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.