UK unity in danger

Ashis Ray charts the latest developments in Britain’s planned exit from the EU, which is not only dividing opinion but also carries a real risk of fragmenting the nation

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s rash and thoughtless commitment to Britain exiting the European Union (EU) by 31 October has come to haunt him. It may have catalysed his victory in the contest for leadership of the Conservative party, whose majority of constituents are eurosceptics, but a shrewd politician would have hedged his bet. Now he has spectacularly failed to keep his word. This will disappoint his supporters, let alone others. Delivery is important in politics.

On the eve of introducing his Withdrawal Bill in the House of Commons, Johnson threatened to pull the legislation if the timetable proposed alongside it was not approved. He eventually baulked at such a drastic reaction and instead adopted a pause, awaiting the EU’s response to Britain’s request for postponement of Brexit beyond the agreed 31 October deadline.

A vast majority of economists concur that Brexit will affect GDP growth in both Britain and the EU for a lengthy period. A no-deal Brexit, which lack of an extension of the deadline would cause by default, would damage Britain’s finances more than the EU’s; but it would hurt the latter as well. Therefore, the EU, more in control of its affairs while at the same time frustrated with Britain’s delay in making up its mind, is unlikely to be irrational. It can be expected to tolerate the United Kingdom’s internal tussle until matters fall into place.

It’s a no-brainer that if Johnson agreed to a customs union with the EU, the Bill would sail through the House. This is Labour’s demand and almost all its MPs will echo this position. Other than hard-line members of the European Research Group (ERG), a majority of Conservative MPs are also likely to endorse this. Even the Conservatives’ parliamentary ally, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is upset about Northern Ireland de facto remaining within the EU customs union while the rest of Britain doesn’t, would be happy with a status that is not different from mainland UK.

The mood in Northern Ireland has been shifting towards a united Ireland

The argument is, if Johnson could abandon the DUP by agreeing to a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, why can’t he cut adrift the ERG? Such a step may trigger a desertion by militant Brexiteers, but could potentially attract soft Brexiteers, even a section of remainers. But the rank and file of the Conservative party are largely uncompromising leavers. Johnson’s stock would thus plummet within his fold, especially because it would also signify surrendering to Labour.

The big question is: how will MPs vote if an amendment is brought to the Withdrawal Bill mandating another referendum to decide between it and remain? The pain the British people have endured for nearly three-and-a-half years in a bid to extricate themselves from the EU, the years of wrangling that could follow to agree future trading and other arrangements, indefinitely prolonging the transition phase – the impact these would cumulatively have on the British economy – have made it a point to ponder over.

The British electorate now have a much better idea of the challenges involved and will continue to confront the departure process. Younger Britons, who are perceived to be pro-remain and who have increased in number since the last plebiscite, could well reach the conclusion that Brexit is not really worth it. Indeed, tracker polls for many months have consistently indicated a slight majority for remain in the event of another referendum.

It appeared Johnson’s gambit when he became prime minister in July was to exit without a deal, as there was nothing at that point to prevent him from doing so. He would thereby recover for his party the 20 per cent-plus votes it had haemorrhaged to the Brexit party in May’s elections to the European parliament, and quite possibly win a snap general election. But the plan went awry with parliament passing legislation in September to block the design or a no-deal Brexit.

With a self-imposed departure deadline, he constrained himself to an avoidable time limit and consequently restrictions in his manoeuvrability at the negotiating table. He pitched for a customs border between Northern Ireland, which is British territory, and the sovereign Republic of Ireland, which the DUP would have happily signed up to. But with the 17-18 October summit of EU leaders to consider an agreement looming, not to mention the self-inflicted 31 October target, he capitulated to the Republic’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s persuasion of a customs and regulatory border in the middle of the Irish Sea that flows between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.  The final draft was, in fact, a rehash of Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May’s deal – which was thrice rejected by the Commons – except for removal of the UK from a customs union and the special provisions for Northern Ireland. It’s both the House of Commons and the House of Lords’ duty and prerogative to meticulously examine the deal, for accepting it could have a bearing on Britain for half a century.

A Northern Ireland economically not wholly integrated with Britain is politically problematic for forces loyal to the UK in the region. Already, there are concerns – as acknowledged by its chief constable – that unionist paramilitary groups are unhappy with the proposal. Indeed, opinion surveys have in recent months revealed the mood in Northern Ireland has been shifting towards a united Ireland, which is highly unpalatable to Protestants opposed to a merger with a predominantly Catholic Republic.

Secondly, a soft Brexit for Northern Ireland and a hard Brexit for Scotland – both of whom voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum – is annoying for the latter. It has reignited the Scottish demand for independence, which was defeated in a plebiscite in 2014 but which presently commands around 50 per cent support in polls.

In short, the Johnson deal raises the spectre of Britain losing both Northern Ireland and Scotland or a disintegration of the country. So, if there’s a confirmatory referendum, England and Wales would do well to reconsider – for the sake of the unity and integrity of the UK.


Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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