The Domestic Cost of Brexit
Few imagined on 22nd June 2016 that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, would be triggering article 50 on 29th March 2017. Even the most ardent of Leave supporters could not have imagined that May would be pushing for a ‘hard’ Brexit, indeed the term itself was hardly uttered during the referendum campaign. Back in June, Brexit simply meant Brexit. There was no ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, no ‘red, white and blue’, simply Brexit – either in the EU or out. So much has changed in the world of British politics since the EU referendum, and yet so much has remained exactly the same, with the same arguments being fought again and again, the same rhetoric from both sides, the same lack of understanding and acceptance from both camps. Britain is no more or less politically divided than it was before the referendum; it is simply that those political divides are now writ large for all to see. As article 50 is triggered, and the process of removing Britain politically and economically from one of the largest and most complicated organisations in the world begins, what immediate impact can we expect to see in Britain from the decision to leave the EU?
While the whole process of Brexit is shrouded in uncertainty, one thing that is certain is that the whole process is a national preoccupation. We have already seen, since the referendum result, how the inevitable economic and political repercussions of Brexit have dominated the Westminster bubble and the media. As negotiations begin in earnest, it is to be expected that this preoccupation will continue, as politicians and journalists attempt to highlight the complexities of the process, and the winners and losers from each deal struck. Other crucially important issues in British politics will become side-lined to the Brexit juggernaut, a fact which is already evident. The NHS, the continuing fallout from the 2008 banking crisis and austerity, house prices and house building, transport policy and the impact of HS2 (High Speed 2) – are just some of the crucial issues which are impacting on the lives of millions of British people which are not getting the political or media coverage they deserve, partially because of Brexit.
If Brexit is the key preoccupation in Westminster, the issue is also causing some consternation in Scotland. The battle for independence in Scotland was supposedly settled in 2014, when a ‘once in a generation’ referendum delivered a ‘no’ vote for independence. The referendum was fiercely fought, and pro-union politicians were quick to highlight the economic benefits of Scotland remaining an EU member via its membership of the United Kingdom. Were Scotland to become independent, their membership of the EU might be more precarious, as Spain would be likely to threaten any bid for an independent Scotland to join the EU in an attempt to discourage Spanish separatist groups from seeking a similar deal. The worst case scenario for pro-union politicians was for Scotland to deliver a ‘remain’ vote in the EU referendum while the rest of the overall result was ‘leave’ – the exact situation which occurred. Now that ‘once in a lifetime’ referendum is beginning to look more like a ‘twice in five years’ event, with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pushing hard for another referendum before Scotland, and the rest of the UK, leave the EU in 2019. In addition to pressure from Scotland, the May government is also dealing with pressure in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement and the power sharing assembly which it created were partially premised on the ‘soft border’ between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This was made easier by both nations being EU members. Ireland had joined the EC in 1973, alongside Britain, partially because of the economic and political linkages between the two nations and the benefits that common membership gave them when dealing with each other across a land border. Ireland and Northern Ireland are now entering a new phase, where one is to be a member of the EU and one is not, meaning different rules apply across the borders and a ‘soft border’ is now beginning to look a little less fit for purpose. The power sharing assembly has been under pressure for several years and is currently suspended as Sinn Fein, the second largest party in the assembly will no longer work with the First Minister and leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster. This is in the context of the non-unionist parties have more seats for the first time than those supporting the union with the UK. Questions over the border and how Northern Ireland will manage relations with Ireland are being asked and no easy answers are available. Sinn Fein have, liked the SNP, used this uncertainty to forward their calls for a referendum on membership of the United Kingdom, undoubtedly using Brexit as a political excuse to get a second bite of the cherry. While Brexit may be an excuse, there is no doubt that it has raised fundamental questions about Britain’s governmental structures in Scotland and Northern Ireland which cannot be ignored. The May government will be hoping to deflect these issues for as long as possible, in the hope that the Brexit negotiations with the EU will provide an answer, or at least clarity on the issues.
The May government has been lucky in that it currently has a freedom of movement not usually afforded to governments, partially because of the global focus on Brexit and partially because their main opposition party remain in a form of stasis, fighting out an ideological civil war. As Brexit negotiations begin and the winners and losers in the process are identified, the May government will perhaps begin to wish for these halcyon days, when they could brush uncomfortable issues under the carpet with their Brexit battle cry.