which argued that even if the UK as a whole was destined to leave the single market and the customs union, Scotland should remain a member of both. This would be a catastrophic outcome for Scotland, which trades four times as much with the rest of the UK as it does with the whole of the EU. But, plainly, it would be a fabulous outcome for the SNP, as it would wrench apart the UK’s single internal market with regulatory standards diverging either side of the Tweed.

We all know that different parts of the UK voted for different outcomes in the EU referendum. The same was true in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014: Glasgow and Dundee voted yes to independence, but both cities are still very much part of the UK. As in 2014, so too in 2016, the only outcome that matters is the overall result. We joined the European Economic Community as one United Kingdom in 1972 and we shall leave the EU as one United Kingdom in 2019. There can be no differentiated deal, with different nations and regions of the UK being treated differently—for that would not make the UK stronger: it would lead directly to its break-up.

At the same time, however, every party agrees that Brexit cannot be permitted to harm or jeopardise the Northern Irish peace process. This is a red line not just for Ireland and the EU27: it is the absolute commitment of us all. A key component of that peace process is north-south co-operation across the Irish/Northern Irish border, a border that is and must remain open. Over the course of recent months the UK government has sought to be creative and flexible as to how this objective can be achieved compatibly with Theresa May’s commitment that the UK will leave both the single market and the customs union. But Dublin has been looking for something binding—something more concrete—before Brexit negotiations proceed any further.

A form of words was found, albeit in language more attractive to diplomats than lawyers. Northern Ireland would remain in “regulatory alignment” with Ireland — and therefore with EU law — insofar as is necessary to comply with the Belfast Agreement and the peace process. Even if confined to the all-Ireland energy market and to agriculture, such language was always going to set off alarm bells in unionist circles. What unionists want — all unionists — is regulatory alignment across the United Kingdom.

It is surely inevitable that a significant degree of alignment with Ireland will be necessary in the future, just as it has been in the past, to secure the continuing north-south co-operation that is so important to the peace process. But if that is the case, it follows for any colour of Unionist that it must be so for all of the United Kingdom, and not for one part of it alone. It is the separatists in the SNP who want a differentiated deal. No unionist — and no Conservative — could countenance it. As the Prime Minister said in January, in negotiating Brexit “our guiding principle must be to ensure that … no new barriers to living and doing business within our own Union are created”. A well-managed Brexit would strengthen our unions — in both Scotland and Northern Ireland — not weaken them.

Adam Tomkins is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region.


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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia