“A House divided against itself Cannot Stand” is a famous speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1858. For a country to be prosperous and successful it must cohere and find common ground. Countries that choose confrontation and wedge issues are less successful, especially over the long term. America was descending into chaos at the time, and the American Civil War started a few years later. Once the War was over, the US cohered, entered a period of unprecedented growth, becoming the world’s dominant power some decades later.
This piece will not only look at how chaos/coherence played out over Brexit, but look over a longer period and makes one major recommendation.
Chaos versus coherence
As we’ve seen, the referendum was incredibly divisive. Could the UK cohere and form cross-party or even Tory Party consensus after the shock of a Leave victory? Sadly no. The chaotic period after the Brexit referendum has been comprehensively covered in The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit by Meg Russel and Lisa James, with a good summary on Raf Behr’s pod Politics on the Couch and also in the TV series: Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos. The ongoing Covid Enquiry also paints a view of utter chaos in Downing St. when Johnson was PM, which had significant implications for Brexit (See Prof Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog What the Covid Inquiry tells us about Brexit).
Britain was about to enter its most difficult challenge since WWII: negotiating Brexit to gain the best deal possible for the UK against a much stronger adversary, the EU. Did Britain understand its relative negotiating strength or the battle lines? It seems not. The road to a successful Brexit went as much through Dublin as Brussels. Yet there was minimal understanding of this in London, particularly in Brexit Circles. The wicked problem was always going to be Northern Ireland and how to protect the Good Friday Agreement after Brexit. It was almost totally ignored during the referendum campaign.
An excellent early book on Brexit is Chris Cook’s Defeated by Brexit (serialised in Tortoise Media). The very first lines are: “The Brexit negotiations are not really about the UK and 27 other countries – they are about Britain’s long and troubled relationship with Ireland. And while Dublin was prepared for that, it took London completely by surprise“.
Irish politics has always been more consensus-driven, and British politics more confrontational. This is partly cultural, but is primarily driven by the difference between the voting systems: FPTP in the UK’s case and STV in Ireland’s case. The Brexit challenge, however, drove both countries towards extremes. The UK descended into chaos. Ireland was never more coherent and united. Ireland was well prepared and had near unanimity across government, all political parties, the civil and foreign service and broader society. The polar opposite of the UK, coherence rather than chaos.
The first domino?
It was difficult to see how Brexit would work if the EU held together. There was a Brexiter belief that Ireland could be the first to peel off. Unquestionably, Ireland would believe in Brexit, and surely… Irexit would follow? The first domino, possibly followed by the Netherlands or Denmark? Surely a world-leading G7 country which “held all the cards“, would prevail over Ireland, totally dependent on Britain. Ireland, according to Brexiters, was a backwater which survived on exporting agricultural products to Britain. 90% of Ireland’s exports according to prominent Brexiter Digby Jones went to the UK.
Ten days after the referendum, I flew over to Dublin and could take the temperature. Would Irexit be on the cards? Apparently not, it seemed. In fact, the exact opposite. Brexit was considered a catastrophic mistake, but the UK was a sovereign country and could do as it wished (though there was deep disquiet about England bullying Scotland and Northern Ireland, which voted Remain).
Ireland being sucked back into the UK’s orbit filled people with horror.
Later at a meeting at UCD there was unanimous agreement on the following
- The primary concern was the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the stability of Northern Ireland, which Brexit very much threatened.
- Brexit was Britain’s problem. Brexiters broke it; Brexiters need to fix it. Ireland advised strongly against it and did not have a vote. (If Ireland had a vote, Remain would have won).
- Ireland was absolutely committed to remaining entirely in the EU. There was no question of any dilution of its membership of the Single Market or Customs Union.
- Regrettably, there would have to be a border between the EU and Britain, which would become a 3rd country after Brexit, unless it was a soft Brexit.
- Brexit sadly meant a sea or land border, unless it was soft.
- A land border was unworkable, and given force majeure (the EU and almost certainly the US would back Ireland), a sea border was inevitable.
- The Brexiters, far from holding all the cards, had virtually none. There was minimal leverage even over Ireland, as discussed in Will Sabre Rattling towards Ireland Work? There was a suspicion, however, that they would use cynically use Northern Ireland as a pawn.
- DUP-type Unionists would absolutely hate a sea border.
The only disagreement was the motivation of the DUP in supporting Brexit. It was entirely logical that Republicans would support Brexit, as discussed in post#3, but bizarre that Unionists would. Some argued the DUP never thought Leave would win, and that an orgy of British Nationalist flag-shagging was both irresistible and risk-free. Others that they secretly wanted a land border and destroy the GFA, which they hoped Brexit would deliver. Others thought it pointless to try to comprehend their 17th-century mindset.
There is a myth that the Irish are embittered and hate the English, but that is totally untrue. The Irish and English get along very well. It’s only the Tories we dislike, and even then, there is understanding that for a functional democracy, there is a need for a centre-right party, in European terms, an European People’s Party (EPP) party. We have our own one in Fine Gael. We could agree to disagree with the One Nation faction, people like Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve Davids Gauke and Liddington, for example, but the swing of the Tory party to the far right was frightening and repellant. What little appetite there ever was for rejoining the UK vanished long ago. There is, of course, a lot of history, some in my piece here, but it is increasingly driven by pragmatism rather than emotion. A quick comparison will reinforce this point.
Comparison: Ireland versus the UK
Comparing countries can be difficult. Fortunately, there are many well-respected international league tables. Economy, health, education and lack of inequality are clearly important. But there are other areas, such as the quality of democracy, freedom, press freedom, and lack of corruption. Given both Ireland and the UK consider themselves as trading nations (and the UK a great one), a trade comparison is also useful.
One standard measure for the economy is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, but that is not a good measure for Ireland. Gross national Income (GNI) is far less distorting.
On economy, health, education and lack of inequality, there is an international benchmark that uses GNI, the UN Human Development Index (HDI) and the Inequality-adjusted version the IHDI. On the HDI ranking the UK is 18th and Ireland 8th. On the IHDI ranking, the UK is 16th and Ireland 6th.
On freedom, possibly the best measure is the Human Freedom Index (HFI), produced by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. This ranks the UK 14th and Ireland as 5th.
On trade, a straightforward measure is the export ratio. There are a number of trade databases; two of the best are the Atlas of Economic Complexity (Harvard) and the Observatory of Economic Complexity (MIT). I would recommend both, but for the latest data (2022) Ireland exports 50% of the UK in goods and 70% of the UK in goods and services.
Another measure is balance of trade. Ireland runs a major surplus and the UK a major deficit. Macrotends has Ireland with the 3rd largest trade surplus in 2022 and the UK the 3rd largest trade deficit. (+$198bn/-$107bn).
Ireland is a clear winner, consistently in the top 10 with the UK in the top 20, apart from the Press Freedom Index, which is troubling for the UK. The UK exports considerably more than Ireland, but with 13x the population. Per capita, Ireland exports about 6.5x the UK in goods and 9x as much in goods and services. Perhaps the UK is not the great trading nation it thinks it is? Particularly given the stark difference in balance of trade.
The external Brexit battle
For a lot of the time, the chaos in Westminster was all-consuming, but the important battle was external rather than internal.
The battle was fought on two fronts: Brussels and Washington. Luck was on Ireland’s side, with the appointment of Barnier as chief EU negotiator. The European People’s Party (EPP) was the dominant force in the European Parliament. Barnier was an EPP member, as was Fine Gael, the government party of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Barnier was also very familiar with Northern Ireland, so could hit the ground running. Networking was used to the full. The Tory party had foolishly left the EPP and gone to the Eurosceptic right. They were unplugged. The EU also managed to cohere over Brexit. Keeping the 27 together was Barnier’s main task. Leaving his brilliant deputy Sabine Weyand to manage technical details. The UK was totally outgunned, even worse, as Chris Kendall says in his blog “From the outset, the UK has burned through goodwill as if it were an inexhaustible, ever-renewable resource“.
Washington was the other front. Never underestimate the power of the Irish-American lobby (my analysis here). The Irish effort was coherent and compelling. The Brexiter one, the opposite. The Lead envoy for Brexit in the British Embassy in Washington Alex Hall Hall, resigned over the impossibility of her job. She related that Liz Truss as Foreign Secretary claimed in Washington a no-deal Brexit on Ireland would only “affect a few farmers with turnips in the back of their trucks”. The Americans were utterly unimpressed.
In the chaos, two deals were struck. I was pleasantly surprised by the May/Robbins deal, particularly in terms of defusing issues over the Irish Sea Border. It was a much harder Brexit than many Remainers liked and not enough for hard-line Brexiters. The DUP opposed it, much to May’s bewilderment (the suspicion they wanted a land border in violation of the GFA was reinforced), and the agreement failed to pass in parliament, leading to May’s resignation. The May/Robbins deal kept the entire UK inside the Single Market for goods until the UK wanted to diverge (probably never), in which case the NI Backstop would kick in. This meant no Sea Border. Given that May had ruled out FoM, this arguably split the Four Freedoms and was a significant concession from the EU. Many member states were unhappy. In any event, May could not get the Deal through. May fell, and Johnson became PM.
Enter the Johnson/Frost tag team, high on “Get Brexit Done!” and machismo bravado to show those foreigners “What’s What!”. This proved utterly ineffective and counterproductive. The “oven-ready” deal that was produced was hailed as a triumph and gave Johnson an 80-seat majority in the 2019 GE on 43.6% of the vote. Fatigue had set in, and many just wanted the Brexit nightmare to end.
Sadly, the Johnson/Frost deal was considerably worse for the UK than the May/Robbins deal and a very hard Brexit. Many EU capitals breathed a sigh of relief. It was highly asymmetric in the EU’s favour, prioritising goods rather than services. It came with the NI Protocol. A front-stop rather than a backstop and the DUP were predictably extremely unhappy.
Ireland had succeeded in keeping its place fully in the EU and preventing a land border. The Johnson/Frost deal was so poor that no one got what they wanted apart from some Irish Republicans who voted for it. Since the Brexit Referendum the Irish economy has done very well, in contrast to the UK. Ireland achieved its goals of damage limitation but would have far preferred if Brexit had never happened.
A recent book from the EU perspective, and one of the best, is Stefaan de Rynck’s, Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit Done (video here). There is a lot of detail, and it is much as keen observers might have expected. I survived mainly on a diet of anything produced by Tony Connolly (RTE), Chris Grey’s Blogspot, and Cakewatch (very good from the Brussels perspective). If, however, your information came from the right-wing press or even the BBC, the book will come as a revelation. The main takeaway is that London was so tied up in internal chaos (and, in the Frost era, delusional exceptionalism), that it never understood the rules of the game and was simply outplayed.
Brexit is the worst systemic failure of UK over the past 50 years. There is, however, a bigger picture and it is worth further exploring why Ireland has been so much more successful than the UK over that period.
After gaining my PhD, I moved from UCD to Sheffield University in 1981. At the time S. Yorkshire alone had a greater industrial output than Ireland, and Yorkshire a greater GDP. Now Ireland has an industrial output 75% of the entire UK and a GDP greater than Yorkshire and Humberside, the North East of England and Scotland combined.
Within the first week at Sheffield, I met an economist in the common room, who said all this heavy industry (coal and steel) would be gone within a decade, and the retraining costs would be astronomical. Ireland is in a perfect position to move to 21st century industries and could easily overtake the UK. Very perceptive, but the former miners and steel workers were not retrained, but left to rot, as indeed were much of the North of England and industrial parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many areas have never really recovered.
The Economist Russell Jones in the Tyranny of Nostalgia, describes the lure of former economic greatness and examines the increasingly desperate search for a panacea over the past 50 years, with erratic changes in direction, of which Brexit was only the latest example (video here), that could arrest the nation’s relative decline and return the country to its supposed former glories. The Thatcher revolution was another major change in direction.
Ireland had a different path and the respected American economist Noah Smith has recently blogged How Ireland got so rich: Once an underdog, the Emerald Isle is now on top. The true picture is complex, but is there a silver bullet? In the simple Brexiter mind, the answer is obvious “Ireland is a Tax haven” (ignoring the fact that Ireland is not even in the top 10 and the UK, with its crown dependencies, is peerless, rated by Transparency International as the number 1 tax haven in the world).
Ireland’s success is down to coherence; instead of moving chaotically, it has made stable progress and has had consensual governance over the period. It is not without its problems, housing is a real issue, partially because the population is rising so rapidly via inward FoM. In 2016 for example, there were 122,515 Poles in Ireland; this per capita was about 70% more than the UK.
The silver bullet?
This coherence is due to a number of factors, but the silver bullet is probably the electoral system. Not only does the Irish system produce more proportional representation, with candidates needing broad appeal to get transfers. Running on wedge issues does not work.
The current Irish coalition government was elected with votes of about 70% of the electorate. Quite a contrast with the UK, where large parliamentary majorities can be obtained with a much lower share of the vote. The impetus for consensus is also testified to by the fact that the two largest coalition parties are bitter historical rivals who have set aside their differences to share power.
Irish constituencies have between three and five seats. STV maximises choice, voters mark their ballot papers 1,2,3 etc., in order of preference, between as many candidates (and implicitly parties) as they like.
In combination with relatively small constituencies, STV’s focus on candidates additionally ensures that a strong constituency link is maintained and most voters have a choice of government and opposition representatives when it comes to raising issues. Indeed, a 1997 study found that Irish TDs (MPs) dedicate more time to constituency work than their British counterparts. This ability to mix proportionality and solid local links keeps the constituency element missing in some other forms of PR.
There are few safe seats and many strong local connections. Many of the big names did not get in on the first count in the most recent GE (2020): Leo Varadkar 5th count, Micheál Martin 6th count, Simon Coveney 8th count and Neale Richmond 8th count. All needed broader appeal to get elected. Elections are far more competitive than in the UK FPTP system.
This series started with the GE of 2015 with a narrow Tory majority with 36.8% of the vote, leading to Brexit (part 1). The 2019 GE led to an 80 seat Tory majority on 43.6% of the vote and a hard Brexit. In neither case, a majority of the electorate. 2019 may have been exceptional, but appealing to one section of the population to the exclusion of the majority is democratically unsound.
Wedge issues and culture wars sadly work in the UK. The Tories are increasingly desperate. Wedge issues and culture wars seem to be all they have left. Polarization appears to be getting worse. Rwanda seems deliberately designed to throw red meat to the very worst instincts of many people and is bitterly divisive.
It does seem likely that Labour will win the next GE. That will be an improvement but will not solve the coherence problem. Britain has been left in such a mess after 13 years of Tory government that Labour could become unpopular very quickly and may only serve one term.
If there is a silver bullet, it must be Proportional Representation (PR) and ideally with the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), or what is sometimes known as ranked preference voting. Without the more consensual politics it engenders, Britain seems doomed to eternal division and continuing relative decline.
The series finishes with Part 5, How do We Fix this Brexit Mess?
This article was first published at Progressive Pulse.