Notes on Brexit

Far too much has happened in the United Kingdom in the last two weeks for any kind of comprehensive analysis in just one post. Britain may have voted for a recession (it’s much to early to say one way or another); the majority party has suspended its governing for the summer; the main opposition has torn itself apart; there has been an astonishing increase in the number of hate crimes—and those are just the top highlights. Below are some reflections on three aspects of this political earthquake and its aftershocks.

Most Ignored Important Story: Northern Ireland
Perhaps the best immediate argument for Irish unification is the almost complete lack of discussion about the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland, both during and after the referendum campaign. The peace agreement that ended a three-decade-long low-level civil war that killed more than 3500 and injured over 40,000 is in jeopardy as a result of the referendum result, and no one in Westminster seems to care. This is extraordinary. At least Dublin pays attention to what happens in the north—London couldn’t be less interested, based on the discussions (or lack thereof) in the last two weeks.

There are two primary problem areas: the Common Travel Area (CTA) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The CTA and the lack of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic are crucial for the economy and political stability of the island of Ireland. There is no way to square this with ending free movement of labor between the UK and the EU27. If the UK keeps the current arrangement, in which case limitations on the movement of people in the EU exist only in law but not in fact, this would eventually be shown to be a massive betrayal of the anti-immigration Leave vote. If it strikes an EEA-type deal that retains free movement, the Leavers will feel similarly betrayed (albeit perhaps more obviously and immediately). Ending free movement and erecting a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will be both a significant practical challenge—it will require many checkpoints, hundreds of kilometers of fence, and possibly thousands of agents from the already overstretched UK Border Agency (UKBA)—as well as a blow to the peace process. Few plausible actions of the British government would be likely to produce as much nationalist anger as the restoration of a firm, physical barrier and the presence of UKBA agents or British troops in Northern Ireland.

The ECHR underpins the Good Friday Agreement, which is the basis for the constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland and was overwhelmingly approved in referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Conservatives have complained about the allegedly onerous restrictions of the ECHR for years, and leaving the European Union allows them an opportunity to depart from it. EU members have to be signatories to the ECHR even though they are, despite what the British tabloids say, separate organizations. Leaving the ECHR, as Theresa May has said she would like to, would effectively abrogate the Good Friday Agreement, the basis of peace since 1998. Michael Gove has gone a step further and attacked the Agreement in its entirety. Put briefly, these cavalier and chauvinist stances put the peace at risk. Yet only Gove’s arrogant stupidity has been raised at all, and that only briefly.

There are no good solutions to this problem (this will be a recurring theme), but it is shameful that the British government and media have not seriously engaged with it since the referendum. After almost 20 years of peace, the memories of street battles, assassinations, and bombings in London and Manchester seem to have faded sufficiently for Westminster to ignore Northern Ireland. Forgetting, in this case, is a serious mistake.

Harmonizing Porcine Aviation Rules
As if the Leave campaign hadn’t already spread enough bullshit around the British countryside to raise all the hops and barley needed for the nation’s real ale consumption, Leavers and Remainers have continued to add to the heaping pile of mendacity since the result has been announced. The most brazen example of this behavior has been the Leavers immediately denying that they had made a series if impossible, implausible, false, and contradictory promises. But almost as damaging as this for public confidence has been the attempt by politicians from the Tory and Labour parties to pretend that some deal can be struck that limits the free movement of labor while remaining in the EU or EEA.

If Britain wants to stay in the single market, this is not a negotiable point. How could it be possible to have a single market without free movement of one of the mobile factors of production? Such an agreement would violate of much that the European Union has stood for in terms of economic integration, and it would encourage other nations to try a referendum as well in hope of getting a similarly sweet deal. At that point, the EU could break down very quickly and become little more than a customs union with a only a common external tariff and shared industry standards. The prospect of reaching an agreement on those terms is as likely as the next Prime Minister agreeing to harmonize Britain’s porcine aviation rules.

Stick or Twist, Labour is in an Awful Mess
Jeremy Corbyn may or may not be a good leader of the Labour Party or a plausible Prime Minister. I had thought for a while that he was tolerable on the first count and somewhat inadequate on the second. This was despite my sympathy with many of his views and generally positive image of him—he seems to not have to pretend to be a regular guy and he’s an Arsenal supporter, both of which are very admirable traits. Labour has now torn itself apart along a fairly new axis in political life: a vast divide between its elected leadership and its members. This may be entirely new in British political history. Normally parties are torn asunder by ideology or personality, and while those elements are at play here, I cannot recall an instance in which the MPs and the members have been engaged in this scale of a struggle.

Given the degree of vitriol on the part of some members, just a couple of weeks after an MP was murdered, I would not blame centrist and soft left MPs for seriously considering their future in the party. How can a split of this kind be resolved? More than two-thirds of the MPs have stated that they have no confidence in Corbyn as leader, but he could well win a members’ vote. Curiously, Labour is still in the low 30s in most opinion polls; maybe most people don’t pay as much attention to the day-to-day chaos of Westminster as they should/weirdos like I do (delete as appropriate). But this is a brilliant moment—or should have been—for the Labour party. The Tories are in chaos, the Leavers are starting to be exposed as frauds, and there is quite obviously a significant strain of resentment for centrist politics that could be exploited by a radical alternative. Unfortunately, that resentment could also be exploited by the far right, which is generally the direction in which it has tended recently (and, as historical data show, it has done in the past). Labour’s current mess is letting the government, such as it is, off the hook and preventing a cohesive alternative Brexit or re-entry campaign from coming together. It is also relieving any pressure for a snap general election and making Labour’s prospects in such a contest distinctly poorer.

There are no good routes out of this situation. Someone has to back down, and neither side looks like doing it at this point. Politically, it would probably be easiest if Corbyn were removed and a miraculous landslide produced a consensus candidate, but that does not look likely. No such candidate has yet emerged, and the membership don’t seem likely to turn on Corbyn at this point. The alternatives are limping on with a divided party and a straight break between a large majority of the MPs and the membership, in which the former go off to start their own party. The rebels have miscalculated badly in their timing, and now that the struggle for control of the party has broken back out into the open it is unlikely to end in a state that resembles harmony.