Article Published February 26th, 2021
The UK’s politics failed in the face of Brexit for a mixture of reasons. There were three main causes. First, the ideology and dishonesty at the heart of the pro-Brexiters’ campaigning was, and remains, central. Second, Labour’s opposition to Brexit foundered on internal splits and a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was more ‘Lexiter’ than leader of any remain side – leaving the remain half of UK voters unrepresented. And, third, neither Theresa May nor Boris Johnson as prime minister showed the slightest interest in dealing in any constructive way at all with the fact Scotland and Northern Ireland voted remain to England and Wales’ leave vote.
Today, the UK’s politics is still failing broadly over the same three issues. Boris Johnson chose the hardest of Brexits for the future UK-EU relationship (short of no deal) yet continues to deny or blame the EU for the damaging, costly hard borders that are now in place between the UK and EU, and between Britain and Northern Ireland. Any hopes for a positive reset of EU-UK relations once a deal was done look, for now, faint, with Johnson putting former chief negotiator David Frost in charge of the British side of the extremely complex EU-UK relationship that came into existence on 1st January.
In less than two months, much of the inevitable damage from Brexit has already become clear – from musicians to small businesses to larger firms’ supply chains to fisheries. But where is the opposition to this calculated damage to the UK economy, society and culture?
Keir Starmer’s speech on economics this week, setting out his stall (a little), emphasised how much Labour cared about tackling inequality and also, under him, would welcome and support business ( a very ‘new Labour’ pitch). Yet Starmer then majored on the need to build back better and differently from the Covid crisis with not a mention of Brexit and the major challenge of future EU-UK relations given the hard and basic deal Johnson agreed. Challenged on Brexit on Channel 4 news, he talked vaguely about business and the future. Starmer has nothing to say, it seems, about what EU-UK relations should look like and without that he is stuck in mounting any effective attack on the careless and deep damage that Johnson’s deal is doing.
Starmer’s focus – he insists – is on the next election in 2024. But a politics that puts off engaging with the extraordinary and fundamental rupture Brexit has created with the EU27, and with the deep and wide-ranging self-inflicted damage it is imposing on the economy, society and security, is surely a failing politics. If a vital and core debate is awkwardly ignored because it might not fit with tactics to win power in four years’ time, or might upset some partial group of shallowly understood ‘red wall’ voters, then this is a thin politics concerned with power but not the issues.
Here, it would seem is an opportunity for the LibDems to be the European party, the party of re-join (albeit there’s a problem that the EU is showing little interest in the idea of a UK that wanted to re-join any time in the next decade). But instead, amidst considerable internal party confusion, Ed Davey now talks about getting back into the EU single market and customs union as the way to go. This could at least provide traction in providing an alternative, in debate, to the damage Johnson’s deal is doing. Yet this ‘soft’ Brexit remains very problematic. Becoming a rule-taker across the EU’s trade and regulatory policies with no real voice nor vote is quite a challenging step in democratic terms – and the Tories’ sovereignty ideology has plenty of sound bites on that.
For now, anyway, the LibDems have almost no cut through in debates. Meanwhile, Starmer is so wary of the sovereignty arguments and of talking about Europe at all, that Johnson is currently being allowed to get away with almost no real challenge at all to his up-ending of the British economy through his hard EU trade deal.
This leaves Northern Ireland and Scotland, at the core of the UK’s constitutional strains, essentially alienated from this Tory and Labour politics of European and Brexit denial. Northern Ireland faces both economic costs and benefits of being in the EU’s single market for goods while notionally being in the UK’s recreated single market – albeit with a very tricky and bureaucratic border in the Irish Sea. How the complex politics of that extraordinary fragmentation of the UK market by the UK government plays out is an open question but it has certainly intensified the constitutional debate.
In Scotland, with over 20 polls showing majority support for independence since last June, the widespread damage being done by Johnson’s trade deal with the EU is only too clear. The SNP is the third party at Westminster – and supports Scotland rejoining the EU. In the absence of any serious UK-wide discussion of rejoining the EU, this goal can only be met by independence in the EU – not by any form of constitutional reform.
Both Johnson and Starmer know they have (from their perspective) a Scotland problem. But they both lack effective strategies or pitches on the value of the union. Indeed, the most helpful thing to the UK government right now is the Salmond-Sturgeon stand-off culminating, as it is, just ahead of the May Holyrood elections.
Starmer is focusing on a constitutional commission to buy him time and perhaps even give him policies. Whether Johnson may do something similar, if the SNP wins in May as the polls suggest, is an open question. But the growing no 10 ‘union unit’ speaks both to growing concern and an absence of effective arguments.
Ignoring Europe Cannot Work
But the European elephant in the room will not go away. Whatever constitutional reforms are (or aren’t) proposed, they cannot take away the fact that Brexit has created a fundamental choice for Scotland between the UK union and the European Union. There is no new version of ‘devo max’, as it was labelled in 2014, that can resolve the EU conundrum and choice. This is not about some minor aspect of foreign policy that Scottish voters might accept leaving to Westminster. This is a choice that impacts across the board. And, if it wasn’t clear before, Brexit has made it entirely clear now that EU policy is domestic policy, from migration and free movement to data security to food safety to cross-border supply chains to the environment and climate change.
The Tories, perhaps, will rely on hypocritical arguments about the damage having an EU external border between England and Scotland will do. Maybe Starmer will go this way too. His alternative, short of switching to re-join, is to argue for a much closer relationship with the EU. Whether that took the form of more or less (Swiss-style) rejoining the single market, or rejoining the customs union, it would make for an easier and different UK-EU relationship to the one Johnson has chosen. That would also ease border challenges if Scotland chose independence in the EU, and too it could help a more constructive relationship between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK emerge.
But would an alternative, closer to the EU policy help Starmer win the constitutional reform argument? It’s not obvious. If the UK, under Starmer, was going to be a rule-taker either to EU single market policy or to its trade policy, then Scotland would face the choice of being part of that rule-taking, or of having a seat at the table in the EU, being a part of collective decision-making. What is clear is that it makes no sense to argue for the benefits of some to-be-designed constitutional reform (for which there currently appears to be little appetite) without having a clear European policy. If Labour sticks to European and Brexit denial it will be likely to render any constitutional proposals pointless.
What would be much more constructive would be to consider England-Scotland, or rest of UK-Scotland, relations under different European scenarios: the current hard Brexit one, a closer UK-EU relationship, and rejoining the EU. These scenarios can then be related to Scotland as a part of a radically reformed UK, or as independent in the EU (or perhaps in the European Economic Area). But this would require rational debate about future England-Scotland relations in the context of our wider European relations. And neither the Tories nor Labour are up for doing that either in the constitutional or the European context.
The Tories cannot afford to admit Brexit was wrong. Labour is choosing not to challenge them on that or offer up any European alternative. And while both may play with constitutional reform, neither is yet ready to consider the European dimension of that, let alone what a new England (and Wales perhaps) state would look like and how it would relate to Scotland, to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and to Europe.
The UK’s constitutional tensions are not only about the European Union. But the state of denial of both Tories and Labour on the impact of Brexit and the range of European choices that exist, both for the UK and for Scotland, is a core part of why UK politics is failing. And that political failure will continue to exacerbate constitutional tensions.