12 October 2018

Theresa May’s Brexit conundrum: Satisfy the DUP, the Tories or the country


Just as you should never kid a kidder, so you should try and avoid engaging in staring matches with people who long ago stapled their eyes open. If there’s one word the DUP understands – and I mean understands in an almost visceral, psycho-sexual, fashion – it is No. To the extent the party has a thing, No is the thing.

So the DUP’s decision to abstain on a vote on the Agriculture Bill this week is a warning that, as far as Theresa May is concerned, darker times may lie ahead. Arlene Foster’s party now threatens to abstain on the Budget, a decision which, were it to come to that, would throw Mrs May’s government into a fresh and more severe fit of crisis than anything it has yet experienced in its short, unhappy, life. The government’s reliance on the DUP was, until this week, an under-appreciated consequence of last year’s disastrous general election.

Tories should appreciate the despair this causes. There is indeed something revealing about the disgust felt in much of liberal England by the government’s dependence on DUP votes for its majority. How, disgusted of Highgate writes, can the United Kingdom government be reliant upon a handful of Orange bigots who appear to have been left behind by an evolutionary process they’re too stupid to even believe in? Well, because this remains a just about United Kingdom, that’s why.

But the anger is, as I say, interesting. Because it helps demonstrate why, as a purely political matter, the Tories were right to play the English card during the 2015 general election. Then, you will recall, Lynton Crosby understood that the idea of a Labour government reliant upon the SNP for its majority would be deeply unpopular in England. Hence the Tory decision to run a campaign pitched at English voters that implicitly suggested there was something suspect about voters, and political parties, from other corners of the realm.

That being so, it is hardly a surprise if the Tories now find themselves suffering from the same tendency they encouraged just three years ago. The Ulster tail can wag the English dog just as much as any Scottish tail can. If anything, in fact, the wounds cut deeper on this occasion because while Scotland is obviously an important part of the Union – indeed, is the Union’s indispensable nation – Northern Ireland is customarily considered an afterthought on those relatively rare occasions when it is considered at all. It is Britain’s red-headed stepchild and there is, in general and most of the time, a tacit agreement to avoid talking about it too much.

The DUP, like all brands of Ulster unionists, are deeply aware of this and it both cuts them and makes them all the more determined to protect their interpretation of their interests. The DUP may not be a party of visionaries but they’re not hayseeds or turnip-headed hicks either. Nor is their line that the UK must be treated as a single entity obviously foolish, and this remains the case no matter how much clever-dicks on Twitter observe that if this is the case then ‘what about abortion rights and gay marriage and all those other subjects demonstrating just how much more decent and progressive we are than these antediluvian bigots on the other side of the north channel?’.

This, I am afraid, is not the triumphant and killer point some people evidently think it must be. The United Kingdom is a union state – or, indeed, a state of unions – but not a unitary state. It is, indeed, a deeply strange and unusual state that is without modern parallel. For instance, and contrary to what many people imagine, it does not even have a single legal system. Difference is a virtue and if the English have not hitherto appreciated that diversity it is doubtless because, being 85 per cent of the population, they have not felt the need to.

And therein, perhaps, lies one problem. The Union – this “precious Union” as Theresa May is fond of putting it, thereby giving the unfortunate impression it may be made of some kind of rare china – rests in part upon English indifference to its reality. Most of the time that indifference is benign. The only thing worse than English carelessness, though, is English attention.

That may explain why, according to the latest research conducted by the Future of England survey (an exercise run, tellingly, by political scientists at the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff) a majority of English voters are prepared to accept the unravelling of both the Irish peace process and the prospect of Scottish independence if these are the price to be paid for Brexit.

Some of this may be attributable to the fact that Brexit, dismayingly, is with us now, whereas these other possibilities are merely hypothetical at present. Even so, it is striking that almost 90 per cent of Leave voters in England are prepared to make these sacrifices the better to pursue their own white whale.

So, of course, are some Northern Irish Leavers. Those voters are overwhelmingly Unionist voters too and it is reasonable to suppose that the prospect of a harder, more substantial, border with the Republic of Ireland does not disappoint all of them. At least not a deep, atavistic, level. They may acknowledge the difficulties of such an arrangement but, psychologically speaking, they are comfortable with it. And vastly more comfortable with that than with a de facto customs frontier in the middle of the Irish sea.

Brexit boxes the prime minister in from all directions. She must fight on multiple fronts and barely has the troops to thrive on any of them. Every success – by which I mean everything which is not an obvious setback – in one arena merely comes at the cost of a fresh complication or weakness elsewhere. Every hole that is plugged is matched by a newly-sprung leak elsewhere. She can have a Brexit which satisfies her party or the DUP or the country as a whole but not one which covers all these bases. Not for the first time, the thought arises that you can have a Brexit but not, perhaps, any kind of Brexit that is worth the trouble it must cause.

Increasingly, however, Brexit also reveals the faultlines inherent within the United Kingdom and between its constituent parts. Magic, as Bagehot wrote of royalty, cannot withstand the intrusion of too much daylight and something similar might be said of the Union and Unionism too.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.