Anyone who holds admirable ideals needs to be careful that they don’t ignore hard realities and allow themselves to get carried away by fine theories that do more harm than good. It is even more important not to lose contact with reality if your ideals are less than admirable.
‘I’ve got a theory and I’m sticking to it…’
Silly far-right theories have caused immense damage to the United Kingdom in recent times. The Liz Truss fiasco was the product of conviction politics. Unfortunately, those convictions were plain wrong. They led to a crash in the economy, higher interest rates, higher inflation, and increased government debts.
Ever since the Tea Party started to pave the way for Donald Trump-style government, there has been an increasing tendency for right-wing politicians to ignore warnings from experts and to act as if what they wish to believe must be true. The consequence of this style of politics is that whenever someone points out a logical problem with a policy their hard factual arguments are countered with slogans.
It has become commonplace on the right to believe – or at least to claim to believe –whatever they would like to be true today regardless of the actual evidence or things they promised previously. Ideas that play well with their loudest supporters are more important to much of the modern right than practicalities which actually help the country to prosper.
Brexit and Northern Ireland: why the facts (should) matter
This has been particularly in evidence during Brexit. Anyone who has pointed out practical difficulties has been rubbished as a proponent of project fear and branded a ‘remoaner’.
The simple hard reality that it is a bad idea to cut yourself off from easy trade with your largest customers is now beginning to become glaringly obvious to anyone who chooses to look at the real causes of Britain’s recent economic weakness. But many proponents of Brexit still prefer to hold onto their flawed theories and to tell themselves that there is still a golden age of Brexit waiting for them if only they can find a true prophet to lead them towards it.
In amongst the confusion of ideas that Brexit supporters wanted to be true but weren’t, ‘shame of place’ must go to the idea that it is possible to leave the EU and have a neat solution to the problem of Northern Ireland. From the first it should have been obvious to anyone who chose to think about the issue with an open mind that Brexit would create a problem that was logically impossible to solve.
The border problem
Once the UK left the EU there were only two serious solutions. One is for Northern Ireland to have exactly the same economic rules as the rest of the United Kingdom. If that had been done then there would have been two different sets of tariff rates and two different standards for goods and services in place on the island of Ireland. That would have required significant border controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland, something that could easily bring back the Troubles.
The alternative was to leave Northern Ireland within the EU economic trading arrangements and let it operate on different economic rules to the rest of the UK. This is the system that Boris Johnson set up – immediately before denying he had done any such thing and telling the lie to the Northern Ireland business community that they could rip up any paperwork.
The problem with Johnson’s protocol is that it simply moves the border to a different place and upsets a different community within Northern Ireland. It is a solution that requires some form of checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and some method for the EU to satisfy itself that the controls are working. It should not have come as a surprise to anyone that the Ulster Unionists hated that arrangement. It left them effectively economically separated from the rest of the UK and following EU rules that they now play no part in making.
The law of unintended consequences
Faced with the reality of two unworkable options the Rishi Sunak version of the Conservative Party has tried to adopt a bold strategy: fudge, confusion and deception. They like the idea of an opaque deal that enables the EU to hope that it is not going to be flooded by dodgy imports and Unionists to hope that they are still fully part of the UK. They want to sell this squalid deal as a wonderful thing negotiated by a prime minister who is a genius at diplomacy.
In reality, any such deal is doomed to fail. It will become increasingly unstable as Britain starts to diverge from EU systems. Every time the UK signs a new trade deal with a non-EU country and every time it stops following an EU regulation the tensions will get worse.
The fanatical enthusiasts for Brexit have a different approach. They see a chance to get their own back on Sunak and to build their personal support base by throwing insults at the EU and demanding more concessions without giving anything back – seldom a successful diplomatic strategy. If their advice was followed then the UK would enter into a deep conflict with the EU that would do immense harm to us without actually helping anyone in Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK.
The option to rejoin the EU
The bad news for the country is that this means any agreements will not be driven by the best interests of all of us. They will be driven by whether a solution can be sold to enough of the far right of the Conservative Party and to enough of the Ulster Unionists to keep Sunak’s government alive.
The options are therefore: a squalid and unstable political deal that satisfies few, or a collapse of relations with the EU, or dumping this entire government and holding the first-ever referendum on whether the British people actually like the realities of the Brexit deal or would prefer to be in the EU. In a world where facts and theories were better at coinciding, that wouldn’t be such a hard decision to take.