Why ARE ‘patriotic’ Brexiteers risking the break-up of the UK?
UNTIl this week , I never doubted the patriotism of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees - Mogg and their band of Brexiteers. Quite the reverse.
I credited them with a romantic respect for the integrity of this country, our borders and our national institutions.
By contrast, the Remainers argued that membership of the European Union was worthwhile because of the trading advantages, even though Britain was made subject to EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice.
But something strange is taking place this weekend as the Brexit talks reach their final phase. Brexiteers and Remainers have effectively swapped sides.
The ‘ hard’ Brexiteers now appear determined to put the United Kingdom at risk. Meanwhile, those seeking to strike a pragmatic deal — led by P rime Minister Theresa May — are fighting to save it.
This is because the central debate between Britain and Europe now hangs on the future of the border between Britain and Ireland.
I have crossed this border, an area of great natural beauty, many times. For much of the past century it was a dangerous place across which illicit goods and weapons were smuggled by criminal gangs and terrorists.
But the Good Friday Agreement, reached in 1998, put paid to all that.
It implicitly committed the British and Irish governments to a guarantee that there should be no border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic — thus helping to open the way to peace after many decades of bloodshed.
Unfortunately, this Irish border reared its head again when the negotiations between Britain and the European Union started over Brexit.
The ‘ hard’ Brexiteers are absolutely insistent that Britain must leave the customs union and the single market.
enough. But Brussels says that Britain leaving the customs union and single market means bringing back the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in order to prevent smuggling of goods from the United Kingdom customs area in the north to the Irish EU zone in the south.
The European Union also points out that the resurrection of customs checks runs contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, and therefore insists that Northern Ireland must remain as part of the customs union, even if the rest of Britain chooses to leave it.
This means there would have to be two separate jurisdictions within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland would be part of the customs union run by Brussels, while in mainland Britain we would determine our own trading arrangements.
The prospect of a two-tier United Kingdom, with one set of rules for Northern Ireland, has been greeted with pleasure by Irish republicans.
They hope and believe that over time Northern Ireland would draw closer to Eire, and eventually leave the UK altogether. This prospect is greeted with horror by unionists, which explains why Theresa May is fighting like a ferret in a sack to stop it.
As for the most determined Brexiteers, they don ’t seem to regard the Irish border as much of a problem. They dismiss the EU demands that the Good Friday Agreement should be respected as a cynical contrivance by Brussels negotiators to punish Britain and cause mischief.
It may be that this is partly true. However, it is not just Brussels which appears to be willing to see the effective break -up of the UK. By the same token, so are the Brexiteers themselves.
This troubles T ories like me. I believe, in common with many other Britons, that the United Kingdom has been a force for good in the world ever since its creation more than 300 years ago.
It’s often forgotten that the full name of the T ory P arty is the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Certainly, the Conservative Party represents free markets and capitalism. But the one pledge that has held it together since its foundation has been its commit - ment to the Union and everything that comes with it.
It’s this commitment that took Britain through two terrible World Wars in the 20th century.
These hard Brexiteers seem to have forgotten that.
They appear to regard escaping from the European Union as more important than the survival of the United Kingdom itself.
And consider this: if Northern Ireland is given special status to remain in the customs union in the wake of Brexit, you can be sure that it will not be long before Nicola Sturgeon ’ s Scottish National P arty demands the same thing.
the great majority of Brexiteers are English. Some see it as part of their duty as politicians to promote an English identity.
last week in the House of Com - mons, John Redwood, one of their leaders, asked: ‘Who in this Gov - ernment does speak for England? I come into the Chamber and hear debates about the Scottish prob - lem and the Irish border , but we must not forget England, our home base for most of us on this side of the House. England expects; England wants better.’
Does this mean the rest of Britain can go hang?
David Davis, who resigned from the Cabinet this summer in order to fight against Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, speaks the same language. He has called for an English parliament.
Indeed, in the wake of the Scottish referendum result he quoted the words of G . K. Ches - terton: ‘Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.’
Haunting words indeed. But how ironic it will be that if in their bid to escape from the European Union, the standard-bearers for a full Brexit end up destroying the United Kingdom.