Time to look past this ‘dodgy’ Brexit to the material reality of how politics actually works

One of the remarkable things about Friday’s conclusion to the Phase 1 talks is just how happy everyone seems to have been. Either some or all parties are going to be disappointed as we go forward, or we are on for the blandest version of what Guido used to call a non-Brexit.

What actually  happened is that the Real British position was finally brought to the surface, after months of wild propagandising in favour of a ‘hard Brexit’, which in retrospect looks a bit like a rear gunner campaign to keep so-called Remoaners both angry and in check.

Gaby Hinsliff has one of the most plausible explanations for why we are where we think we are…

The problem is that clarity is the one thing May dare not provide, because the minute anything is illuminated then it’s a target for someone. Her best hope is generating a sort of permanently confused twilight in which nobody (including her own cabinet, which still hadn’t formally agreed the precise form Brexit should take even as the EU agreed we had made significant progress towards it) is entirely sure what’s going on, and therefore can’t be certain yet that they hate it.

So nothing is agreed until everyone finds out exactly what it is that they’re supposed to be agreeing, at which point it is still perfectly possible that nobody will agree to any of it. But the aim is to push the inevitable moment of truth – the point where both leavers and remainers realise exactly what’s going to happen, and someone goes ballistic – as far down the road as possible.

This is of course the sort of deliberate obfuscation that gives politics a bad name; by turns maddening and baffling, and permanently teetering on the edge of rank dishonesty. But just occasionally, it is also the only thing that makes politics work at all. Labour knows that perfectly well, which is why it has its own version of constructive ambiguity designed to keep both leavers and remainers on board the Corbyn project.

Like when a referendum lands a Parliamentary body with a problem it would never voluntarily have ever landed itself with. Here’s David Davis back in 2002:

David Davis: There is a proper role for referendums in constitutional change, but only if done properly. If it is not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is no longer in the Chamber, said that Clement Attlee—who is, I think, one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s heroes—famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators. We may not always go as far as he did, but what is certain is that pre-legislative referendums of the type the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing are the worst type of all.
Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.

We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.

As for where we find ourselves as Colm McCarthy pointed out in the Sunday Independent at the weekend..

Third-country free trade agreements involve trade barriers, including customs controls. The impossibility of a third-country deal which avoids an Irish border will be uncovered as the negotiations proceed.

Unless the commitments on Ireland contained in last Friday’s Brussels document are to be dropped, the UK is now committed to de facto retention of single market rules and a new customs arrangement tantamount to continued membership. This has not been acknowledged by Brexiteers, the split in the Tory party continues and the eventual outcome remains unclear.

And then Dan O’Brien..

Last Friday’s EU-UK deal contains three contradictory statements which go against the hard logic of interstate commerce in Europe.

It reiterates that the United Kingdom will leave the two invisible infrastructures underpinning Europe’s fully free trade – the customs union and the single market. Yet it also states that there will be no border on this island or in the Irish Sea.

These statements are logically inconsistent. Something will have to give when everything is agreed. Until then, nothing is agreed and nothing can be taken for granted.

The Taoiseach’s heavy PR probably had as much to do with wiping out the domestic troubles of the previous week than any direct need to spin the deal. Now Dublin is re-assured that the Brits are not coming to gut the Irish economy with a lean mean and desperate Brexit (as it certainly looked like they might).

In Britain those like Gerald Warner (who was candid enough during the campaign to suggest that it was probably not in the direct interests of the young to leave matter to old fogies like him), are left, well, grumbling about treason:

Michael Gove, routinely described as one of the most intellectual members of the Conservative Cabinet proclaimed: “Theresa May has won.” Do these Tories, celebrating abject surrender, have no intimation of the reaction of mainstream Britain?

We have just seen the Chancellor struggling to balance a Budget yet now the Government has signed up to throwing £39bn (chosen because it sounds less than £40bn, though the eventual bill will be much more) at the spendthrift kleptocracy in Brussels.

Gove’s position – that he has been defeated by Mrs May’s pragmatism – sounds like a another form of pragmatism of its own: “Aw well, I tried but I was bested by my better and cleverer colleague, the Prime Minister”. A handy a way to unhook himself from his own extreme Brexit position, perhaps?

The real hard Brexiteers are fuming, apparently. But most of them are either retired (Lord Lawson), or busted (UKIP). Their positions were never (as some of our own hurlers on the ditch now misleadingly suggest) stated as red lines for the UK government.

Much of the confusion, of course, is genuine. As Stephen Bush outlines on last week’s New Statesman podcast (7.37 mins in) there are lots of reasons why governments should not hold a referendum if they are not in favour of the change proposition.

He also makes the point that trying to match an outcome to these Brexit negotiations to a verdict that remains conflicted and nebulous probably means that the only equitable result that satisfies the larges number of folk will have to be a moderate one.

As for the DUP, courtesy of their old rivals in Sinn Fein who brought the shutters down on Stormont, they were Northern Ireland’s only players on the pitch.

On Saturday, Martina Devlin noted how “the DUP was left in a position where it was free to speak as though its views represented the entire population of Northern Ireland”…

Sinn Fein has to take responsibility for this situation: it allowed itself to be sidelined during Brexit negotiations. Conspicuous by absence from the field has been Michelle O’Neill – rendered irrelevant. Sinn Fein’s stance gave the DUP free reign to persue its own narrow interests rather than the welfare of the region.

Theresa May was making and recieving phone calls during negotiations with Ms Foster rather than Gerry Adams or Ms O’Neill. Ot was left to the Dublin government to represent the nationalist and – unusually – the moderate unionist communities in the north.

A new Sinn Fein leadership is expected early next year, and you can but hope the party will reboot and abandon outdated policies such as Westminster abstentionism. That ought to have been a tactic – instead it solidified into a strategy. Tactics are intended to be changed asthe need arises.

Sinn Fein should have recognised that a power shift happened when those 10 DUP Westminster politicians cut a deal to prop up a wobbly Conservative government. A momentous set of implications arose because of Brexit, but Sinn Fein operated on a business-as-usual footing.

The general analysis of the DUP performance has been niggardly and begrudging. [No change there then? – Ed] Their actual performance can only be tested at the very end of this process.

But for a benchmark, that joint letter from Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster on 10th August 2016 might serve as good a measure as any (hint: unsurprisingly it does not describe a hard Brexit).

From a material point of view the party with only a minority position, has succeeded in busting Northern Ireland out of the EU, helping to break a potential rival to power (in both the UKIP and potentially, the TUV) whilst doing the minimum damage to the NI economy and cross border commerce.

More importantly, it has also, as John O’Dowd perceptively noted on the Sunday Politics show at the weekend, affected the direction of travel by deepening British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. That may not be a cause for celebrations for many of us, but it is long past time that its local rivals stopped underestimating them.

If this goes through without ruckles in the new year don’t expect the DUP’s influence to disappear immediately. Whilst the hung parliament continues (and it could go full term this time) the DUP will be needed. A fact that a more confident Irish Republican party would be keen to crack on to exploit that situation on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

England’s difficulty after all, has always (up to now) be Ireland’s opportunity…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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