Try as I might I’m unable to understand the appeal of Brexit for the UK, never mind Ireland north or south. I say “understand “deliberately rather than “appreciate”, as it is possible to see where people are coming from even if you don’t join them on the journey.
Therefore I’m often a humble passenger on Fintan O’Toole’s train of thought. The greatly admired Fintan is among the most sophisticated critics of Brexit on either island from the high vantage point of a liberal Irishman who is emotionally reconciled to Britain while affirming the historic validity of nationalist Ireland’s independence struggle. The EU gave Ireland confidence as a nation among others rather than languishing in the shadow of Britain. For all the difficulties since the economic crisis a decade ago, this holds good today.
Here an anthology of his Brexit articles, and very splendid it is too. Through a well honed Irish prism full of insights about the nature of political identity, O’Toole sees in Brexit more clearly than many inside the Westminster bubble, the threat to the UK’s survival as a union state which Brexit did not create but has significantly increased.
As the driver for Brexit, he rightly identifies the always latent but now re-emerging English nationalism that fuelled the demand for Empire when “England” was a synonym for the UK. Today the split between English nationalists, – the Leaver majority – and Remainers couldn’t be more fundamental. The Leavers see Brexit as rescuing Britain from national decline and subservience to a burgeoning European super-state whose encroachment in various forms Britain fought for centuries to resist. In their view Franco-German domination favours keeping up the momentum of relentless EU integration. Today in the EU there may be a crisis over immigration, but somehow, this crisis like all the others will be overcome.
The reaction to this jaundiced view harks back more to the gallant little England of the merchant adventurers of the 16th and 17th centuries rather than the imperial Britain of the 19th and early 20th. There may be a desire to reinvigorate old empire trading relationships which were brutally diminished by Britain on joining the EEC, but no real nostalgia for imperial dominion.
The Remainers believe the opposite, that the Leavers are indulging the fantasy of a Britain which if it ever fully existed cannot be revived in a world which is part globalising and part evolving into new multipolar groupings. In that world a lonely UK will be a disregarded minnow. It is a split as fundamental as Whigs versus Tory Jacobites in the 17th century and free trade liberals versus imperial protection in the early twentieth. Like them it cuts across party with as yet unpredictable political consequences.
O’Toole far from idealises the EU, not least over how it operated during the Great Crash and imposed the bailout on Ireland; nor does he over-sentimentalise the movement for Irish independence when he castigates the UK for discounting with its traditional condescension – as he sees it- the impact of Brexit on Ireland north and south. All the same, he dismisses the Brexit, English Conservative case too readily. Brexit rests on more than neuralgia. The English Tory right are in a bind of contradiction as they ignore the destablising effects of their view of Brexit on Theresa May’s “precious, precious Union.” But they have other arguments that have to be adequately addressed.
With the passage into law last week of the EU Withdrawal Act, cabinet splits and chaotic Brexit negotiations have produced one small compensation. The free market Conservatives have become bolder in making their case.
Allister Heath the deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, a passionate Brexiteer, makes their case for them today. His analysis rides on the back of manoeuvres for the May succession but does not depend on them. He is scathing about the handling of the Brexit negotiations.
The drift, the lack of vision, the refusal to lead, to sell, to argue and to convince: all have taken a toll on our society and economy. Many free-market Tories now fear that the party’s libertarian tradition is nearing extinction, replaced by an uber-paternalistic approach to what ought to be private lifestyle choices. Declinism is back, and the country is engulfed in a low level culture war which threatens to tear apart the Tory blue-collar-middle class coalition.
Until now, such musings, ever more frequent on Planet Tory, ended in the same way: yes, things are bad, but who is there, when the day comes, to rescue the Party? The answer was always the same: it’s hopeless. Yes, there are the obvious names, some of which have been badly damaged by the chaos of the past few years. But everybody concluded that there was no game-changing candidate whom the public would see as fresh and “untainted”, who was a Cabinet member and who could be trusted on Brexit. I have been witness to a number of such discussions, and those involved – MPs, donors, supporters – always left depressed.
Yet everything has changed. When the question is now asked, one name keeps propping up: Sajid Javid, who has emerged as the front-runner for many Brexiteers and Thatcherites.
It’s not just Javid who has resuscitated his career. Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, has done her reputation with the party’s Thatcherite wing a world of good with her brilliant speech on Monday. Speaking to the London School of Economics, she delivered the most pro-liberty and pro-capitalist speech I have heard from a senior Tory in years.
t was a radical counter-cultural blast, a demolition of the intellectually bankrupt state of Tory thinking: she called for a relaxation of planning laws, defended the right of restaurants to serve medium rare meat and slammed the government’s obsession with banning everything. She drew equally on popular culture – there was a paragraph on the burger chain Bleecker, and another on the 1980s classic Gremlins movie – and high theory, quoting FA Hayek and Lionel Robbins. Her case for free-markets was cogent: Britain is a raucous and rowdy country, and our future lies in cultivating this maverick spirit, a key comparative advantage in an entrepreneurial world. “Truly free enterprise”, she argues, cuts prices, creates growth and jobs, “breaks down monopolies, hierarchies and outdated practices… destroys barriers, and erodes inequality.” Amen to that.
The elevation of the obscure Ms Truss will raise eyebrows. The fate of Amber Rudd shows that it takes more than a couple of feisty speeches to make a successful minister. The main point to concentrate on here though, is the ideological struggle that is the response not only to Brexit but continuing relative austerity and painfully slow growth. At the heart of it is the strong belief that the next big move of the European project, to strengthen the eurozone, is a barrier to growth and economic freedom outside Germany and France.
It is a case that has to be taken seriously.
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