Brexit might be over, at least in the sense that the ‘Windsor’ framework brings much of the legal and political wrangling to an end and opens up the vista of better relations between the UK and the EU. Economically and strategically though, Brexit lives on.
One of the accomplishments of Brexit has been to set very low standards in political behaviour and a very high benchmark for the absurd, so it was no surprise to hear Rishi Sunak praise Northern Ireland’s newfound status in that it enjoys open trade with both Great Britain and the EU, though I did blink once or twice. The risk for Sunak is that Scotland and Wales might want the same, not to mention England.
The Windsor framework was also a coming out of sorts for Sunak as an independent political creature, one that is analytical (the first prime minister to have an MBA) and unusual, in that he does not have the same amount of political baggage as other Tories. In that context he is less attached to the unionist point of view and slightly more rational than some of his predecessors.
Politically, the Windsor deal means several things.
First, the bad blood between London and Brussels is likely over and there will be a more pragmatic, productive approach to working together on defence/Ukraine, innovation and border policing. The EU will now have more political time to spend on ‘strategic autonomy’ and the reordering of its defence and foreign policy, while Sunak will have more time to spend tending to the British economy. Despite ‘Windsor’, Britain still owns Brexit and its economy will still be handicapped by it and still suffers poor productivity, a weakening housing market and anemic investment.
Second, speculation about the breakup of the Union – the reunification of Ireland and Scottish independence, will be tempered for the moment. As soon as Brexit happened my first thought was that it would catalyse dramatic, and hopefully constructive political change in Ireland and Scotland. As we noted last week, Nicola Sturgeon’s departure from Scottish politics plus the
recent ruling from the Supreme Court limiting a Scottish referendum have sapped the moment of the independence movement.
In Ireland, there is also the realization that the case for unification needs a stronger and arguably different basis in the sense of their being more cross border tourism, investment, commerce (this is picking up) and shared public goods (similar health systems for instance).
A lot of imagination needs to go into conceiving what a united Ireland might look like (Brendan O’Leary’s recent book on this is good), ultimately the structure of a united Ireland could well look like a Swiss style federation (see ‘Ireland and the Global Question’ (2006)!). What is also interesting is the role of demographics in changing Scotland and Ireland. This is noticeable in the sense of younger populations that are less rooted in traditional politics, as witnessed by the successes of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, and to a large extent the SNP in Scotland.
A third reason to be cheerful is for Northern Ireland itself. More than many other regions in Europe it has suffered the backwardness and intransigence of its own politicians, and the careless neglect of many in London. Whilst politicians in the Major and Blair eras had a sense of the complexity of the North, and in general were careful with this, a string of recent secretaries for state and prominent Brexiteers have displayed a shameless ignorance of Northern Irish politics and society, whilst at the same time treating it as a political pawn. That still seems to be the attitude of Boris Johnson.
My sense is that the vast majority of people across Northern Ireland desire a return to normalcy and I hope that the Stormont’ assembly now sits and the North enjoys a period of uneventful calm, and enjoys the benefits of close ties to the EU. The assembly members may have come comfort in the existence of the ‘Windsor’ brake, but some trepidation that it was designed by the same people who crafted the ‘backstop’.
In that respect, that Rishi Sunak referred to Northern Ireland as the ‘most exciting economic zone in the world’, which is probably an exaggeration that stems from his days as a hedge fund salesman. However, a friend of mine is leading a social impact real estate project to revitalize the centre of Belfast, and as I help along, I can see the potential there is for the city to grow (especially compared to other UK cities).
As a final word, Brexit cannot end until the villain at its centre stage is slain. Sunak now needs to take on Boris Johnson and the ever-delusional Liz Truss – by for example canceling the resignation honours lists of both former prime ministers, by cooperating with civil servants who are investigating multiple breaches of ethics and security by Johnson, suspending Johnson’s part membership and potentially by steering the Tory party away for awarding Johnson a safe seat at the next election. Labour will probably win that, and they could then remake British politics by changing the electoral system (introducing proportional representation for instance). Such a move might well shatter the Tories and produce a new party of the centre and a (far) right one.
If that happened, Brexit might well and truly be over. Though we might also miss it.