On 12 December I wrote a piece recently that described what I considered to be Theresa Mays’ ‘Neville Chamberlain’ moment’. By the end of that week the minority party supporting the Conservative government spoke out on behalf of Northern Ireland to demand changes to what May had agreed in principle. It was a case of 10 MPs taking control of 316 other MPs in a control and supply agreement that makes up a majority of two in a parliament of 350 seats. A single by-election could end that slim majority if the vote went to any opposition party. Thus a party that represents some rather than all of the roughly 1.8 million population of Northern Ireland, indeed no more than 48% measured at last census in 2011 with what was the opposing minority growing faster, but acts as though it is above reproach.
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless it is on the DUP’s plate
They forced amendments on the agreed terms of discussion for the actual agreements to be reached at the 14th and 15th of December summit in Brussels. Yet, without going into detail, what they did, as Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell said, was that “The agreement reached last week would in effect allow Northern Ireland to enjoy its own arrangements, yet the UK Government ruled out a special deal for Scotland when we raised it a year ago.” He went on to make it clear that any special arrangements for Northern Ireland must also be available to the other UK nations, Gibraltar, Scotland and Wales, which are otherwise put at risk of being at a competitive disadvantage in terms of jobs and investment. He went on to say that the Scottish Government will not be able to recommend the approval of the EU Withdrawal Bill as drafted since it does not respect devolution; if anything that makes it harder to see how any agreement might be reached. However, on 15th of November, the government defeated the first opposition amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. One of them was backed by Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and was the first proposed amendment to the bill that would have forced the government to gain the consent of the UK’s devolved administrations before repealing EU legislation. However, the amendment was defeated 318 against 52. Another win for the government that attracted less attention was the amendment that set out to incorporate the principles of the Good Friday Agreement in the EU bill that was 313 against 48. Thus, the UK holds trump cards on devolution and also the peace process. In short, the government of the UK has the potential to rein in the devolved governments under tighter Westminster control, yet it bows to the demands of the DUP, a party that voted against and openly opposed the Good Friday Agreement.
Brexiphrenia, the madness sets in
The UK is therefore becoming politically schizophrenic. It is working toward leaving a union that brought peace, prosperity and oversaw democracy and the protection of citizens in the UK, never taking away sovereignty as alleged by Brexiters, but encouraging its enforcement. They are choosing to move away toward what they consider a safe place in their own union that they obviously intend to pull back closer together, thus ignoring the will and sovereignty of devolved governance and putting peace in one part of the UK at serious risk. Future prosperity they predict remains to be seen, but already economic pressures are a heavy burden on the population with over a year and a quarter until Brexit day. It is sheer madness.
I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am
We will see how this develops, but the message it generates has other serious applications. If anything it is a clear message in favour of the principle of ‘ever closer union’ or the development toward the kind of modern federal structure being proposed by some senior politicians across Europe is almost the opposite of constitutional implications of so-called Henry VIII powers, which would allow the cabinet to pass primary legislation by statutory instruments instead of going to parliament with a bill for debate and votes before passing an act. The UK electorate did not have the option of a vote to allegedly take back control from the EU only to let the government do whatever it felt like without the need to consult parliament. Although it is a unitary state that in some ways resembles a federal state because it has the sub-national parts, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the devolution they have been allowed giving them their own assemblies and a parliament is basically administrative in nature, as it was created it can as easily be abolished at will by central government. They only have whatever authority Westminster will allow, tolerate or chooses to delegate to them and are actually only local arms of central government. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own legislatures to deal with issues that specifically pertain to them, Scotland will a little more leeway than either of the others. A real federal state has national and sub-national levels of government that are constitutionally equal, with their own distinct areas of authority and the ability to pass legislation specific to them. Thus, despite the appearance of at least autonomy they have only as much authority as Westminster gives to them, for only as long as the government sees fit to allow that to continue. Thus, whilst Northern Ireland and Scotland overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, the UK government has said that they are part of the whole UK and will therefore do what the rest does. That, as said already, is schizophrenic. Now that Wales also appears to have had a change of heart and now sways toward remaining in the EU, plus Gibraltar that also voted to stay in by a huge majority is compelled to do the same, the authoritarian attitude of ‘Do what you are told’ is driving wedges between component parts.
Some EU countries have autonomous, indeed approaching independent, parts of the larger state. Bayern, for example, has always remained a free state (Freistaat) in Germany, a federal republic in which all states probably enjoy as much autonomy as the UK sub-nations. Recently parts of northeast Italy have move to fuller autonomy, despite the Catalunya debacle, parts of Spain have relative autonomy. Yet none of them strives to be a unitary state outside the union which has the potential to become an open, modern federation.
Lesson for federalists
The very least it appears the UK offers is a grandstand seat for those who can bear to see a nation consumed by nostalgic pride as the once great centre of a global empire now in rapid decline. It has been obvious at times that some of the driving forces behind Brexit are anti-federalists who were intent on bringing the EU down. That has failed, and now it will take steps forward toward a more structured, closer relationship between nations. It is hard to predict what that may eventually look like but even if it becomes as some are proposing, a two tier arrangement, it will still surpass what the UK is attempting to be so stubbornly – a single tier state in which the parts that have own identities and a level of devolution that may be taken from them in the not too distant future. The UK is a state purportedly leaving a union because its sovereignty has been taken, to go back to being a union where it is resisting giving its constituent parts sovereignty or potentially denying them anything even resembling control of their own destinies. A disproportionally small part of the whole is being allowed to hold the entire UK to ransom by getting Brexit on its terms, but denies another part of the UK that asked for something similar any such consideration.
Furthermore, May has had her Chamberlain moment, put the scrap of paper on the table, but has then been the leader whose ministers appear intent on undermining what is on the table for no apparent reason other than being loose mouthed instead of disciplined. Now, as I finish writing this, another raw nerve of democracy has been touched. A number of ‘rebel’ Tory MPs joined opposition parties to inflict a major defeat on Theresa May. They backed the amendment by Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve to guarantee a parliamentary vote on the final terms of Brexit. Fellow Tories have accused them of ‘treachery’, with one saying they “should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP, ever again.” Democratically elected MPs are expected to do as their party line says, irrespective of any concern they may have about the proposition they are voting against is not democratic.
Into the asylum…
From the point of view of the EU, at least for an observer such as me, what I see in the midst of that is a war, but within the governing party and some parts of government itself, rather than against those it is negotiating with. Now, if that is not political madness, then perhaps I should not close by saying this, but it looks very strongly to me like the UK government closely resembles the lunatics have taken over the asylum.