Brexit: Trouble with the Unions – a modest proposal

No, not the trials of Southern Rail or the internal strife of Unite, not today. Maybe some of that another time, but today is about the difficulties of leaving the European Union and the consequences for the Union of the United Kingdom.

Most people who read my stuff know very well that I think leaving the European Union at all as a massive act of self-harm perpetrated upon the UK. Generally, in society the state seeks to protect those who seek to self-harm from themselves. While I would much prefer to see a situation where the country was persuaded to change its mind, I recognise this may not happen of just be too difficult for some of the woeful specimens running British politics right now.

If we must discuss the options for leaving there are two clear issues that affect not only leaving the EU but the future of the United Kingdom as a viable state outside the EU. The proposals favoured by The Queen of Wishful Thinking are divisive and will ultimately lead to the further disintegration of the UK – if not in the next decade, surely in time. We need to be a lot more creative – and we could be, with political will.

The are the status of Scotland and the rather different but equally critical issues for Northern Ireland can be ignored by the UK Government – but they shouldn’t be. Both the peoples of Scotland and Northern Ireland -as well as all but a few of the population of Gibraltar – voted in the EU Referendum to remain within of the European Union. They did so by substantially larger majorities than either England, Wales or the UK as a whole voted to leave. Not surprisingly those Governments feel they have a mandate from their people to remain – so why shouldn’t they?

The UK is the sovereign nation – so all in or all out, right?

This is the principle argument – in fact just about the only argument – of those who would drag Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar out of the EU against the will of their peoples. It is also rubbish. The whole of the UK has NEVER been within the European Union. If that is the case there is no reason why Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar cannot remain in the European Union and remain part of the United Kingdom should they so wish.

So if a separate status is possible for the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, enabling them to remain outside of the European Union yet be self-governing elements of the United Kingdom then why is the inverse not possible for Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Well, those places are different, are they not?

Indeed the ‘British Islands’ are different – in one key way. They have long been geographic loopholes. Handy little off-shore tax havens accessible to the plebs as holiday destinations, but no more than that. Each with its own tin pot jurisdiction, ideal for the wealthy to shelter their affairs in dubious corporations away from the scrutiny of the mainland but considerably more convenient and altogether less ‘other’ than some dot in the Caribbean. Ideal Little Englands without the inconveniences of modern English.

That vision of the Tory English Nationalists emerging from the fog of the Referendum for a Britain of low corporate taxation, low regulation and almost illegal trades unions outside of the Single Market and Customs Union should surprise anyone is really the only surprising thing about it. For what other alternative is there to offer British business? Since the late 70s Britain has attracted inward investment because of its language and its EU membership. Something has to replace that – and Europe’s Hong Kong or Singapore, while being unpalatable to many and very definitely not what people were asked to vote for, at least, close to coherent. London is set to shift alignment with the business environments of Paris, Frankfurt and Milan to model developed by Douglas, St Helier and St Peter Port.

Another country?

The North of Ireland saw its 30-year era of intermittent civil war come to an end with the de-facto removal of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, retaining its separate laws and restoring its devolved government. It is hard to see how a UK seeking to control its migration and protect its borders can do so on that basis. This is so much against the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland and carries so many risks that even the most bone headed Leaver must see the need for a distinct and different solution for a distinct and different place. Another country with other traditions and whose local economy looks toward Dublin inevitably more than it looks to Liverpool. If border security is a real issue for the UK then it is far more logical to demarcate a natural and defensible border – the North Channel, than it is to try to secure the arbitrary meanderings across the fields of Fermanagh. It is entirely logical to create, in these negotiations, a special status for the North of Ireland within the Single Market and Customs Union.

The people of Scotland, a sovereign state for many centuries, voted by a margin somewhat greater than that in the EU referendum, to remain part of the UK and by an even larger margin to Remain in the EU. Neither of these referenda were the most significant in Scotland’s recent voting history. The one that really mattered was the 1988 plebiscite that re-established not only the Parliament in Edinburgh after 300 years but the sovereignty of the Scottish people over their governance and future direction. Now to ignore the implications of the EU referendum result would be folly for anyone who really believes that the current UK is a viable entity in the future. So Scotland should also remain at the very least in the Single Market and the Customs Union – and why not?

Which border can you really protect?

Well, what about the border? Well what about it? If England and Wales wish to withdraw and align themselves with the Isle of Man then why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t this be a solution. Now the reality of border protection is that the approximately 80 mile border between England and Scotland is a great deal easier to protect than the complicated and difficult Scottish coastline. There are limited crossing points, a vast forest, some awkward if not terribly high mountains, some rivers and not that many roads – oh and a large military firing range, just in case any tiresome migrants make it over the Cheviot. UK Citizens would have free passage and freedom of movement would have its limits. All that border business wouldn’t hurt places like Carlisle or Berwick one bit – in fact they could expect something of a boom.

It might sound absurd and another step on the road to independence, but as far as trading arrangements go it Scotland would have a great deal, UK firms could have open options and the people of Scotland get what they voted for, as do England, Wales and Northern Ireland – oh and Gibraltar which could continue to co-exist happily with their neighbours as EU citizens., .

To take things a step further, why should the UK withdraw? Why not simply grant the franchise to the Scots and Northern Irish with the UK vote reduced on the weighted majority principle, giving Scotland an influence over the Single Market and Northern Ireland a voice along with its southern neighbours over matters of mutual interest. Maybe England and Wales could ‘opt in’ to certain areas of policy – like co-operation over crime and justice to ensure that England and Wales don’t become the preferred domicile of Europe’s fugitives from justice the icing on the cake of which would be the ability of individuals to ‘opt in’ to European citizenship.

A more relaxed UK, maybe?

The point here is that the United Kingdom is not a unitary state – it has never been so. Our component parts are very different in size, tradition, governance, law and culture. We are not a single country – we are three legally and four and more culturally. Northern Ireland cost the UK and Ireland lives and treasure – over a place with the population of Hampshire that few English ever visit. Scotland has a population just over half that of London. The truth is it matters little to England, who knows, it might just work, and if it is good enough for Guernsey why not?

A different arrangement might be beyond the imagination of the politicians and their civil servants – but would this really be worse for democracy and social cohesion than the kind of damaging and divisive divorce from the EU being set out today that drags ‘the children’ into custody regardless of their wishes or best interests. If the UK is to have a future, then people need to think creatively about how that future might recognise differences and heal divisions.

And if all that seems daft, it is no more stupid to me than leaving the EU in the first place.

JH. 17.1.17