Theresa May misconstrues the Union as an English commonwealth. Instead, the best hope for “these islands” is to weather the storms of Brexit together

Theresa May’s tour of the devolved territories ( I wish we had a better collective noun) turned out to be a  jaw- droppingly empty gesture, quite apart from the inevitable omission of Belfast. Her semi-clandestine meeting with Nicola Sturgeon in a Glasgow hotel yesterday was a  stiff little ritual to confirm that Article 50 was being triggered today on behalf of the whole UK, Scotland naturally included. There was no pretence at accommodating the SNP.  Indeed there may even be a hardening of the Union position. Reports that May would be offering Holyrood extra powers emerging from Brexit turned out to be false.  As Holyrood meets today to  vote formally to ask for a second independence referendum, the FT (£)  reports that UK government are actually  toughening their conditions for agreeing to Indy ref2 when the time is right.

Mrs May and Conservative colleagues have ruled out another referendum until the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU is in place. They have also raised the prospect of other tough new preconditions, possibly including cross-party support in the Scottish parliament.

Nicola Sturgeon put a brave face on the meeting, pretending to believe that the UK and Scottish parliament’s timetable for a referendum were in synch. But this is highly speculative. And who doubts that the UK government will stall as long as possible – until well into the next decade, if they can get away with it?

May’s handling of the future of the Union amid the Brexit upheaval is all of a piece with her style of government.  Just to cope with the job, the prime minister needs to feel she’s absolutely in charge. To stay in charge she has to find pared down, simple messages.   She says she wants the UK to be ‘more united’  but makes no attempt  to answer the basic criticism that  her party and her government have done so much to divide it.   She prefers to take a gamble rather than get tangled up in too much complexity. This could be a problem as Brexit is complexity itself.   So far she’s keeping her head and seems confident. Many people wonder if it’ll stay that way.

Policy is driven by the needs of  management of the Conservative party, the party of England. Only then comes parliamentary sovereignty that the Leave campaign fought for but in practice she resists, in order to feel in control herself. She is  aware of the need to reference devolution by queenly visits but so far has shown no appreciation of how it has already changed  the British constitution. Her awareness of Ireland north and south is unlikely to be more sophisticated.   As a politician who has spent her entire life on or  near the M4 corridor, she is a classic specimen of the Westminster bubble who seems to have no real concept of life beyond. Six years as Home Secretary did nothing to soften her  centralising tendency;  the prime issues of immigration and national security are not devolved .

On the theme of  the English nationalism’s apparent indifference to the survival of the  Union flagged up by Mick from my Welsh colleague Richard Wynne Jones, Paul Goodman the editor of the influential website ConservativeHome writes seminally in the Irish Times.

Two in three of those Conservative Party members are sanguine about the end of the union. And more than one in four seem happy for it to happen.

That a party who very name contains a commitment to the union has so large a soft underbelly of English nationalism may surprise some. But not, I suspect, many people in Ireland. To them, Brexit means the English putting what they see as their own interests ahead of everyone else’s.

Either way, Brexit means change not just for the UK, but for the totality of these islands. There will be many different views of how it will work out.

The first is distinctly Anglocentric. The British economy booms as taxes and regulation are cut. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, forces a second referendum on Scottish independence, loses it, and sees the SNP decline in the aftermath, with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson leading an increasingly confident Scottish opposition. Northern Ireland stays in the union. British prime minister Theresa May wins the 2020 general election by a landslide.

In this scenario, modern Ireland’s self-image as a European country is too deeply set to see it leave the EU. But its membership becomes an unhappy one, as Dublin and Brussels snipe at each other over tax, Irish taxpayers grumble over their contribution and there is unhappy comparison between Britain’s free-floating future and Ireland’s prospects chained to a low-growth zone.

The second sees the break-up of Britain. There is no deal with the EU, and barriers go up – tariff and non-tariff. Investment into Britain stalls and companies flee. Recession follows. Scotland votes for independence. May’s government collapses in consequence, and a new centrist coalition emerges..

his shrunken Britain scarcely includes Northern Ireland. First, the new “frictionless” Border with the Republic turned out to mean a great deal of friction indeed. There is no revival of terrorist violence, but plenty of democratic protest. In the wake of Scotland’s departure from the union, Northern Ireland is left as a token member only, its government shared uneasily between London, Dublin and its own people. Meanwhile, the Republic prospers.

 These are stark contrasts, and what will happen probably lies between these two extremes. For example, Brexit could turn out to go swimmingly for most of Britain, but stickily for Northern Ireland, since the establishment of the Border as a new international frontier seems inseparable from border customs checks. Such a development could, over the medium term, cause some pro-union voters to look more sympathetically at future British EU membership and even perhaps at Irish unity. There variations seem endless.

But all those who want to avoid the deterioration of British-Irish relations after a long period of slow improvement will draw some specific conclusions.

The main one will be about institutional arrangements between Britain and Ireland. The blunt truth is that much of the former is orientated towards one big city, London, from which the rest of the country can feel a very long way away indeed. The capital may have voted in a different way to the provinces on Brexit, but it shares a similar sense of distance from Wales and Scotland, let alone Northern Ireland – and Ireland as a whole. This is not going to change any time soon.

It is deeply unfashionable to suggest that politicians should take the lead about anything, anywhere. But the fact remains that the mechanisms of Anglo-Irish relations are in the hands of the politicians – the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which links the two governments; the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which brings together politicians from throughout the islands; and, above all perhaps, the British-Irish Council, at which the heads of Britain’s devolved administrations sit on the same basis as the prime minister and the Taoiseach. In the wake of article 50 being implemented and the Brexit talks beginning, the British government needs to start giving the conference and the council some real priority.

Perhaps the latter’s heads of government should meet more frequently, to probe the economic and political unknowns that are consequences of Brexit, and to try to chart a way forward.

The strains on this co-operative structure will become even more testing if Scotland moves towards a second referendum on independence. But its survival and development are now an imperative. We are moving from a world in which the relationship between Britain and Ireland was contained within a common Europe-wide structure. Both countries and all parts of these islands urgently need a replacement.

 

I agree with him warmly.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London