Future of post-Brexit UK: No easy answers

The UK is now virtually certain to leave the EU at the end of January 2020.

For every complex question there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” — so said controversial American commentator H.L. Mencken many years ago. I was reminded of this as I woke up on Friday morning to the results of probably the most momentous general election in the UK in the past 150 years. I had campaigned a little for a former Tory parliamentarian who had split from his party, repelled by Boris Johnson’s mendacity, egotism and vindictiveness. I was struck by how many electors saw the choice: “Get Brexit done” — to use Boris Johnson’s simplistic slogan — with the Conservatives; or further dither and delay with the Opposition. They chose Boris Johnson’s Conservatives; not just traditional Conservative voters, traditional Labour voters too. So much so that Labour’s vote share was the lowest in over 30 years. As for the supposedly resurgent Liberal Democrats, they comprehensively failed to surge.

The result: Conservatives won seats from Labour that were in Labour hands for over 70 years. They now have a healthy overall majority which will allow them to govern without serious hindrance from the Opposition for five years, if not longer. Boris Johnson will “get Brexit done” then. The UK is now virtually certain to leave the EU at the end of January 2020. So far, clear and simple. But the wrongness of the answer will become apparent soon enough.

As well as promising that the UK would leave the EU by January 2020’s end, Boris Johnson has also promised he will negotiate a free trade deal with the EU by the end of December 2020, the deadline laid down in the UK-EU withdrawal agreement. Easy to say, less easy to achieve. The EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, is an experienced champion heavyweight when it comes to trade negotiations. Not having negotiated a trade pact in over 40 years, the UK is an untested bantam weight in comparison. Trade negotiations are measured in years, not months. So the EU has time on its side and the UK does not. The EU will not hesitate to exploit its advantages. After all, why should it? Come the middle of 2020 Boris Johnson is likely to have to face a difficult choice: ask for an extension or accept whatever is on offer from the EU. Not so simple then.

The only conceivable way for the Prime Minister to deliver on his pledge is seek the softest of soft Brexits, a relationship with the EU on the lines of Norway’s or Switzerland’s. But in return for full access to the EU’s single market, both countries had to accept free movement of people from and to the EU. However, for Boris Johnson to accept free movement would be for him to abandon his vow to take back control over immigration. Another difficult question.

The questions on the domestic front don’t have easy answers either. The Conservatives’ domination of the political landscape only goes so far. It is the majority party in England, but a minority party in the three other nations of the UK.

In the 2016 referendum on EU membership, Northern Ireland voted by a healthy majority to remain in the EU. It’s not surprising then that in Northern Ireland anti-Conservative parties won over 60 per cent of the vote. The position is further complicated by the fact that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU, with the Republic of Ireland. In order to preserve that “soft border”, the UK-EU withdrawal agreement created a special status for Northern Ireland. Unlike the rest of the UK, it remains in the EU single market and customs union. This means Northern Ireland will have to comply with EU norms and standards. It also means that goods moving from the rest of the UK to/from Northern Ireland will have to be checked for conformity with EU standards. All in all, Northern Ireland will be treated as if it were a EU member, while the remainder of the UK will not. Demands for unification with the Republic, already supported by a sizeable minority of the population, can only grow.

But more problematic for the Conservatives is the demonstration effect. Scotland too voted by a large majority in 2016 to remain in the EU. If Northern Ireland can remain de facto in the EU, why not Scotland? The argument was not lost on Ms Sturgeon, leader of the separatist Scottish National Party. Throughout the campaign, she made it crystal clear that if the Conservatives were returned with a majority and took the UK out of the EU, she would demand an independence referendum to retain Scotland’s place within it. Ms Sturgeon was rewarded for her stance with 80 per cent of seats in Scotland. On Friday morning, Ms Sturgeon reiterated her demand for a referendum; and predictably Boris Johnson rejected it. She will not back down, and neither will he. And the longer Boris Johnson refuses an independence referendum, the greater the demand for one will grow, and victory likely for independence once it’s held. There is no middle ground here; and no easy answer.

And what of Wales? Wales narrowly voted to leave the EU and the Conservatives made advances in Wales at Labour’s expense; though Labour remains by a healthy margin the largest party. But it would be a profound mistake to assume that Wales is like England. It is not. The Welsh identity and the Welsh relationship with the other nations of the UK are complex. A Welshman once said to me that Wales is the younger brother to Scotland. If the older brother left home, the younger brother would feel sad, but wish him luck. It says a lot. Polls suggest that just over half the population is either “indy-confident” (confident in their support for an independent Wales) or “indy-curious” (open to the idea of independence, but not yet fully confident). Alone, the younger brother might also consider his place at the familial hearth and decide to make his own way in the world too.

So that leaves England. The Conservatives won in England by playing on the nationalist feeling, and they reaped the benefit. But what will the benefit be? An England without the crutch of the Union; an England isolated from Europe; an England snarling and resentful; an England facing complex questions about its identity and its place in the world; an England without easy answers.

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