The meaning of Theresa May’s one legitimate Red Line

by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies

22 March 2019

Of all Theresa May’s red lines, one and only one is legitimately termed “Red”: the one that prohibits any Brexit that divides the United Kingdom. It is Red as it is a vital national interest, indeed the foremost of all national interests. Anything that promotes the break-up of the country might, in ordinary conditions, be seen as treasonous, a term that should not be thrown around lightly, nor also ceded to the spinners of romantic fairy tales.

It is a red line that prohibits the wishes of the hard Brexiters. It is a red line that prohibits many of the other, alleged red lines. And it is a red line that prohibits a critical portion of Mrs May’s own policies.

Too often, Mrs May has talked of this red line as if she saw only a technical prohibition in it: that Brexit must not draw any hard dividing line that would directly sunder the peace and integrity of the United Kingdom, neither in the Irish Sea nor along the intra-Irish border. That is a diluted understanding of the red line. It misses the major part of its meaning.

The major part of it is that no Brexit terms are admissible that would bring a serious weakening of the bonds of Union in the United Kingdom. Brexit terms are particularly inadmissible if they would weaken the bonds of Union in the two places where the Union is vulnerable: in Northern Ireland and in Scotland.

The meaning of this is stark. 1. Any form of Brexit should be avoided, as it necessarily damages the sentiment that holds together the UK. 2. Absolutely no Brexit can be allowed that sunders either the Single Market or the Customs Union.

1. That any form of Brexit veers across the red line into the unacceptable range:

Any Brexit withdraws Scotland and Northern Ireland, against their strongly expressed will, from the EU. And puts the two Irelands on opposite sides of EU membership. There is no way to do this without attenuating the sentimental bonds of Union with England, the bonds of the moral sentiment that — as the philosophers and divines of the Scottish Enlightenment explained — constitute the indispensable foundation in human nature for the social Union, the cornerstone of the social contract.

The only Brexit that steers fully clear of the red line — the only Brexit that does not weaken the cohesion of the UK — is a Brexit that is canceled. Loyalty to the UK entails disloyalty to Brexit.

2. That a Brexit without the Customs Union and Single Market is clearly unacceptable:

Sundering the Customs Union leaves a hard border dividing Ireland, with inevitable consequences. Sundering the Single Market leaves Scotland on the wrong side of the boundary line of its vital European market. Either one does plain, irremediable damage to the continued Union of the UK. It crosses the red line. It is ruled out by Mrs May’s one valid red line, taken seriously.

What this means is of the utmost importance for the future of the UK. It means that any deal, including Mrs May’s, that falls short of retaining membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, is a deal that must be ruled out by the red line.

The defense of the Realm is the first duty of Government. So said Mr Churchill in the 1930s. Most people laughed him off, preferring the daily safety of their routines. A terrible cost ended up being paid in war, the Empire frayed beyond repair, for the failure to heed his point before going over the cliff.

Today the Realm is again at risk, its remaining Union bound to be frayed if it goes over the cliff. Its defense is again the first duty of Government.

As a political scientist, I predict that the UK will go over the cliff. As a person, I hope it will not.

Ira Straus studied at Oxford under Hedley Bull and under Adam Watson CMG in Charlottesville.