The crisis in British politics (2) – the mess on the left

Kier Starter, leader of the British Labour Party, flagging his alterrnative (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Where does the current political crisis put the left?  I can’t remember a time when it has been so divided, not only over the causes of a crisis but what to do about it.  Brexit, Covid lockdowns and the Ukraine war have all contributed, as have years of printing money.  Yet many on the left have supported Brexit, demanded more severe lockdowns, supported war and western sanctions, and it even has its fair share of proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.

Even the minimum of policies raises division: against austerity includes opposition to energy price increases, which can be solved by ending support for war and removing sanctions. Opposition to the threats to workers living standards, and attacks on democratic rights opened up by the threats of removing EU laws, can be advanced by opposing Brexit.  This means giving focus to the awareness of the majority that Brexit has failed, by explaining the purpose of re-joining the EU.  

Photo: Morning Star

The Labour Party isn’t going to fight for these because it has, like some on the left, supported all the steps that got us here.  Some on the left have therefore said that it is better to face a weakened Tory government than a stronger Labour one committed to more or less the same agenda, so we shouldn’t call for a general election.

There are things wrong with this, although it has the merit of admitting that the left is chronically weak.  This should give it pause to recognise just how close, or rather how far away, it is to leading any revolutionary change, and to considering just what the preconditions for this would be.

Opposition to the call for a general election may reveal the belief that your alternative is weak but the weakness of your enemy will not make up for it.  Labour support for ‘balancing the books’, and therefore austerity, can easily permit their implementation by Sunak if he introduces the odd seemingly ‘fair’ implementation of pain, which would also prevent Labour from shouldering the blame. The effect of further Tory mistakes and division could either be to encourage opposition to austerity or usher in a Starmer government essentially wedded to the same project.

Calls for a general election to kick out the Tories should not be opposed but since we know that it’s not nearly enough the left should concentrate not on this but on what Marx would have called the momentary interests of the working class as well as its future.

This means supporting and generalising the strikes workers are taking to defend their living standards. It means politicising them, including with the demand to bring down the Tories with the purpose of also setting the expectations that will be placed on any alternative Government, including a Labour one.  It means organising in the trade unions to make them more democratic, which is easier to do when workers are engaged in union activity, and building the grounds for longer term rank and file activity.  It means similar activity in the Labour Party, and since this is mainly a defensive struggle against the leadership, it means defending existing rights and supporting the very few potential candidates who will get to stand in an election that support working class action.

If it is argued that the Labour Party is dead then such a view must be tested by the activity that can be organised within it; by the possibility of activating members and recruiting others through the strikes that are taking place, and some proof that the lessons of numerous attempts to organise a party outside it have been learnt.  It’s not enough to say that numerous battles have been lost if it is not clear to thousands of Labour members that the war inside it is over and definitively lost.  It’s not enough to propose some party that does not exist to something you claim is dead but will in some way have to be recognised as very much alive for millions who will vote for it.

Unity on the left is not enough.  There is no point blindfolding ourselves to Brexit, which cannot, like Starmer hopes, simply be parked, but has to be opposed.  Those who have supported it show no sign of recognising their mistake when it stares them in the face.  Likewise, what is the point of demanding protection from the enormous increase in energy prices while supporting war and the sanctions that make it inevitable?  The political struggle against these disastrous positions must continue.

The left, both in Britain and Ireland has put forward actions that the state must implement to address these problems: through nationalisation of energy companies, windfall taxes or price caps, increased state spending and taxation of the rich.  All of these rely on the state doing what the working class needs to do itself, and the state doesn’t exist for this purpose.  We have all just been given a huge lesson on who really controls society and what they are prepared to do even to a pro-capitalist Government that doesn’t play by its rules.

Nationalisation will not gain control over the supply of gas and oil so nationalising retail companies (known as suppliers in the industry) will not reduce prices; and you can’t nationalise companies in other countries.  This is also the case in Ireland, where much of the industry is already nationalised. You certainly can’t nationalise Russian gas, but you can pay a lower price for it, if you argue it’s generally good practice to buy from the cheapest supplier.

You can’t continue to increase workers income from state payments to make up for inflation when the financial markets won’t even support unfunded tax cuts for the rich.  While it’s an acceptable propaganda demand to increase taxation on the rich you won’t be able to make this the answer to the crisis. The underlying weakness of British capitalism is set to continue worsening, especially outside the EU, and redistribution of the tax burden isn’t going to change this.

The Tories have already overturned proposals to reverse corporation tax increases and there comes a point where significant increases would simply amount to a form of state capitalism, and one that is to the benefit of workers!  That’s not the society we live in, or one that could possibly exist.  Income taxes on the rich require a government to legislate it; require a capitalist class to accept it without shifting its incomes abroad, and a state willing to implement it.  The British tax authorities have proved time and time again their willingness to indulge tax avoidance and evasion by corporations and the rich. Tax incentives are as much a part of the code as levies and these always apply to the rich; workers don’t need an incentive to work since it’s the only way they can afford a tolerable or decent standard of living.

The recent crisis of the British state’s creditworthiness was caused not by proposed tax cuts for the rich but by increased debt caused by income payments during the pandemic, and early predictions of a £150 billion bill for energy supports to energy companies in lieu of consumers paying.  The idea that the financial markets will accept lending money to fill any gap left after screwing Britain’s rich, so that the incomes of the working class can be protected, ignores the political interests of the players involved in these markets. At the very least increased interest rates would be demanded if steps along this road were taken, which means they would get their pound of flesh one way or the other.

It makes no sense to offer alternatives that depend on actions by the state when you also argue any possible government won’t introduce them.  To paraphrase Marx again, the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.  So must the fight against austerity, the defence of living standards and against war.

Under capitalism the place of the working class is determined by its absence of property ownership – the means of producing goods and services.  If you create these by your labour but don’t own them, you can’t expect to receive the revenue arising from them, and especially from a state that is there to defend existing property rights.

This means that the income of the working class comes overwhelmingly from wages and if these are being reduced through inflation the correct response is to increase them, including through strikes.  The working class in many countries is now in the fortunate position of being in a period of low unemployment where it can take advantage of its position in the labour market to organise, demand wage increases and fight for them.  The longer term perspective is to take ownership of the means of production, and thus of the goods and services produced, so it can determine the distribution of the incomes derived from their use and sale.  In this it will obviously come up against the state determined to defend the rights of existing ownership.

It should be axiomatic for the left that the benevolence of the state is not the answer.  It takes the workers’ own money and then decides how much of it to give back, to whom and for what purpose.  It also borrows, then taxes workers to repay the borrowing.  In all this it buys the goodwill of workers with their own money, pretending it is that of the government.  The problem of lack of income then becomes one of demanding that the state gives you more, in the form of lower taxes, higher welfare and pensions, payments for not working (as in Covid) or subsidies to pay energy bills.

This analysis derives from very basic understandings derived from Marxism that many of its adherents accept in theory only to forget in practice.  The failure produces a phenomenon not unknown to Marx.

It produces an inverted reality in which workers seek salvation in actions by the instrument of their subordination.  It illustrates the grain of truth in accusations of the right that welfare dependency creates a culture of dependency, of which the politics of much of the left is a demonstration.  It is indeed ironic that the right often betrays a better appreciation of the role of the state than many self-described socialists.

This state-centred socialism has resulted in support for Brexit because it is believed that somehow the British state can be relied upon to be more progressive than any European one, and can become the vehicle to introduce socialism.

It fuelled demands for more stringent lockdowns during the pandemic because the state can miraculously give people money to buy goods and services it then prevents them from making and providing.

The Left’s “zero-COVID” strategy in operation in China (Chinatopix Via AP)

It now results in support for a notoriously corrupt capitalist state and its armed forces because it supposedly embodies the interests of Ukrainian workers; indeed the workers of the world, even while it acts on behalf of the most powerful states, together forming what is customarily called imperialism.

The Left joins supporters of the Ukrainian state who just happen to be fascists https://theintercept.com/2022/06/30/ukraine-azov-neo-nazi-foreign-fighter/ Photo:NurPhoto via Getty Images: veterans of the Azov volunteer battalion attend a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 14, 2020

From all this we can see that the task of the left in assisting the British working class in the current political crisis needs some work itself.  A lot of work.

Back to part 1

The crisis in British politics (1) – Brexit

For weeks my wife had complained about Johnson and his lies and wondered how on earth he had managed to survive.  How did he get away with it and when will we be rid of him?  

I explained that although he would go eventually I wanted the crisis caused by his repeated lying to continue as he was dragging the rest of the Tory Party down with him.  I also explained that his biggest lie was Brexit and Kier Starmer wasn’t calling him out on it.  In fact, he was repeating the lie by claiming he could get it to work.

When she wondered how long Liz Truss would last I ventured the opinion that the longer she stayed the more divided the Tory Party would become although I also said she was already toast.  Once again Brexit loomed large and about the only useful service she provided was to admit it in her very short, 89 seconds, resignation speech – ‘we set out a vision for a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit.’

Indeed she did.  She demonstrated that ‘taking back control’ was a fantasy and that attempting the national road to growth the Tories planned for Britain was deluded.  The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote that the Labour Party, Lib-Dems and ‘moderate’ Tories should now strike her ‘extreme brand of libertarian, state-destroying, Europe-baiting, austerity politics . . .  dead so it never resurrects, so no one ever tries it again any more than they would advocate Stalinism.’

Unfortunately, while she may prove correct about the Right, although I doubt it, she has already been proved wrong about similar nationalistic, Brexit-supporting ideas on the Left, which range from Starmerism to Stalinism, plus some ‘Trotskyism’, which spoils the alliteration, but that still makes for a strange unity of purpose. The opinion poll by Tony Blair’s think tank asked for one word that describes Brexit for its supporters and opponents.  For supporters it was the word ‘Freedom’. However, if such ‘freedom’ doesn’t make a nationalist capitalist programme possible how much more impossible is the idea of such freedom bringing about socialism?

The dominance of such a stupid idea arises not from the idea itself but from what it seems to allow – a much reduced role for the state or a much increased one; its reactionary character demonstrated by the fact it can succeed in neither.  Far from thinking it has been achieved by Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ Government, more believe it hasn’t that has, with only 6 per cent thinking it has been completely accomplished.  Sixty per cent think it has made the economy worse; in the North of Ireland its rating is negative 72 per cent and negative in parts of the so-called “red wall” in the north-east of England.

This doesn’t prevent about two-thirds expecting some benefits from Brexit, but since the most likely anticipated is new trade deals this has already been disappointed.  The prospect of ‘better UK laws’, ‘less immigration’, ‘better-funded public services’, ‘greater influence in the world’ and ‘lower prices’ are all being disproved.  No matter how blinkered its supporters may be, even with blinkers you can still see what is going on.

Where an alternative might come from explains a lot of the crisis in British politics.  Asked which option you would choose for the UK’s place within Europe in the next 10–15 years, only 23 per cent said inside the EU, while 36 per cent said some sort of new trading partnership outside, and 11 per cent said outside the EU but inside the single market.  In other words, almost half thought they could choose having your cake and eating it, or an arrangement that made Brexit pointless at best.  Only 45 per cent of Remain voters supported joining the EU.  That this is the case is suggestive of the role of political parties in setting out what appears possible; after all, if next to no one is saying it would even be a good idea then achieving it becomes, at best, something remote.

I informed my wife that the press were reporting some Tories saying that it would be better if the Labour Party took over; something that none of them would have claimed had Corbyn been leader, not altogether for rational reasons it must be said.  This told us that such a view was informed not just by the idea that the Tory Party needed a period in opposition to get their act together but by the view that the mess created would be better cleaned up by Labour.  Labour could then take the hit for all the unpopular decisions that the Tories are promising and still formulating.

Of course, allowing a general election when some opinion poll shows Tory support at 14 per cent means this is rather an unattractive position.  At this level they would seem to be justified in believing that the only way is up.  Instead, therefore, they will likely try to climb their way back with the new leader– the richest man in parliament, increasing taxes while his household has avoided a reported £20 million, and introducing austerity in which claiming ‘we are all in this together’ can only be seen as so much transparent nonsense.  Misguided attempts to suppress energy prices or reduce their impact will not so much be more targeted as just avoid aiming at most of them.  Inflation will continue and so will support for a war drummed up by unprecedented censorship and propaganda that has millions believing the righteousness of a state previously noteworthy for its corruption, internal division and endearment to fascists.

Having been trounced by the financial markets and the state, in the shape most obviously of the Bank of England, the new Tory leader will be on-side.  Despite being a supporter of Brexit, he will still be detested by the hard-right of the Party, although its traditionally good at hanging together instead of hanging apart.

Which brings us back to Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which has to reckon on being the opposition, something it hasn’t been very good at.  Starmer’s Party has been characterised as a policy-free zone, but this does not mean policies will not, in the absence of an alternative, impose themselves.  In a longer time-frame, ‘making Brexit work’ will not work.  Immediately, calling for a general election only puts more pressure on it to set out an alternative, and the more we see of that the less alternative it looks.

We will look at that in the next post

The Assembly elections and Brexit

The Assembly elections a month ago saw Sinn Fein become the largest party and entitled to nominate the First Minister of Northern Ireland.  The election was heralded as historic with an Irish nationalist taking the post for the first time.  Nationalists celebrated, although without much celebration, pointing to the irony of the ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ being headed by a (Catholic) nationalist.  Whether this was doubly ironic was not considered – what is the imperative to dismantle the Northern state if it is no longer able to guarantee its original purpose of sectarian supremacy?

Very symbolic, everyone agreed.  But beyond this obvious reversal, symbolic of what?

Perhaps the heralding of border polls North and South that would deliver a united Ireland?

This blog has argued that such unity is some way off and there does not yet exist a majority for a united Ireland in the North. Sinn Fein’s victory confirms this.

Despite declaring the election ‘historic’, turnout was slightly down from 64.78% in 2017 to 63.61% last month.  Sinn Fein appears to have cannibalised the nationalist vote rather than extended it, as its share increased by 1% and that of the nationalist SDLP fell by 2.9%.  As a share of the total vote the nationalist total amounted to 40.93% (353,069 votes), when including votes for People before Profit and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, (on the grounds that their position on the national question involves support for a united Ireland).

A point made here before however is that the national question will not be confined to purely national questions whenever it comes to be posed as a realistic possibility.  The ‘conversation’ campaigned for by Sinn Fein about such possibility does not make it probable.

The combined vote of unionist parties was only just under 4,000 less than the nationalist total at 40.47%.  Its composition changed however, as some DUP voters found something even more reactionary to vote for – the Traditional Unionist Voice vote increased from 2.55% to 7.63%, increasing more than three times absolutely.  Sinn Fein became the largest Party only because of Unionist division. Its prominence is therefore symbolic of what caused this division and weakening of unionism.

Since it might reasonably be expected that voting in a border poll will entail different considerations and additional incentives to participation it is necessary to consider what the election results imply for the outcome of a border poll.  If we consider the Sinn Fein result not just in terms of those who voted (29%) but as a share of the electorate as a whole (18.5%) we can see the scope of the potential impact of any increased turnout.

It is assumed that the 2021 census results that will come out relatively soon will record an increase in the Catholic share of the population and decrease in the Protestant. The last Census in 2011 found 45.1% of the Northern Ireland population were Catholic, with 48.4% from a Protestant background.  More importantly, religious background does not map directly onto political allegiance – the 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey reported that 32% of respondents identified as unionist, 26% as nationalist and 38% as other.  An examination of support for the Alliance Party illustrates the complexity.

It was held up as the real winner of the election, heralding not the victory of Irish nationalism but of ‘the centre ground’ in which the ‘constitutional question’ is not primary.  The party’s vote increased to 13.53% (116,681 votes) from 9.05% (72,717 votes), or an absolute increase in votes of 60%.

The Party originates as a straightforward Unionist Party with a clear position on the border but has moved away from presenting as a non-sectarian unionist party to a party variously described as neither unionist nor nationalist, as ‘other’, agnostic on the border or simply seeking to relegate it to the future. Beyond this, the Alliance Party has never shown that it is any real opposition to most of the reactionary policies pursued by either Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.

The weakness of this is obvious.  The national question is not one that can forever be avoided and the context and terms in which it is presented will go a long way in determining responses.  It will not simply be a question of recording existing opinions but a political struggle to change them, which will be heavily impacted by economic and social developments that will be driven by outside forces, as we have already seen through Brexit.

Most people already have a view, even Alliance voters.  The NILT survey is reported as showing that over half of all Alliance voters supported membership of the UK while only 35% of it from a Catholic background supported a united Ireland. When we consider that some (minority) of nationalists, in the SDLP for example, may not vote for a united Ireland and that the majority of those who do not vote will be from a Protestant background, the odds on a vote for a united Ireland are fairly long, as is the timescale in which it might become otherwise.

What has heightened speculation has been Brexit and the economic and political effects of unionist support for it, including through some unionists finding themselves voting against it.  While the DUP strongly supported it, and the hardest version of it they could get, the Ulster Unionist Party opposed Brexit, although it left it to its members whether they could support it or not.

The reverberations from the inconsistency between the anti-Brexit view of a minority of unionist voters and its most prominent leaders is not something that is going to go away. Brexit is not a one-off move, as many of its supporters believe.  Far from being the achievement of ‘freedom’ it involves increasing separation from Europe with all the negative consequences that it will continue to bring, for as long as it is implemented as it is currently.  What is really symbolic in the circumstances is the large number of unionists getting Irish (EU) passports (even some who voted for Brexit).

Trade between North and South has increased dramatically while trade between the Irish State and Britain has reduced as some of this is re-routed from the direct crossing via Dublin port to Northern Ireland and then into the Irish State.  This in itself matters because the Irish State is no longer significantly underdeveloped compared to Britain.  It is no longer clearly the case that people in the North would be significantly worse off if they lived in a united Ireland, on top of which the sectarian aspects of the Irish State have diminished, although far from disappeared.  What were once absolutes have been, and are still, in transition.  It is the North that now looks backward and parochial to increasing numbers of people across the island.

What is of more immediate importance is that despite claims to having got Brexit done, the Tory Government has demonstrated that it hasn’t got anywhere near it.  This is most obvious with the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol but is also shown through more delays to the introduction of controls on EU goods imported into Britain; plus the failure to gear up its own regulatory bodies to perform the functions previously carried out at EU level, and continued complaints of exclusion from European initiatives such as the Horizon scientific research programme.

The DUP is now refusing to join the Executive of the devolved administration and to allow the newly elected Assembly to operate.  It claims that the Protocol has impacted on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, even though Jeffrey Donaldson has previously specifically dismissed such a claim, and the Party’s previous leader attempted to argue its positive impact on the local economy.

The DUP’s problem is not that Brexit has failed but that it has succeeded in demonstrating that it was a mistake.  The Protocol that was necessitated by the hardest Brexit the DUP could support is held up as being to blame for weakening political links to Britain. It dishonestly claims that it fundamentally impairs Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the UK while nationalists equally dishonestly claim it has no significance at all.

While the DUP opposes the Protocol and nationalists support it both want it changed, and both want to pretend and ensure that Brexit can and will have little or no impact on trade. While both claimed before the vote that Brexit would have big consequences they now want to pretend it can have next to none.  It is claimed that the frictions and additional costs to trade can be more or less ameliorated and risks to the integrity of the EU’s Single Market minimised if not ignored.  

All are in reality, or so it is claimed, united on a ‘landing zone’ for a deal in which goods from Britain destined for the Northern Ireland market go through a radically different procedure than those being forwarded to the Irish State.  In this the business lobby is widely quoted as the experts without any particular agenda.

Already the EU has signaled that there can be dramatic reductions in checks but that this requires access to information, data flows and means of assurance that the British have so far refused to give, contrary to the Protocol they agreed and signed. Despite claims to the contrary the risk to the Single Market is not zero, and the British Foreign Secretary has already boasted of the future ability of Britain to import into Northern Ireland agricultural products from the rest of the world that would not be allowed into the European market.  This is not to mention other British objections around state aid and governance etc. that the EU will not accept.

The DUP hitched itself to Boris Johnson’s Brexit and was betrayed through his agreement to the Protocol, an agreement the Brexit Tories had no intention of keeping.  For the Tories, the Protocol gives them the advantage of continuing to rally their support around a Brexit struggle they claimed to have already won, while offering some hope that they can leverage any EU concessions into the wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

For the DUP, reversal of previous claims that the Protocol is no threat and had positive economic impacts, provides an avenue for them to regroup from their mistakes and attempt to regain their position as the biggest party and therefore entitlement to the post of First Minister.  It was their idea to change the rules so that the largest party could claim this post, which had previously enabled it to demand support from unionists in order to prevent Sinn Fein capturing it.  If they can get sufficient concessions on the Protocol it can wait for another election, claim the credit and then get back to displacing Sinn Fein as the biggest party.

This requires reliance on the Johnson Government continuing to dispute with the EU but also ultimately coming to an agreement. Despite a continuation of the dispute being a reminder that Johnson did not ‘get Brexit done’ it is the only route he has to protecting his position inside the Conservative Party and providing some sort of cover for Brexit’s negative consequences.   The introduction of the legislative route to overturning the Protocol builds some delay to actually having to break from it or swallow defeat. This is obviously not sustainable in the longer term and is less and less convincing in distracting from Brexit’s failures. In these circumstances The EU has little reason to accept British demands.

The DUP will find it difficult to retreat while Johnson pretends he can face down the EU, and Johnson has become such a liability his policy of asking the punters why he did Brexit in the first place, and sticking a crown on pint glasses, will not cover for his mess.

The victory of Sinn Fein might be symbolic, but it arises within circumstances more important than such symbolism. It might herald a position in government office North and South of the border but the border will still be there and, as usual with its successes, it will illustrate that what is good for it has only remote connection to what is good for the Irish working class.

Stormont falls again – Brexit on loop

The decision by the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive was a bit of a surprise, but it only evoked the sort of reaction among many people of – ‘whatever’.

He had set so many deadlines and made so many declarations of his seriousness that most people had begun to take it as background noise.  It’s not as if the Stormont Executive hasn’t collapsed before.

Those more interested couldn’t help recalling that he supported Brexit that gave rise to the NI protocol in the first place, and his claims about the damaging effects of it sit uneasily with his previous statement that he could live with the loss of 40,000 jobs as a consequence of Brexit. 

The timing of the announcement makes no sense except in narrow party terms; as an attempt to shore up a vote that looks like it has fallen by a third: from 28 per cent in 2017 to one opinion poll recording 19.4 per cent today. All a result of the ‘existential threat’ to the union which Donaldson claims the Protocol represents but to which his party was midwife.  

On top of this disastrous strategy we can factor in the shambolic removal of one leader only to have to get rid of her replacement in a matter of days. A party previously dominated by one messianic personality now looks at a crisis with no authoritative leadership at all.

The threat to its vote has appeared to come from two sources: from an even more rabid unionism but also from those less extreme who can see the party’s responsibility for the mess.  In an effort to shore up support there could never be any doubt as to which side the DUP would seek to win back.

The weakness of its position is evident not just because its own policy clearly led to the Protocol but that its strategy is still to rely on the word of the most untrustworthy politician ever to hold the job of British Prime Minister, and that is a very high bar, especially when it comes to anything related to Ireland.

Donaldson revealed only a day after his decision that Johnson had told him that there was only a 20–30% chance of an agreement between the British and EU on the Protocol and that he would not commit to unilateral action as previously promised if there was no agreement.  On top of this Johnson’s Secretary of State has promised to implement legislation on the Irish language in opposition to DUP demands.  And this is who they now rely on! When Johnson did make a gesture to help Donaldson out by allowing double-jobbing at Westminster and London that decision was reversed in a week.

This weakness of the DUP position was unconsciously revealed when the party complained that its four reasons for collapsing the Executive included failure by Sinn Fein to fund celebrations of the British Queen’s platinum jubilee and preventing the planting of a centenary rose bush at Stormont.

More relevant to this weakness is a recent opinion poll recording that not much more than one in ten unionists think the Protocol is the main issue, coming fourth in their list of concerns.

It is all very well for the British government to wave the DUP threat in front of the eyes of the EU, but given Donaldson’s report of his meeting with Johnson it’s hard to believe that the EU would change its relaxed attitude to the repeated threats of the British.  The EU has been careful not to inflame opinion in Ireland as it needs no extraneous factor complicating its negotiations with a party it pretty well has the measure of.

What we have witnessed therefore is a re-run of the Brexit referendum.  The DUP have been spooked by one opinion poll showing its more extreme competitor, Traditional Unionist Voice, increasing its potential support from 6 per cent to 12 per cent while its own vote has dropped.  

So, it moves even further to the right and meets with loyalist paramilitaries before announcing its new strategy of withdrawal from a Stormont that it wants to lead.  Very like the way the Conservative party felt compelled to play with a Brexit referendum under pressure from a UKIP that was never going to go very far.  The otherwise lack of interest or prominence of the issue of EU membership among a majority of people in Britain before the referendum is mirrored in the North of Ireland by the relatively relaxed view of the Protocol.

We have even had the DUP parrot ridiculous numbers about the cost of the Protocol to the Northern Ireland economy, which bear as much relation to the truth as the claim by the Leave campaign that it could get back £350m a week from the EU to give to the NHS.  In both cases the culprits are the most reactionary petty bourgeois movements with no positive agenda.  In both cases, the British economy and the economy of Northern Ireland would actually benefit from what was/is the status quo.

The mini-drama in the North of Ireland is a reminder to the British public that Brexit isn’t done.  While the Westminster opposition vituperates over Johnson’s lies over boozy parties at the office his biggest lie – Brexit – is ignored by the congenitally cowardly and reactionary leader of the opposition.  Instead it reverberates in the North of Ireland through a crisis of the party of petty bourgeois reactionaries who supported it most; it’s not a coincidence that Donaldson worked for ultra-reactionary Enoch Powell as the latter saw out his remaining political days as a Unionist MP for South Down.

Just as DUP support for Brexit has ushered in the Irish Sea border, so have the changed rules to the formation of a First and Deputy First Minister at Stormont that the DUP championed opened the door to a potential Sinn Fein First Minister.  In both cases the potential consequences were foreseeable but that didn’t stop the DUP.

It now faces the prospect of its stupidity putting this on the agenda after the elections in May, an outcome that it cannot accept and one no unionist party has admitted it will.  An extended period of paralysis in the workings at Stormont can therefore be expected.  New rules mean that the institutions can survive longer without anyone actually performing the role of a government.  A case of making the rules conform to much of the experience of the devolved arrangements over the last couple of decades, where the lights have been on but nobody has been in.

All these circumstances testify to the continuing political degeneration of the Northern state and its unionist foundations, although decay is not an alternative.  We can see this easily when we note that Sinn Fein are currently the biggest party in opinion poll terms with less than a quarter of the first preference vote.  Even with the SDLP, the combined nationalist support is only one third. Countdown to a United Ireland this is not.

Internally, the failure of unionism to reassert sectarian supremacy to its satisfaction has created fracture and division.  It hitching its wagon to the hubris of its old imperialist mentor has further weakened it where it thought it could have prospered.  From outside it has instead been the development of European capital through the EU that has now delivered a different dynamic for change that will weaken it further.

Change often comes slowly but it still comes.  The fracturing of unionism is to be welcomed as is the inevitable failure of Brexit, which will become ever more obvious.  One barrier to this taking a more progressive direction is the failure of social democratic forces to expose the failure and to offer an alternative, and unfortunately the pro-Brexit left stands behind it as the redundant non-alternative.

Opinion polls and a United Ireland 2 – unionist pessimism, nationalist optimism and Brexit

The pessimism of unionism revealed again in the Lord Ashcroft poll is based on their uncomfortable reliance on perfidious Albion – ‘more voters thought the Westminster government would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than thought it would rather keep the province as part of the Union. Only 11% of voters, and only 21% of Unionists, said they thought Westminster very much wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. A further 22% of all voters thought it would prefer to keep the province as part of the Union.’ 

If the Northern state were really as British as Finchley this would be inexplicable.

‘In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.’

Nationalist voters are more convinced that Britain wants to get out, with 68% believing this.  Given the determination of the British State to defeat the struggle against its rule by some of them this is somewhat surprising, but is only one element of their view of the world, and in part reflects their view of the patent illegitimacy of partition and the palpable failure of the Northern state to be what is considered ‘normal’.

Another element is that one third of nationalists think the Southern state is indifferent or opposed to a united Ireland.  While almost 95% think there should be a referendum on Irish unity within 10 years and 86% think there will be, there is apprehension at how it might occur.  Commentary to the poll states that ‘Many were also nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle. They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.’

This view can hardly be dismissed, since every change to the Northern State, including the demand for civil rights, has been met with protest and violence by unionism.  The view that a referendum in the South should follow one in the North is an additional incentive for unionist aggression and to make any threats credible.

The latest change is the Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the British government and EU following Brexit.  Unionist leaders claim it has constitutional implications, that their agreement to it is therefore required, and that they’re not giving it.  Since the argued direct constitutional effect is mistaken, although not its implications, unionism is arguing – as it always does – that no change can be made to the arrangements within the Northern State without its agreement.  Since its politics are overwhelmingly sectarian and wholly reactionary this is one reason why partition should be ended and a united Ireland is progressive.

The main reason for nationalist optimism is demographic, that the share of the Catholic population is growing and Protestant Unionist one is declining; Ashcroft states that ‘one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane, “we breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.” More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.’

The poll states that ‘Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for unification, with 24% opting to stay in the UK; among those aged 65 or over, only 25% backed a united Ireland, with 55% choosing the status quo.’

It also reports the finding that ‘More than a quarter (27%) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK . . . Among neutrals, 62% thought voters would choose the status quo tomorrow, but 66% thought they would back a united Ireland in ten years’ time.’  Nationalists anticipate that people will change their minds and change them in only one direction.

One reason for this belief is the claimed effect of Brexit. According to the poll 95% of nationalists/republicans opposed Brexit while 66% of unionists supported it.  The 30% of unionists who opposed Brexit and the 92% of those defined as ‘neutral’ (those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution) who also opposed it are expected to, or at least it is hoped will, change their views on the constitutional question because of the UK leaving the EU.

The poll makes much of its effects – ‘Participants in all our focus groups spoke about rising prices and shortages of goods, including food, clothes, household items and building materials. Several noted that ordering items from overseas had become more expensive or in some cases impossible; several had experienced Amazon being unable to ship certain items to Northern Ireland. Such problems were attributed to Brexit, the Protocol, covid, the Suez Canal blockage, or various combinations of all four.’

It finds that ‘Nearly 9 in 10 voters (88%) said they thought Brexit had been a cause of shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland, including 62% who said it had been a major factor. This was especially true of Nationalist/Republicans, with 73% of 2017 SDLP voters and 90% of Sinn Féin voters saying they believed Brexit had been a major factor.’

‘Three quarters of 2016 Leave voters said Brexit had had a part to play in shortages, including 29% thinking it had been a major factor.’

‘Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) of them, including 89% of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major factor, compared to 38% who said the same of Brexit more generally.’

The poll asked ‘whether Brexit had affected people’s views as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. For three quarters, it had made no difference: 43% said they had thought the province should be part of the UK before Brexit and still did; 32% said they had favoured a united Ireland before Brexit and they still did.’

However, ‘13% said they had thought Northern Ireland should stay in the UK before Brexit, but now favoured a united Ireland. This included 40% of 2017 SDLP voters, 34% of those who had backed the Alliance party, and 36% of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution.

A further 9% (including 36% of 2017 Alliance voters, 29% of constitutional neutrals and 9% of self-described Unionists) said Brexit had made them less sure that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK.’

Again, its perceived effects reflect previous dispositions, with 34% of unionists believing Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, 99% of nationalists thinking it does, and 89% of ‘neutrals’ believing the same. Nationalist optimism and unionist pessimism are long standing but have not changed the existing political division.  It is therefore an open question whether Brexit will have the effect of persuading some unionists or ‘neutrals’ to support a united Ireland.  It will certainly not strengthen opposition to it and its longer term economic effects may be more powerful in shifting views than relatively minor shortages.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

‘From Empire to Europe’, and then where?

‘From Empire to Europe: The Decline and Revival of British Industry since the Second World War, Geoffrey Owen, Harper Collins, 2000.

This is another book I read last year: a history that more than most has contemporary relevance.  It charts the story of British manufacturing from the end of the Second World War to the end of the century.  The majority consists of ten chapters on the experience of separate industries, from textiles and steel to cars and pharmaceuticals.  Not all are stories of failure.

Two early chapters present the historical background and four at the end review differing explanations for Britain’s relative decline.

The book was first published in 1999 and screams ‘BREXIT’ – as a history of the future of Britain outside the EU, or so it might too easily be concluded.  In fact, given the relative starting positions of Britain and the rest of Europe, then and now, the mistake of standing outside of the rest the continent now looks more obviously stupid and will more quickly be seen to be so.  If it isn’t already.

After the war ended it was expected that in due course Germany would resume its pre-war role of supplying Europe with manufactures; Britain could concentrate on the rest of the world with which it already traded.  The Labour Government decided against joining the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and ceding sovereignty over its two most important industries, while the left of the Labour Party complained of the economic liberalism on the Continent it said led to social injustice.  Foreign  Secretary, Ernest Bevin, insisted that Britain was ‘not just another European country.’  Some economists at the Board of Trade favoured membership of the ECSC on the grounds of exposure to European competition, but this was a minority view.

The Tory Government from 1951 broadly followed its predecessor, rejecting a second opportunity to join the ECSC or taking part in negotiations to create the Common Market.  European integration was, in the words of another author quoted, ‘at best irrelevant to Britain’s economic self-interest and at worst a political nuisance which had to be tolerated, if only in public, because of the Americans.’

Again and again, Owen records the effect of being outside the European market.  In textiles small and medium-sized firms from Italy and Germany benefited ‘to a far greater extent than the British industry from the expansion of intra-European trade in the 1950s and 1960s . . . where the long-standing bias towards non-European export markets proved to be a serious disadvantage’ (p57)

When eventually Britain did join the Common Market, it found that its European competitors ‘instead of scale and standardisation . . . had put more emphasis on design and technical innovation . . . imports from the Continent rose sharply in the second half of the 1970s, and the British textile industry, having neglected European markets in the 1950s and 1960s, was not well equipped to respond.’ (p77)

In shipbuilding ‘the export trade was regarded as marginal and unpredictable’ and ‘a marketing strategy geared to the requirements of domestic owners was becoming obsolete’. (p97 & 100). In steel, ‘traditionally the most nationalistic of all major industries . . .  European steel-makers needed a market as large and competitive as that of the US’, and ‘while recognising that the smaller domestic market-imposed limits on how far British steel-makers could go in the American direction . . .’ there were barriers to this being achieved within Britain.

On the other hand, while ‘there was a long tradition of price-fixing in French steel, and the industry had bee oriented almost entirely to the domestic market the effect of the European Coal and Steel Community (which was opposed by most French steel makers) was to break down the parochialism of the industry and force it to plan for a wider European market.’ (p 148, 127 & 130).

In the paper industry, joining the Common Market ‘would have exposed it ‘at an earlier stage to competition in a large dynamic market; ‘modernisation and rationalisation which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s might have occurred earlier’ and it would ‘have provided export opportunities’ which might also ‘have started earlier.’ (p170)

In relation to the engineering industry Owen writes that, after the war, ‘when the continental economies were in disarray and the need for hard currency was urgent’, when standing aside might been seen as explicable, ‘the neglect of Continental Europe . . . after its recovery in the 1950s . . . was to prove a serious error.’ Seemingly strongly placed in the early 1960s, low economic growth and lack of involvement in intra-European trade meant that ‘an increasing number of British manufacturers were falling behind their Continental counterparts in the scale of their production.’   The failure to Europeanise in the 10–15 years after the war meant that for many firms it was too late when they did.

A similar experience les behind the decline of the British motor industry: ‘the decline of Leyland has to be seen as an avoidable disaster, largely attributable to the failure to Europeanise the business in the 1950s and 1960s.’ (p249). The ‘low priority’ given by British firms to Continental Europe meant that they did not join ‘homogenous, fast-expanding and highly competitive mass market enabled companies such as Renault, Volkswagen and Fiat to narrow the productivity gap with American manufactures . . .’ (p250)

Owen points out that European industry was itself not always successful and notes its failure in computers and semiconductors.  Of the former he says that ‘European industry might have done better if governments, instead of nurturing and protecting national champions, had concentrated on widening the market for computers . . . As it was, nationalistic, producer-oriented policies, discriminating in favour of chosen domestic suppliers, exacerbated Europe’s most serious weakness vis-à-vis the US, the small size of the market.’ (p270)

Owen makes clear that lack of orientation to a European market was sometimes a mistake not just made by the British, and that failure was not simply a result of lack of access to that market.  Other strategic mistakes were made. Half a century later it would therefore be an identical mistake to see market restrictions only on a continental scale as the problem, when many industries now have global markets and global production.

So, Renault is partnered with Nissan and Mitsubishi; Volkswagen includes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda plus others and has an alliance with Ford, while Fiat is now part of Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Jeep, Peugeot, and Citroën.  Britain has a small luxury car market with volume production owned by foreign companies.

Owen tells a similar story about chemicals, noting however that the success of ICI by the end of the period covered was despite the factors that harmed the development of British companies in other industries.

Others were also successful, such as pharmaceuticals, which Owen says was due, among other things, to its ‘openness to foreign investment.’ (p372). This ensured that ‘British-owned firms were forced to compete against the world leaders and learn from them.’ (p387)

In the last chapters he looks at common explanations for the decline of British industry after the war, including the nature and dominance of the financial system; the quality of training, education and culture; poor industrial relations, and Government policy.

On the first, he says that ‘the financial system on its own does not have a decisive influence on which countries succeed in particular industries, although it may play a supporting role.’ (p403).  He does not believe culture or education factors were decisive either, and although he notes that ‘there is no doubt that some British companies were badly managed in the 1950s and 1960s . . . there was significant improvement in the 1980s and 1990s.’ (p 422)

On Government policy ‘the decision to opt out of European integration was the biggest missed opportunity of the 1945–60 period, more important than any mistakes in macro-economic policy.  Indeed, it is hard to argue that Britain suffered from uniquely incompetent macro-economic management during these years.’  (p 450) Britain became a member of the EEC ‘fifteen years too late.’  He concludes on an optimistic note, telling us that ‘by the end of the 1990s Britain had found a role for itself as a medium-sized industrial nation, well integrated into the world market.’  (p 461)

Everyone loves a happy ending so maybe it’s as well the book hasn’t had another edition.  The ‘unique incompetence’ of British Government economic policy that didn’t exist after the war looks as if it has arrived.  But not only the government, the informed commentariat look as if they think this policy should persist, or, more charitably, be persevered with.

In today’s ‘Financial Times’ (6 January) Robert Shrimsley records the view that ‘Tories are wondering what happened to the Brexit they promised’, as if they got ‘the house red’ rather than the ‘vintage claret’.  He recommends that ‘whether one sees Brexit as fabulous or foolhardy, it is absurd not to take the wins that are available.’   

Unfortunately, the wins he seems to champion do not seem to be up to very much and also have downsides. His recommendation, therefore, is to continue better with a failed policy that will do nothing much more than deliver failure.  He, like Kier Starmer – the so-called leader of the opposition – can no more think of going back into the EU than Tory Eurosceptics could previously stop dreaming of leaving it.

The book tells a sorry tale of British failure to appreciate where the world was going and what its place in this changing world was to be.  It has happened again with Brexit.  Deciding to persevere is what’s called déjà vu all over again. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit 2 – the cart without a horse

The offer by the EU to significantly reduce checks on goods, especially food, on the Irish Sea border, and the promise to legislate for British authorisation of medicines supplied into NI and therefore the Single Market, takes away the salience of complaints of barriers to the supply of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland.  The solution of the medicines issue was promised long ago and the EU was never going to allow itself to be held up to criticism for preventing the supply of medicines, including cancer treatments, to NI.  The non-issue of British sausages that was already hardly alive was killed once again by the EU breaking with its policy on chilled meats entering the Single Market. 

This does not mean that these issues are solved.  One reason that the existing border checks did not work was because the British and Unionist minister at Stormont made sure that they didn’t.  The scope, or motivation, for a repeat approach by the British in the enforcement of the compensating mechanisms proposed by the EU for the abandonment of checks at the sea border remain to be seen.

Instead, the question of the role of the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been held aloft by the British as the key requirement in negotiation of a new Protocol.  Of course, the unionists don’t want any Protocol but that could only be the outcome if the UK and EU entered a trade war that none would benefit from, especially the British.  The unionists aren’t worth that price for the British so they will just have to sell as a victory whatever Johnson and Frost agree to in the end.

However, if both the British and unionists wanted to declare victory now is the time to do it.  The EU declared it would not negotiate and it has; its restrictions on food imports and requirement for authorisation within the EU for medicines circulating within it are important elements of its Single Market but have been given up in this case (the former to an extent).  It can bypass them only because it believes it can contain these concessions within the Protocol, that is within its arrangements for the North of Ireland.  It obviously takes the view that there will be no leakage into any other trading relationship and no precedent set that could be exploited by other trading partners.

Both the British and unionists could therefore claim that not only has it forced the EU to negotiate the Protocol, which it still denies, but that they have compelled the EU to surrender much of what it said it could not do.  It has political coverage for this not only for the reasons just set out but also because for its Irish member state and for Northern nationalists what matters is that there is no Single Market land border down the middle of the country.  As long as the checks along the Irish sea are held to be working, they are happy.

But this will remain an issue.  The more the British depart from EU regulation, the greater the scope for unapproved goods to circulate into the Single Market and therefore greater risk to the integrity of it.  The compensating proposals from the EU would therefore have to have meaningful effect and will grow in impact as Britain diverges from EU requirements, whether arising from its own decisions or from those of changed EU rules.

This is not the declared reason for the new prominence of the ECJ in British demands.  Instead, it is what a NI business representative called “nothing but a Brexit purity issue.”  For him the ECJ “it is not a practical or business issue.”  In fact, for business the Protocol gives unique access to both the UK and EU markets.  Were the British market certain to continue to be the much more lucrative and important the unionists would have little to fear from this parallel opportunity.  However, the growing trade between North and South and the reduced trade between the Irish State and Britain means that their opposition to the Protocol on political grounds is justified even if nationalists deny it. Unfortunately for unionist leaders this political opposition is detrimental to the people they represent, which will not have short term importance but will in the long term.

The unionist commentator Newton Emerson has argued that Irish and EU complaints about British negotiating tactics are a ‘slight loss of perspective’ and that their annoyance is mistaken.  In effect, both sides are at it and it’s a case of ‘all is fair in love and war’ . . . and trade negotiations.  He is however wrong to say that “the fact that Frost is tearing up his own deal is a redundant complaint.  The protocol is being negotiated.”  It matters that the negotiations that are now being conducted are not a first stab at an agreement but follow bad faith negotiations by the British who never intended to implement the deal they signed.

It matters because all the arguments made by Emerson about the ECJ not being necessary for Single Market governance must face up to this.  It is not a matter of whether the NI Protocol can be made amenable to Swiss type arrangements or those governing EU relations with Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which insert arrangements that put ECJ competence at a greater distance.

Why would the EU agree to Swiss governance arrangements when the British have just rejected Swiss trading arrangements? Why would they seek to introduce arrangements involving numerous bilateral treaties that they already find too onerous and have sought to dispense with?  Why would they seek the governance arrangements applied with Norway etc. when the British specifically rejected the EEA option as the form of Brexit they should seek?  Part of the reason why the EU will not want to agree is that the British cannot be trusted.  

If Emerson wants to critique the statements of Irish politicians in relation to the British approach to negotiations he would be better to start with Varadkar’s nonsense that “for decades, for centuries, British people in many ways were renowned by the fact that they were an honourable people; people whose word you could trust . . .“ And by “people” it should be understood to mean the British state.

Has he not heard of Perfidious Albion?  Has he no knowledge of the Anglo-Irish treaty, with its Boundary Commission, or the promise by the British king in 1921 that the new Northern Ireland parliament would be “an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community . . .’?

The British may reject the mitigations of border checks and alternative arrangements and may demand removal of any role for the ECJ.  If they do, they may proceed with Article 16, which will lead to further negotiations but also opens up the possibility of retaliatory measures against them by the EU.  Tory Brexiteers are still bloviating about the EU needing Britain more than the Brits need the EU but only the blinkered continue to entertain such nonsense.

It is reported that Article 16 may be triggered by the British on narrow grounds that may avoid a fuller EU retaliatory response but we would have to see what such narrow grounds might be and the EU has indicated it is weary of British negotiating tactics.

Even if the EU were to agree to some intervening body between the operation of the Protocol and adjudication by the ECJ, this would not essentially change the fact that there would be a Protocol that would involve a trade border between NI and GB and none between the North and South of Ireland.  It would not change Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets or the economic dynamics released by this arrangement.  It would not put to bed the problems that will arise if the British decide to increasingly diverge from EU rules.  It would not change the enforcement mechanisms ultimately available under the Protocol or wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement and it would not change the power imbalance between the UK and EU.

The attitude socialists should take to all of this should follow from their opposition to the whole reactionary Brexit project, which seeks to reverse the internationalisation of capitalism and the long-achieved broaching of nation state constraints on the productive forces.  Such an international development of capitalism is precisely the material basis for socialism and the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality.

Some on the left have opposed Brexit only by registering its English nationalist clothes and necessarily xenophobic and racist expression, without appreciation of this more fundamental basis.  For some, not even this has dawned on them and they have supported Brexit without being able to demonstrate that it has led to any compensating advance by the working class.

Just as nationalism feeds off other nationalisms so the Brexit war of words has involved Priti Patel advocating the threat to Ireland of food shortages from a no-deal Brexit and the French threatening to deny power supplies to the Channel Islands.  Socialists must oppose all such offensive nationalist threats.  Opposition to Brexit does not mean defence of the policies of the EU but simply recognition that we do not oppose the development of capitalism by demanding it regress to a more primitive form less suited to creation of a new society.

In terms of the Protocol, we oppose the creation of a land border in Ireland as a strengthening of division on the island and recognise that this could only come about from increasing the separation of Britain from the EU, most likely from acrimonious conflict that would have the effect of dividing workers, and not only in Ireland.

Back to part 1

Brexit still not done – the Northern Ireland Protocol 1

I was in the south of England as the recent fuel crisis hit, when many petrol stations ran out of fuel and closed.  Stuck in Bath, I drove around the city looking for one that was open, then drove to nearby Chippenham where Google Maps was telling me that there were a number of stations open.  All were closed so I decided the best thing to do was to drive North, where I was heading to the ferry at Stranraer that would take me home.  My wife had cancer treatment the day after next and we really didn’t want to miss it – the treatment is keeping her alive.  I was able to get petrol on the M4 and then headed North via the M5, filling up again in a Motorway service station north of Lancaster.

So, we got home safe and sound and to the sight of petrol stations in Belfast with lots of fuel and no queues. Buying the local Irish papers in order to get up to speed on the local scene I read speculation that the Tories were going to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a means of getting rid of it, although it doesn’t actually do this, on the grounds that the Protocol gives rise to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”

Since unionists have been declaring a crisis and organising protests that have managed to mobilise only hundreds of protestors; and trade between the North and South of Ireland has grown dramatically, albeit from a low base, their strained narrative has claimed that the grounds for unilateral action by the British to trigger Article 16 exists.

I thought to myself, if only the Article applied to Britain, where trade with the EU has fallen; ports are clogged up; goods are sent to Rotterdam and Antwerp before being unloaded and re-loaded onto smaller vessels so they can be taken to England; the shortage of lorry drivers has led to restrictions on the supply of goods with even more knock-on effects due soon; the shortage of other workers has led to a culling of animals and the shortage of all these workers has led to approval for recruitment of foreign drivers and butchers – a clear reversal of the rationale for Brexit.

But still Article 16 is waved as a magic sovereignty wand that derives its power from being a unilateral action that needs no EU negotiation or agreement, although the foresight of a goldfish is required in order to overlook that it leads to both.

The growing crisis caused by Brexit has been answered by louder and louder bellicose rhetoric, especially by Lord Frost.  This rhetoric is all the more raucus because Britain has few cards to play; the opposition(?) Labour Party is silent so the high pitch is only necessary to divert attention from real events.  Even so, Frost finds himself admitting that the British were compelled to agree to the NI Protocol because of a weak bargaining position – one glint of truth in a trough of bullshit and deception.  On this score not much has changed so rhetoric substitutes for real power.  The response to the driver shortage demonstrates this.

Not only has the British government had to beg foreign lorry drivers to return, having just told them to get lost (why would they come back?), but rules on the number of internal deliveries that foreign companies can carry out when delivering into Britain have been relaxed while the British Road Haulage industry complains that they cannot avail of the same rights when delivering into the EU.  Just like Brussels enforcing Single Market restrictions on British exports to the EU but London still not able to enforce restrictions on EU exports to Britain.

Unionist opposition also reveals its weakness not just in low numbers protesting or the absence of any queues at petrol stations, but through plummeting support for the DUP, now down to 13% from over 31% in the December 2019 Westminster election.  With Sinn Fein now the largest party it is in line to nominate the First Minister after new Assembly elections scheduled for May.

In the latest poll the DUP is the third largest unionist party, although what matters most is the division in unionism caused by the DUP collapse.  Its leader Jeffrey Donaldson has attempted to reverse this by relying on Johnson to get him a better deal, in itself a terrible admission of weakness (relying on the guy who shafted you in the first place) and also by attempting to get the rest of unionism to own the failure.

So, when I arrived back from England I came back to a joint article in the ‘Irish Times’ by Donaldson and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, plus a joint statement by the ‘four main unionist leaders’ with a video to accompany it.  One I didn’t bother to watch.

The ‘Irish Times’ article was a joint statement of opposition to the Protocol by Donaldson who declares he wants it scraped because it contradicts the Belfast Agreement (which he originally opposed) and by Allister who has never supported it.

The joint statement and video to the unionist public proved only that you really can have too many leaders.  The motivation for Donaldson is obvious – ‘I may have helped get you into this mess but all the rest are now just as responsible for getting you out of it’.  For the Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie all his claims to be modernising his party and putting clear blue water between him and the DUP is exposed to ridicule as he stands beside the even more extreme TUV.

The contradictions for the TUV in uniting with supporters of the Stormont administration that it never ceases to denounce are obvious but matter less.  If the campaign fails the TUV can still blame the DUP and if it can be portrayed as any sort of victory they can own part of it.  The loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson is there to show that loyalist paramilitarism and its own particular means of exerting influence are part of the family, to be ostracised when embarrassing but embraced as a delinquent brother if required.  For Billy Hutchinson, he gets to wear a suit for the day out and a boost to mainstream credibility that has been less frequent of late.  

Where there does appear to be some genuine unity is revealed in one of the opinion poll‘s other findings, which recorded that 79% think the performance of Johnson and his NI Secretary is bad or awful.

Forward to part 2

BBC, DUP & Brexit

BBC's Andrew Marr slammed for 'poor research' on Brexit NI Protocol -  BelfastTelegraph.co.uk

In last weekend’s Marr show the  BBC rallied behind those Brexit forces, which would appear to be almost all of them, who still can’t get their head around the idea that you can’t leave the EU without consequences and that these consequences are not a punishment but actually what they voted for.

This time it was the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Edwin Poots, who was allowed to forget that it was his Party that had helped deliver Brexit and in a form that didn’t allow Northern Ireland to join with the rest of the UK in its new relationship with the EU.  Such a deal, as proposed by Theresa May, was opposed by the DUP as insufficiently Brexity.

Marr appeared to labour under the impression that the Northern Ireland Protocol is solely the EU’s baby and not a joint production with the British Government. Perhaps to be regarded as another one of Boris Johnson’s unrecognised children?

One even had sympathy with the EU representative who had to respond politely to the ignorant and repeated interruptions of Marr, including the latter’s injured innocence that the EU should seek to take legal action against the British for breach of their legal obligations under the Protocol.  Not for him the previous obvious and hardly avoidable observation that – for the DUP – it was “arguably your political incompetence that got you here.”

Marr pushed the incoherent unionist argument that they were so offended by the very temporary suggestion of the EU to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol in order to amend its operation that this was what was required, this time by the British Government.

While sarcastically referencing the ‘sacred’ Single Market, the one Brexit supporters want out of but also to enjoy its benefits, Marr pointed to an opinion poll in Northern Ireland which showed that ‘48% hate the Protocol’.  

‘Hate’ of course is a strong word; was not quite what the question asked, and presumably must mean that while 48% ‘hate it”, 46% also ‘love it’.  The numbers are within the margin of error, and repeating the unionist assertion that speaks of the people of Northern Ireland as if it consisted solely of unionists, the other assertion of Marr – that ‘the people of Northern Ireland have lost faith in the Protocol’ – was hardly justified by the poll.

The BBC, through Marr, appeared to adopt the view of unionism encapsulated in such mottos as ‘we are the people’ and ‘our wee country’, which may be properly understood as ‘WE are the people and ‘OUR wee country’.  That the majority in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit is ignored as unionism, and now the BBC, considers that the rights of the majority of unionism takes precedence.

But perhaps the BBC is also registering something else, which is the evolving strategy of its master – the British Government.

At the beginning of the year the incoherence of unionist rejection of the Protocol led the DUP leader Arlene Foster to point to its benefits (as the alternative to futile opposition).  Unionist hostility spoke of changes to the Protocol.  Now this opposition demands its complete removal.

A large part of this hardening of position derives from the encouragement of the British Government, in a cynical attempt to play the Orange card and support its own policy of seeking changes but not complete abolition.

Of course, British opposition is mainly motivated by the attempt to create leverage elsewhere in UK-EU relations and not any particular priority allotted to the North of Ireland.  So, when it is reported that ‘a senior ally of the Prime. Minister’ says that the Protocol is “dead in the water” this is simply playing to the gallery, in this case just after Lord Frost and the Tory Secretary of State had met loyalist paramilitaries represented by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).

Similarly, Poots’ total opposition puts forward, as an alternative, checks on goods in other locations within Northern Ireland “including the ports.”  This however rather undermines his argument that the level of such checks makes them impossible and doesn’t carry any weight when it is to the checks themselves that is the objection.  The promise of any such alternative is about as trustworthy as a promise from Boris Johnson. 

Unionists want the Protocol destroyed and the British Government would like it filleted for other purposes.  Neither are acceptable to the EU.

The increased legitimacy given by the British Government to the paramilitary front organisation is illustrated by its providing a platform to the LCC at a Westminster Committee hearing, allowing a teenage loyalist to make the statement that he stands by previous remarks that “sometimes violence is the only tool you have left.”

That the Orange card is being played is made abundantly clear when the Tories reveal that the 12th July has been “privately set” by David Frost for the easing of Protocol checks.  The culmination of the loyalist marching season is now aligned with deadline for acceptance of the demands of the British Government.

Such recklessness by the Tory regime passes right over Andrew Marr’s head, while he accuses the EU of endangering the peace process.  He denigrates the EU Single Market, but is unwilling even to raise the question whether the vast majority of European States constituting the EU is going to roll over on account of teenage threats on behalf of criminal gangs; the pronouncements of creationist politicians, or as a result of the perfidy of the serial liars of the British Government.

Unionist opposition, backed by the British, may have hardened but the reality of their mistaken Brexit policy has simply compounded their frustration at their inability to push the peace process in a sufficiently rightward direction, a process many of them never supported in the first place.  As unionism has hardened it has also thereby divided.

The DUP is now irreversibly split down the middle.  The only question is what organisational from this division will take.  It is haemorrhaging support to the softer unionist Alliance Party and the even more uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice.

It has attempted to protect one flank by making overtures to the loyalist paramilitaries in the LCC (by both sides of the current split) but this has proceeded to claims that the UDA has intimidated DUP members to support the new leadership.

The paramilitaries are themselves united in opposition to the Protocol but divided on everything else, so that what appear as marginal figures present as leading spokesmen of loyalist opposition.

On the other side of unionism, its moderate commentators denounce EU ‘intransigence’ while calling on it to protect Northern Ireland from the potential for unionism to finish off the Stormont Executive.  Unfortunately, the DUP has made promises in its opposition to the EU that it cannot keep and the EU has no interest in ensuring that they are kept.  The party may soon no longer be the largest political party or even the largest unionist party.

To expect the EU to capitulate to such a weakened and fractured opposition and a British Government flailing about for trade deals that won’t deliver is to live in an alternative universe.

The EU seeks to become a major political as well as economic power on the world stage.  It expects to be taken seriously by the likes of China, Russia and the United States.  Whatever ‘pragmatic’ changes it is prepared to make to the workings of the Protocol will not amount to accepting any significant risk to its Single Market. Such changes as are proposed will require the British Government to introduce all the measures agreed by it but not implemented.

The failing and weakening of the Good Friday Agreement institutions will continue as will the parallel confusion of unionism.  The Northern State will continue to hold together and no Irish unity referendum will come along soon to save everyone from the decay.  Out of all these processes it is ironically only the successful operation of the EU Protocol that promises some grounds for successful, if only temporary, stabilisation.

A Brexit compromise with Unionism?

In the previous post I argued that there should be no attempt to conciliate unionism, and certainly not by socialists.  Although its politics is entirely reactionary this is what is being proposed by a number of commentators who really should know better.

In one blog, a comment asserted that the ‘institutions of the [Northern] State are errand boys for Sinn Féin, who are errand girls for the Army Council, which is a body of totally unreconstructed IRA hard men from back in the day.  Moreover, it is an almost entirely Northern body, on the cusp of taking control of a 26 County State.’

This, of course, is phantasy.  Locally, the regular columnist in the nationalist newspaper questioned whether ‘sectarian control [has] simply changed hands?’ and asserted that it was ‘difficult to avoid the observation’.

This ignores recent history that is littered with loyalist riots against what they see as encroachment on their rights by Catholics.  Indeed, such riots played a major role in the start of ‘the Troubles’ with such inconvenient facts as the first policeman killed being shot by loyalists.

Conciliation has already been adopted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland pretending that loyalist paramilitaries are not involved in organising and leading the riots.  Its first statement pointed the finger but refrained from outright assignment of responsibility.  It waited until the umbrella group for the main paramilitary groups had issued an appropriate statement denying involvement, and calling for only peaceful action, before stating that these organisations had not ‘sanctioned’ violent protest and that only individuals may have been involved.  This is the normal way of trying to prevent escalation; part of what was called a long time ago an ‘acceptable level of violence.’

The Unionist columnist Newton Emerson has written in a number of Irish newspapers that compromise with loyalist demands should be made to protect the peace process.  After all, warnings by nationalists and the Irish Government that republican violence would follow any Brexit land border within the island had led to it being placed down the Irish Sea.  If Irish nationalism could threaten violence to get its way what’s wrong with unionism doing the same?

There is some obvious truth in this, except that a hardened land border, while not strictly contrary to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as often claimed, would not only serve (dissident) republicans but would also severely undermine the current political arrangements.

In the GFA nationalists were to accept the legitimacy of partition and of the Northern State in return for some cross-border bodies, a hypothetical mechanism to bring about a united Ireland through a border poll, one however that was in the gift of the British Government, and a power-sharing Stormont regime that included an effective sectarian veto on change for both sides, which of course is more obstacle than opportunity for those seeking change.

If the border were to be strengthened as a result of a hard Brexit that most of unionism supported while the majority in the North of Ireland opposed, and with the stupidity of the DUP coming back to haunt them in loyalist riots, nationalism might consider that promises are cheap but reality expensive.  It was not republican dissidents that put a border down the Irish Sea but the Irish Government and the EU with the blessing of senior US politicians.

Emerson goes on to ask ‘should we risk restarting the Troubles ‘over inspecting packets of ham at Larne?’  He queries the evidence and reason for believing that the EU Single Market ‘would otherwise be swamped via circuitous smuggling of food through Britain and Northern Ireland.’

He also, in rather contradictory fashion, suggests a law-and-order solution to smuggling across the Irish border and maximum mitigation of the effects of the Protocol in order to assuage loyalist paramilitaries who, although almost defeated, require concessions.  In this regard there are further press reports of money for these paramilitaries in a continuation of the policy of weening them off criminality and political violence by giving them what they want.  Alongside this a law-and-order solution would be applied to the really delinquent factions.

All this is washed down by the admission that ‘at some point we will have to confront the moral squalor of giving in to violence but that moment is hardly now, when so little might be required to prevent violence.  Rather it would be immoral to prioritise hypothetical ham over life and property.’

Of course, the ham is far from hypothetical and Emerson gives every indication of suffering from the illusion of the supporters of Brexit who never understood the magnitude of the decision they supported.  He regards the potential breach of the EU Single Market as small, although both the EU and British sought to use the North of Ireland as leverage in the overall Trade and Cooperation Agreement, promoting its importance to any overall deal.

There is no reason to believe that loopholes would not be exploited and no reason for the EU to believe that the British Government would not seek to exploit concessions or mitigation or whatever term is used to fudge the regulations.  The British have openly breached agreements already reached and failed to implement practical measures, such as  installation of inspection posts and access to data, that it promised to deliver.

The EU has claimed that the most difficult issues could be solved by the British agreeing to synchronise their food standards with those of the EU but the British have ruled this out, and while the British have asked for flexibility the EU has stated that they must first implement what they have already agreed.

It would go too far to say that loyalism and the British Government are in cahoots, the latter is not attempting to get rid of the Protocol altogether, but the pressure applied by both is in the same direction.

The Single Market may not seem so dramatic as yet another political crisis in Northern Ireland but the EU has more interest in the former than the latter: concessions that are given only to Britain might easily give rise to discrimination cases against the EU.  More generally, retreating on the basis of pressure from political violence does not set a good example for any other potential challenges to Brussels and member states.

There is no reason or evidence to believe that smuggling would not take place on the Irish border were it also to become the border for Brexit, or to believe that such smuggling would need to ‘swamp’ the EU Single Market for it to matter to the EU.  On the other hand there is good reason to believe that mitigation of the trade border in the Irish Sea would not be enough for loyalism. For the EU, checks on any border would have to mean something and if they did loyalism would object.

There is no doubting that these checks are onerous and will increase after the transition but the negotiations between the EU and British to find technical solutions do not warrant the view that the Protocol will be effectively removed.  These negotiations were reported by RTE and the Guardian, with some sceptical coverage of them by one informed blogger.

There has so far not been enough direct impact on imports to motivate those not consumed by potential constitutional implications to protest.  As Emerson points out, Marks & Spencer has just announced the opening of a new food store in Coleraine, and Covid-19 has been a much more immediate barrier than Brexit to people getting what they want.

This does not mean that loyalism is not angry, or has cause, but their anger should really be directed to the DUP who led them up the garden path with Boris Johnson at the forefront. Nevertheless, while loyalism does not need to be particularly coherent, there are also limits to what an incoherent view of the world will achieve in bending that world to its own misapprehensions.

Emerson’s law-and-order solution does not seem to recognise the incongruity of calling for increased repression of dissident republicans and others in order to reduce ‘paperwork’.  He wants a retreat on policing of protest demonstrations that are held within unionist-majority areas so as to avoid ‘confrontation’, but it’s not clear how much consideration he has given to the minority living within these ‘unionist-majority areas’.

Of course, in most Protestant areas Orange marches are generally popular and there can be little doubt that a majority of Protestants oppose the protocol and would have sympathy with the aims of demonstrations against it.  The majority would have less sympathy with the paramilitaries who often accompany such displays and that is their problem: one doesn’t come without the other.  Emerson forgets that the immediate victims of loyalist paramilitaries are Protestants in working class areas who are often presented as the paramilitaries’ political constituency, in so far as they can claim one.

He is right therefore to acknowledge the ‘moral squalor’ involved in concessions to loyalism but over twenty years from the deal that was supposed to bring peace and an end to them, we apparently have to make some more, and to the same people.   He says that ‘we’ have to make them but the majority of the population have had no choice in the matter.  His ‘giving in to violence’ has in the past not only involved ‘giving in’ but the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State through all sorts of collusion.  This has involved not only accepting loyalist violence but protecting its perpetrators and assisting its organisation and effectiveness through state agents.  In his seemingly bold and brave admission of unfortunate necessity we are to forget what it has meant in the past.

If Newton Emerson’s proposals have any educative value, they show the limitations of unionist opinion, even from its most intelligent and least prejudiced sources.  It reminds me of the statement last week by First Minister Arlene Foster who, after riots and petrol bombs, and with one bus driver attacked in a case of “attempted murder”, declared that these actions were an “embarrassment” and “only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.”

In the mind of unionism, even when its their fault it’s really someone else’s, anybody else’s.  Brexit was a unionist own-goal which they are trying to reverse.  Socialists have no interest in defending their seventeenth century reaction from twenty-first century capitalism.  It would be good if the many on the left in Ireland who also supported Brexit would acknowledge that they too have made a mistake.

Back to part 1