Stephen Collins: Britain’s fate is in the hands of Tory diehards
Like the Ditchers of 100 years ago, right-wing Conservatives are prepared to put the UK’s interests at risk
Jacob Rees-Mogg: he and his allies are piling on the pressure to ensure that no mutually acceptable deal between the UK and the EU can be concluded
A leading Tory who opposed moderation in all its forms had a deep suspicion of foreigners, and pursued a policy designed to undermine his own government and the interests of Ireland. He was famously described thus: “A genial and sporting young peer whose face bore a pleasing resemblance to the horse....He had quite a gift for writing, thought clearly, and was not more than two hundred years behind his time.”
The politician in question is not Jacob Rees-Mogg even though the description fits in every respect except that he is an MP and not a peer, but Richard Verney, 19th Baron Willoughby de Brooke who was at the centre of British politics in the years before the Great War.*
Verney was one of the leaders of a group of Conservative politicians dubbed “the Ditchers” who committed themselves to dying in the last ditch rather than accept any limitation on the power of the House of Lords.
They blocked Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909, attempted to do the same to the subsequent reform of the Lords, and they went on to oppose Home Rule for Ireland. They had no qualms about supporting sedition in pursuit of their aims, and brought the United Kingdom to the brink of civil war before the first World War intervened.
The leaked analysis by British officials detailing how every possible kind of Brexit is going to leave the country worse off might in time have a sobering impact on public opinion, but there has been little sign of that to date
More than 100 years on, and the right wing of the Conservative Party hasn’t changed, with at least 60 MPs determined to destroy their own prime minister and their country’s economic prospects in pursuit of a vision of Britain that never existed.
Ireland, including the part of it that remains in the UK, will be an unintended casualty this time around, but it is not something that has given the modern Ditchers any pause for thought.
On the positive side, the Ditchers of a century ago didn’t actually die in the last ditch to protect the hereditary rights of the Lords. Enough of them threw in the towel and accepted political reality when it stared them in the face and threatened their own position and status.
However, they did not compromise on Ireland, and by obstructing and delaying Home Rule pushed this country into rebellion which cost thousands of lives and ruptured relations between the two countries for half a century.
Whether the modern Ditchers will push the UK into a hard Brexit or even force their country to crash out of the EU without any kind of deal is a wide open question.
Prime minister Theresa May is struggling to maintain control as Rees-Mogg and his allies pile on the pressure in an effort to ensure that no mutually acceptable deal between the UK and the EU can be concluded.
There is still a widespread assumption, which hopefully will turn out to be right, that the consequences of a hard Brexit are so potentially horrendous for the British economy that sense will ultimately prevail. Adherents of this view believe that after all the huffing and puffing a soft Brexit will emerge when all of the other options are ultimately seen to be disastrous.
The leaked analysis by British officials detailing how every possible kind of Brexit is going to leave the country worse off might in time have a sobering impact on public opinion, but there has been little sign of that to date.
Obviously from an Irish point of view the hope is that the British political class will come to its senses, and ensure that the country remains in the single market and the customs union.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his speech to the European Parliament last week offered every encouragement for such an outcome, but there is very little the Irish Government or any other can do to promote a soft Brexit without compromising the future of the EU itself.
There may be a desire on both sides not to have a border, but, without being in a customs union, I cannot see how to have no border
The attempt by Enda Kenny and other non-British politicians to influence the outcome of the referendum in 2016 probably backfired as it encouraged the simplistic notion that the UK needed to take back control of its destiny from foreigners.
The only sensible approach for the Irish Government is to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. All of the fine words about avoiding a hard border on the island will amount to nothing if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal or, as is probably more likely, leaves the single market and customs union in a more orderly fashion.
The outgoing German ambassador to the UK, Peter Ammon, stated the obvious this week when he questioned how the Irish Border issue could be resolved if the UK was outside the customs union. “There may be a desire on both sides not to have a border, but, without being in a customs union, I cannot see how to have no border.”
Former taoiseach John Bruton, in a detailed paper published this week, suggested that the EU should consider extending the time for the EU/UK negotiations by two years rather than trying to implement a transition arrangement.
It will certainly take flexibility all around to avoid the most damaging kind of Brexit, but all the creative thinking in the world will not be enough if the Tory diehards call the shots.
*George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935)