tl;dr The UK goes it alone (but not really).

For Americans today is the first day of what is hoped to be a better year than 2020. For residents of the United Kingdom it also marks another milestone: the first day after the end of the eleven-month transition period after the UK’s formal exit from the European Union.

To be pedantic, “Brexit” in the strict sense occurred on January 31, 2020. However during the transition period the UK was still effectively treated as a member of the EU for matters relating to trade in goods and services; the idea was that this would allow time for the UK and EU to negotiate a formal agreement on their relationship going forward. So January 1, 2021, is the day from which Brexit has real consequences for British companies and consumers.

I previously wrote a post “Boy’s Own Brexit” about the various commentators I was reading to keep up with Brexit-related developments. I thought it worth doing a quick update on the current state of play, and offering a few thoughts for the future.

Getting Brexit done

The first person I highlighted in my original post was Sir Ivan Rogers, formerly British Permanent Representative to the EU before he resigned in protest of then Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit process. He seems to have been relatively silent lately, though I did find some comments from him quoted in the British press regarding the past year’s negotiations between the UK and EU regarding their future relationship. Rogers thought that the present PM, Boris Johnson, would walk away from the transition period negotiations and have the UK do a “no deal” Brexit.

Rogers was wrong about this: Boris Johnson did in fact conclude an agreement with the EU, albeit at almost the very last minute. (The announcement was made on Christmas Eve, and the agreement itself signed by Johnson on December 30.) That agreement is less a final dispensation than an agreement to continue negotiating: to a large degree the agreement itself kicks the can down the road, deferring final decisions on a wide range of matters to a set of joint intergovernmental bodies to be established by the two parties.

However I doubt that this really matters to Boris Johnson, and that’s why I think Rogers so misread him. As a politician Johnson deals in slogans and broad brush pronouncements, and seemingly pays little or no attention to the details of policies until and unless they’re relevant to his own political fortunes. (In this Johnson has been compared to Donald Trump.) Johnson was chosen as leader of the Conservative Party, and the Conservatives were victorious in the most recent general election, on a pledge to “get Brexit done,” with no real definition as to what that would actually mean in practice.

So it was presumably important to Johnson that there be a UK-EU agreement, and that he be seen as “standing up for Britain” by stretching negotiations out as long as possible, but the actual details of the agreement were of secondary importance to him. All that was important was that his political allies and the Tory-sympathetic press hail it as freeing the UK from domination by the EU, which is apparently exactly what has happened.

This strategy of focusing on the slogans and not discussing the details was the same as that followed by the “Leave” side in the original 2016 EU referendum. Not coincidentally, the person most identified with that strategy, Dominic Cummings, was also closely involved in the Conservative Party’s campaign strategy in the December 2019 election. A decisive victory in that election allowed Boris Johnson to continue as Prime Minister (after previously taking over from Theresa May), and Cummings continued as Johnson’s key advisor.

However this was presumably only a marriage of convenience. Cummings has made no secret of his contempt for the upper class Eton- and Oxbridge-educated politicians who have traditionally ruled Britain, and Boris Johnson is a very pure example of the type. Johnson most likely did not give a fig about Cummings’s dreams of reforming the Whitehall bureacracy and the British educational system, and building a 21st century British economy based on AI, genetic engineering, and other scientific and technological advances.

Cummings found himself under widespread criticism for flouting COVID-19 travel restrictions (thus committing an advisor’s greatest sin, namely making himself more newsworthy than his boss), and relatively soon after departed Johnson’s circle. He hasn’t posted anything to his blog since a year ago, and I suspect he’ll remain in limbo until and unless he can find another politician willing to use him and be used in turn.

Endless negotiations

Meanwhile Richard North—a “leave” advocate who considers Boris Johnson a liar and a buffoon, and equally despises Dominic Cummings—continues his daily chronicling of Brexit-related news and views at his EU Referendum site, with articles also posted to the Turbulent Times site, along with those by his son Peter North.

Both North father and son agree that, all things equal, the UK is better off out of the EU. However they also lay great stress on the point that while the UK may be more free to choose which agreements it enters into, and which regulations it chooses to adopt, the reality of 21st century globalization is that both the UK and the EU will need to conform to regulatory frameworks set at a higher level, for example industry-specific standards set by global bodies under United Nations sponsorship.

(Although they lay less stress on this point, it’s also the case that the UK as a relatively small country and economy will be at a disadvantage in negotiating with the major trade blocs, i.e., the US, the EU, and China.)

It’s also arguable whether in leaving the allegedly-undemocratic embrace of the EU, the UK will now be able to decide its fate in a more democratic manner. As the lawyer David Allen Green points out on his own Law and Policy Blog commenting on matters Brexit-related, the just-signed agreement between the UK and the EU actually removes a great many matters from democratic decisions in the UK Parliament, and places them in the hands of the UK government acting as an executive: “whatever is agreed directly between government ministers and Brussels modifies all domestic law automatically, without any parliamentary involvement”. Thus Green claims that rather than the UK “taking back control,” the bill in Parliament implementing the UK-EU agreement “instead shows that Whitehall—that is, ministers and their departments—has taken control of imposing on the United Kingdom what it agrees with Brussels.”

But, again, as many people have commented, Brexit was arguably less about the details of the UK-EU relationship and more an expression of British (or, in some eyes, English) nationalism in opposition to the proto-nationalism of a European Union looking to further political integration of its member states. And that’s not necessarily a problem, at least if we interpret nationalism not as the ethnonationalism it can devolve into, but rather simply as a matter of a country’s residents being proud of their country and wanting it to exercise self-determination in acting to the benefit of its own citizens. In that sense English nationalism is no worse than (say) Irish or Scottish nationalism, to which I now turn.

The Irish question

In my previous post I noted my reading of the Slugger O’Toole blog, seeking insight into the special post-Brexit situation of Northern Ireland, both as the only part of the UK that will share a land border with the (now UK-less) EU, and as a jurisdiction with special status due to its historical conflicts over Protestant-Catholic relations and Irish reunification, a status acknowledged in the Belfast Agreement intended to foster a resolution to those conflicts.

To briefly recap events since I last wrote: Originally due to the Conservative Party’s not quite having a majority in Parliament, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party held veto power over the UK government’s attempts to “square the circle” between having the UK be able to diverge from EU regulations post-Brexit (as desired by most “leavers,” including the Euroskeptics who were dominant in the DUP) and having a relatively open border between Northern Ireland and (the Republic of) Ireland (as desired by Irish nationalists and allegedly dictated by the Belfast Agreement).

However, in the December 2019 general election the Conservative Party won such a large majority that Boris Johnson no longer needed the votes of DUP MPs, and hence apparently decided to ignore any further demands they might make. Johnson’s decision was to preserve a relatively open land border between Ireland north and south, at the expense of imposing additional customs checks and other regulatory red tape between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK: the so-called “border in the Irish sea.” (A BBC article provides more background on how it all happened.)

Many commenters on Slugger O’Toole and elsewhere believe that this presages even greater integration between Ireland and Northern Ireland, followed by a referendum (or “border poll”) on Irish reunification in which Irish nationalists will be victorious. I think this may well happen, but on a timescale much longer than such people think.

At the moment Northern Irish politics remains dominated by a political stalemate between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party that arose out of the Provisional IRA. As a party SF remains toxic to a good number of Irish voters and to other political parties, not just in the north but in the south as well. (As an example, despite winning the most votes in the most recent Irish general election SF could not form a government, since neither of the two parties traditionally dominant in Irish politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, would enter into coalition with it.)

Since Sinn Féin is seen as the leading exponent of Irish reunification, both in its own eyes and in others’, the widespread hostility toward it in turn drags down the Irish republican cause in general. Thus rather than dissatisfaction with the status quo and the travails of the DUP and political unionism greatly increasing support for reunification, instead Northern Ireland has seen a rise in “middle ground” politics, exemplified by the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

(It’s worth noting in passing that the use of proportional representation with a single transferable vote—what’s known in the US as ranked choice voting—is what allowed Alliance to make headway against the DUP and Sinn Féin, since they are a relatively safe “second choice” for many voters whose first choices were one of the traditional unionist or nationalist parties, in addition to picking up first preference votes on their own.)

Alliance is nominally neutral on the issue of Irish reunification, but in practice this amounts to its trying to make Northern Ireland work given its present status as part of the UK. That stance is matched by that of the present Irish government, a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which has been soft-pedaling discussions of reunification in favor of a “shared island” approach.

In the end I suspect Irish reunification will not occur until Sinn Féin ceases to be disdained by the majority of voters and by other parties, or until SF ceases to be the main driving force behind reunification. I suspect the former will occur only after the departure from political life (or, for that matter, from life itself) of all Sinn Féin figures who have IRA connections or are otherwise associated with “the Troubles”. The most prominent such figure is Gerry Adams, the previous leader of Sinn Féin who now is seen by many as exercising veto power behind the scenes. At 72 years of age he possibly has another fifteen or twenty years on the scene, which would bring us to 2035–2040.

However even this may not be enough time. As one example, Martina Anderson, former Sinn Féin Member of the European Parliament, was not even born when the Troubles started. She went to prison for IRA activities in 1986 at the age of 18 (eleven years before the final IRA ceasefire in 1997), and given her present age of 58 possibly might have another twenty or even thirty years in public life.

Thus it may not be until 2040–2050 that Sinn Féin finally comes out from under the “shadow of the gunman,” and the legacy of violence committed by the IRA, Protestant loyalists, and the British state ceases to be a factor in voters’ decisions in a reunification referendum. Accordingly I’ll predict the chances of Irish reunification in the next ten years at no more than one in ten.

An independent Scotland?

After English nationalism and Irish nationalism we move to Scottish nationalism. (At present Welsh nationalism is apparently not powerful enough to have any significant implications for the UK as a whole.) Scotland is distinguished from Northern Ireland by having a government led (since 2007) by an explicitly nationalist party (the Scottish National Party) that is dominant both in local elections and in elections for the UK Parliament, and a public that is currently expressing majority support for Scottish independence.

(In the series of polls tracked by James Kelly on his Scot Goes Pop! blog, support for independence has been hovering around the 55% mark, compared to the 45% of voters who voted Yes in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.)

A majority of Scottish voters in the EU referendum voted for the UK to remain in the EU, and any problems seen as resulting from Brexit may increase the number of voters willing to see Scotland leave the UK behind and possibly rejoin the EU as an independent county. However, the SNP and the cause of Scottish independence face two barriers that Irish nationalists do not.

First, there is no equivalent of the Belfast Agreement that gives an external entity (in that case, Ireland) a stake in whether Scotland becomes independent or not. Scottish independence is seen by others as a purely internal matter for the UK to deal with itself.

More importantly, unlike with Northern Ireland the British (or, to be more precise, English) political establishment has a strong interest in keeping Scotland part of the UK, even against the expressed wishes of the Scottish people themselves. Scotland provides the political establishment benefits including revenues from North Sea oil, a place to host the British nuclear deterrent (in the form of submarines and their missiles), and a playground for the upper classes to fish and hunt (like the nobility of old). And, of course, as with any ruling class throughout history, secession of a restive territory is seen as constituting a diminution of the ruling class’s power, and is resisted accordingly.

The UK’s ruling Conservative Party in particular has no motive to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence or, for that matter, to respect the results of a Yes majority voting in such a referendum. The Tories have a comfortable majority in Parliament based almost solely on their performance in England and Wales, and have no need to cater to the desires of the SNP and Scottish voters, a situation which will likely continue through 2024 at least.

If the Labour Party is able to come to power at some point it may be willing to countenance an independence referendum, especially if it needs support from the SNP to form a government. However letting Scotland go would mean the withdrawal of that support, and could put Labour at a permanent disadvantage to the Tories in England and Wales. So while Labour might be coerced into allowing a second referendum on Scottish independence, they might also be unwilling to respect a Yes result, or at least might try to introduce additional delays and difficulties into the process.

Thus while I think there’s a good chance that Scotland will end up as an independent country some day, I put the chances of that happening in the next ten years no higher than 50-50 at best, and probably closer to one in three given the unfavorable political environment at the UK level.

This is however assuming that the process of deciding on independence is dependent on and endorsed by the British government. If the frustration of the Scottish people gets high enough, and the SNP’s current relatively moderate approach loses the party political support in future elections, it’s possible that a future Scottish government (whether SNP-led or not) may issue a unilateral declaration of independence. At that point all bets are off.

Finally, getting back to Brexit: although both Scottish voters and politicians are generally EU supporters, it’s an open question whether an independent Scotland should actually (re)join the EU or not.

Arguably as a country on the northwest fringe of Europe Scotland has more in common with the Nordic countries than it does with core EU members like France and Germany. Of those countries, only Finland is (like Ireland) both a member of the EU and using the euro as its currency. Denmark and Sweden are EU members but not in the Eurozone (and apparently are unlikely to join any time soon), while Norway and Iceland have remained outside the EU.

Instead Norway and Iceland are members (along with Switzerland and Liechtenstein) of an parallel organization to the EU, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and (along with Liechtenstein) participate in the European Economic Area or EEA, which gives them access to the EU “single market” for goods and services. That might be a preferable approach for Scotland as well.

And with that I reach the end of my second Brexit post. I apologize for the length, but can promise you that I won’t be writing anything more on Brexit for the foreseeable future (if ever).