James Kirkup

Brexit is making Tories unforgivably careless about the union

Brexit is making Tories unforgivably careless about the union
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On Saturday, a car bomb went off in the UK. In Londonderry, Northern Ireland, to be exact. It was the latest in a long, long list of terrorist-related incidents in Northern Ireland, many of them carried out by men who wish to unite the island of Ireland in one state.

Today, the European Commission stated, more bluntly than it ever has before, that Britain leaving the EU without a deal will mean a hard border between the EU (Ireland) and the UK (Northern Ireland). That means checkpoints and men in uniform policing the physical division of the island of Ireland. Let us, if such a thing is possible, set aside questions of whether that hard border is truly inevitable in a no-deal exit. Let us also set aside any questions of blame for the prospect of that hard border. Just ponder those opening facts. Could we be a few months away from events that might significantly worsen Northern Ireland’s current experience of terrorism? Perhaps you think that’s just Project Fear, more overhyped nonsense from desperate Remainers. Perhaps you think “of course no-one wants a return to violence but I don’t think that will happen.”

If so, I’d probably disagree, but I’d accept that point as an arguable one. At least taking that view of the issues acknowledges that terrorism in UK is a bad thing. Sadly not everyone seems to think that.  

Today I was at conference organised by the very good UK in a Changing Europe project. It brings academic expertise to bear on Brexit issues, under the direction of professor Anand Menon, whose Question Time appearance last week confirms he is fast becoming to Brexit policy what Sir John Curtice is to psephology. The conference was to publish a collection of short essays exploring aspects of public opinion around Brexit, essays that all deserve to be read closely by anyone who makes a living dealing with (or just talking about) Brexit and its causes. I may well explore some of those in due course, but that car bomb and that Commission statement make one essay in that report especially timely and, frankly, chilling.

That chapter is about England, and so, of course, it has been written by academics based in other parts of the UK (mainly at Edinburgh university) mainly because England and Englishness are often more interesting to people who aren’t English than people who are. It summarises the findings of polling last year which asked people the following question:

Some have suggested that leaving the EU might present challenges to the UK. One of these is the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland. If this happens would you say that:

It was worth it to take back control

Leaving the EU was not worth jeopardising the peace process

(Note that bit in bold: this question rests on the premise that the peace process does indeed “unravel”.)

And the results? 47 per cent of English adults surveyed agreed that it would be “worth it” in order to leave the EU. Among those who voted Leave in 2016, that figure was 88 per cent. For those who voted Conservative in 2017, the figure was 77 per cent. Meanwhile, just over 50 per cent in England said Scottish independence is worth ‘risking’ to achieve Brexit.

A lot of things about the Brexit story are surprising and troubling. Brexit has made the extraordinary mundane; amazing things happen every day, so people don’t react they way they used to. And the topic is so big and complicated that naturally, aspects of it get missed or downplayed.

But to me, a small-u unionist who used to make a living writing about the Union (for a Scottish readership), it remains staggering that political conversation at Westminster barely remarks on this aspect of the Northern Irish conundrum. In all the endless hours of banging on about backstops, border technology and the role of the DUP, there is almost no mention of the fact that the English are (at best) careless to the future of the Union, including an overwhelming majority of English Conservatives. Why, for goodness’ sake, are supposed unionists not shouting from the rooftops about this, losing sleep over it, doing something about it?

A generation ago, Northern Ireland’s troubles were killing British nationals in scores, killing children on the British mainland, killing British soldiers here and there. Today, millions of English voters say they don’t much care if we return to that killing, just so long as it permits the delivery of a policy largely conceived and promoted by members of the Conservative and Unionist Party. How did we get here? How? And why is the response to this at Westminster, especially among members of that Conservative and Unionist Party, at best a resigned shrug at best and at worst complete indifference?

Theresa May’s political career seems unlikely to last the year, but there are among her Conservative and Unionist Party colleagues a great many who fancy themselves a future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some of them think that their best path to that office leads through the wreckage of a No Deal Brexit; that would be an extraordinary way to demonstrate statesmanship, but the political calculation may still be correct and the leadership of what remains of the Conservative and Unionist Party might well, in such circumstances, fall to an advocate of the hardest Brexit. Alternatively, the job could go to Jeremy Corbyn.

Such are the times we live in. I have nothing to say about who will or should follow Theresa May, but I politely suggest that anyone who dreams of leading this country should either be taking much more seriously the defence of that Union from English disregard, Scottish nationalism, and Republican terrorism, or be preparing to answer to posterity for its loss.