What next for Brexit Bri­tain?

The Irish Times - - World News - Paul Gille­spie

The UK ex­che­quer pro­vides a £10.8 bil­lion (¤12.1 bil­lion) an­nual sub­sidy to North­ern Ire­land and pays £8.6 bil­lion net each year to the EU.

The two fig­ures show a strik­ing dis­pro­por­tion be­tween the UK’s in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal obli­ga­tions just as the Ir­ish back­stop be­comes the defin­ing is­sue in its fu­ture re­la­tions with the EU.

The dis­pro­por­tion is mostly un­known to the Bri­tish pub­lic who voted 52-48 per cent in 2016 for Brexit based in good part on the be­lief that the cost of EU mem­ber­ship is far higher than it ac­tu­ally is and that its in­tru­sion on UK pol­i­cy­mak­ing is sim­i­larly large.

Given the im­mense strain Brexit is putting on the UK’s in­ter­nal unity, this dis­pro­por­tion­ate fund­ing is a re­ally se­ri­ous mat­ter.

The lat­est Fu­ture of Eng­land Sur­vey or­gan­ised by re­searchers in Ed­in­burgh and Cardiff univer­si­ties asked vot­ers in each of the UK’s nations whether they pri­ori­tise a hard Brexit over a hard border in Ire­land.

Richard Wyn Jones, one of its authors, sum­marised the find­ings: “An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Con­ser­va­tive vot­ers in Eng­land would prefer to see Scot­land be­come in­de­pen­dent and a break­down of the peace process in North­ern Ire­land rather than com­pro­mise on their sup­port for Brexit. But it’s not just Brexit. Half of English Con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers want to stop Scot­tish MPs from sit­ting in the Bri­tish cab­i­net al­to­gether.”

In other no­table find­ings, vot­ers typ­i­cally ex­pect higher lev­els of pol­icy align­ment with Europe post-Brexit on is­sues such as roam­ing charges and food hy­giene stan­dards than within the UK.

English vot­ers say by 62-38 per cent they want money raised in Eng­land to be spent there and not in North­ern Ire­land. That view is held by 73-28 per cent among Con­ser­va­tive vot­ers whereas among those vot­ing Labour it is 22/78 per cent.

Wyn Jones con­cludes: “Stri­dent protes­ta­tions of faith in the fu­ture of the union of Great Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land from Theresa May and her lead­ing min­is­ters can­not hide the fact that the union is un­der huge stress as re­sult of Brexit.

“Iron­i­cally, that threat is posed at least as much by those who would re­gard them­selves as union­ists as it is by those in Scot­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land who ac­tively wish the union’s demise.”

The sur­veys re­veal what Wyn Jones calls a “devo-anx­i­ety” among English vot­ers. It re­flects in part an English na­tion­al­ism both re­sent­ing and seek­ing greater voice in the de­volv­ing UK.

That na­tion­al­ism can be over­stated as an in­de­pen­dent force but it un­doubt­edly drives much of this disen­chant­ment.

Leave sup­port­ers in North­ern Ire­land value a hard Brexit over the peace process and a soft border by 87 per cent, il­lus­trat­ing their DUP base.

But for the DUP to put such store on avoid­ing a border down the Ir­ish Sea, given the fray­ing of pop­u­lar union­ism at the base of Con­ser­va­tives in Eng­land, risks bring­ing these di­min­ish­ing sol­i­dar­i­ties and rad­i­cally dis­pro­por­tion­ate UK trans­fers to North­ern Ire­land out into the open in fu­ture UK-level bar­gain­ing.


‘‘ The Brexit con­vul­sion brings the Ir­ish ques­tion right back into main­stream Bri­tish pol­i­tics

In­tra-UK sol­i­dar­ity is much stronger among or­di­nary Labour vot­ers in Eng­land than among Con­ser­va­tives. What that would mean for a pos­si­ble Labour gov­ern­ment aris­ing from Brexit re­mains to be seen: could it out­weigh or counter-bal­ance the Labour lead­er­ship’s sym­pa­thy for Ir­ish na­tion­al­ism? Over­all non-Con­ser­va­tive vot­ers in Eng­land sup­port the UK’s union much more than Tory-Brexit ones.

That union would prob­a­bly have more chance of sur­vival, re­newal or civilised vol­un­tary dis­in­te­gra­tion if Brexit is softer or re­versed in a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum.

This sur­vey bears out the view of com­men­ta­tors who say the end of the UK is more likely to come from the se­ces­sion of an Eng­land no longer pre­pared to pay the po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic price of union than from Scot­tish (or North­ern Ir­ish) vot­ers who still have other op­tions.

The Brexit con­vul­sion brings the Ir­ish ques­tion right back into main­stream Bri­tish pol­i­tics more in­tru­sively even than dur­ing the North­ern Ire­land Trou­bles cul­mi­nat­ing in the 1998 Belfast Agree­ment. One has to go back 100 years to the De­cem­ber 14th, 1918, gen­eral elec­tion won by union­ists and Sinn Féin in Ire­land to find it so prom­i­nent – and re­sented.

Lloyd Ge­orge is widely re­spected in the UK for hav­ing elim­i­nated Ire­land from in­ter­nal Bri­tish pol­i­tics by the 1920 par­ti­tion and the 1921 Ir­ish Treaty. Now that it is back, can one imag­ine fu­ture red buses go­ing around Eng­land af­ter the eco­nomic shock of a hard Brexit with the slo­gan: “We send NI £204 mil­lion a week. Let’s fund our NHS in­stead. Vote Leave”?

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