Very different referendums raise concern for the Union
Ideology rather than practical politics still dominates UK Brexit discourse
Conservative MP and leading supporter of Brexit Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Rees-Mogg’s nonsense can travel halfway around the world before the fact-checkers have got their boots on”. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters
Debate over the wisdom of using a referendum to rule on a complicated issue has a very different tone on each side of the Irish Sea. Former chancellor of the exchequer Ken Clarke captured the mood of many in the UK when he reminded us this week that Margaret Thatcher used to say that a referendum is the chosen vehicle of a dictator. Mussolini, for instance, was a fan: totalitarians like referendums, usually because parliament is an obstacle to the preferred policy. Many speak of David Cameron as the worst British prime minister in history, simply because of his decision to call a referendum.
They would say that wouldn’t they? The most recent referendum in the UK has turned over several rocks to reveal many a slippery, slimy creature that most voters were either unaware of or would have preferred to have stayed in comfortable obscurity on the back benches of the House of Commons.
It’s not just about odious individuals. Issues have been raised that many would have preferred to have kept in a locked box. Now in the open, those issues aren’t going to go away.
At the top of the list of uncomfortable questions is the one surrounding Northern Ireland. The two referendums in either country have put in sharp relief the differences between the two parts of Ireland and the gulf between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The future of the UK is, as a result, firmly in play.
The Republic rightly basks in the congratulations of the world at large in the wake of its own referendum. Its conduct and result, of course, could not stand in greater contrast to the Brexit vote. In Ireland, a lot of thought went into the question being asked, the way it was asked and the public debate that preceded the vote itself.
Many an outside observer has remarked on the stark differences, from start to finish, between the two referendums. On it’s own, the Republic’s vote would have attracted attention but probably not much analysis of what it might mean for the North. But the Brexit vote and the resulting global spotlight on the politics of the DUP has resulted in widespread bafflement about how Northern Ireland can sustain its uneasy set of differences with both the Republic and Britain.
If there isn’t yet a border running down the middle of the Irish Sea there are enough “misalignments” already between the North and the rest of the UK to at least describe it as a dotted line.
And now the Republic is seen to be not just a member but a leader of the global family of liberal, tolerant and enlightened nations. Don’t underestimate the quiet relief – and gratitude – of many people around the world for a country that is standing up to the populist, fascist, misogynistic rhetoric so plainly in view in both Washington DC and Westminster. Where, we wonder, does that leave the North?
Brexit trundles on towards its deadline, now a mere 10 months away. That there is no clarity over anything, including the Irish Border, reveals an irresponsibility of the political class of breathtaking proportions. Whatever one’s view of Brexit, everyone should now be preparing for it. That is impossible, given we know nothing about what it will look like or even when it will really happen.
For Ireland, the State that will be affected the most by Brexit – perhaps even more so than the UK itself – it is clearly time to start preparing for the worst outcome. While that might not be our central expectation, the chances of something nasty happening are clearly rising.
Ideology rather than practical politics still dominates UK Brexit discourse. Nobody seems able to inform public debate about the ferocious complexity of the process. As a result, ideologues set the agenda. They can say anything they like, using jargon that few understand – a clue is often the citing of obscure WTO rules – and, as a result, they are taken seriously.
For an example, read Ian Dunt’s dismantling of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s claim to expertise. As Dunt said, “Rees-Mogg’s nonsense can travel halfway around the world before the fact-checkers have got their boots on”.
Meanwhile, the adults at the Bank of England revealed this week they are preparing for a disorderly Brexit. They have, I think, spotted that the UK is drifting precisely towards that outcome. The Brexiteers know that if they can stop anybody actually doing anything, hard Brexit happens in a short while.
How does Ireland prepare for this? The economic fallout, at several percentage points of GDP, is just a guess, albeit a sensible one. A fudge that pushes all decisions out into the far future is still perfectly possible but that is precisely the outcome the Brexiteers are trying to prevent.
So it remains highly unstable with very unpredictable consequences. The economics of chaos are relatively easy: just think of a number and stick a minus sign in front of it. But ideologically driven processes often have ideological outcomes: the union that is the UK looks very unstable right now. Prepare for the unexpected.