Current Brexit Crisis - the Irish Question revisited
Dear readers of my blog,
while all sorts of personal and professional obligations have kept me from having my say in the current crisis evolving around Brexit, it is clear that there was another reason for silence: like most Europeans with friends and acquaintances in Britain, I do not want to interfere in what seems a monumental conflict both within the Tory Party and across all sections of society in the United Kingdom. What has changed, however, since the arrival of the present resident at 10 Downing Street is that both the opposition parties in Westminster, prominently led by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats and the Tory rebels have had occasion to meet regularly to start “grown-up” talks “across the house”, so that another sign of the dilapidation of the current government was its loss of the majority of one seat on Tuesday when a former Government minister changed sides.
Having spotted that scene, I was no longer surprised to hear the “Father of House”, as Kenneth Clarke is called, speak out his mind yesterday in the debate, as if he had actually changed sides, while he had only been thrown out of the Tory Party the night before following the first defeat of the Government about the Bill against a No-Deal Brexit. Listening to Clarke showed me that the speech given by the Leader of the House on Tuesday night had in fact hardened the resolution on the part of the multi-party opposition to bring down the “cabal” of the present government. Not only did Clarke speak very clearly, he also triggered statements by other, much less experienced MPs who showed that they had no sense for “some boy schools’ game or intrigue” and would not vote for an early election either.
Since I am historically-minded as well as interested in politics, one of the names dropped by the Tory speakers immediately made me metaphorically stand up in my seat before the screen. I do not recall who mentioned Charles Stewart Parnell in the context of filibustering but I am sure it was someone from the government benches. In 1995, I once visited Avondale House in County Wicklow where the sad story of one who set out to win Home Rule for Ireland was told. At the time, I bought and devoured a biography of the man who, indeed, had been able to stop the clockwork of parliamentary work by filibustering – talking endlessly in parliamentary debate, that is. His party then held the balance of power in Westminster in 1886, so it was a ploy to find a majority for their aim: Home Rule. Before the First World War, there were three Home Rule Bills, two of which failed before the third was passed in 1912, when, I refer to the article on “Irish Home Rule”, printed in The Oxford Companion to British History, surprise, surprise!, the Liberals once again had to rely on the Irish Parliamentary Party to support their minority government. Their main opponents then were the Ulster Protestants led by Edward Carson, the lawyer who had brought down Wilde in court, and the Tory Party – even today officially called Conservative and Unionist, as it, according to the same source, merged in 1912!
So if a Conservative politician today in the context of the “Back-Stop” alludes to Charles Stewart Parnell what he insinuates is his allegiance to the line of argument passed on without reflection by multiple generations of Tory politicians since the 1886 split of the Liberal Party about the first Home Rule Bill. It is much easier in an adversarial first-past-the-post system like that practiced in the UK or the USA to stick to such a view, stubbornly, blindly, in almost suicidal manner, as if nothing had changed, than in any other system where consensus is the order of the day. Probably it is the same reflex that made John Major rely on the Ulster Unionist in the 1990s that made Theresa May go for an agreement with the DUP two years ago – simply because all their forebears since 1912 had toed that line – however suicidal it might prove to their respective governments. When the Major government had outlived its last session, it was Blair who took over and went the way that ultimately led to the “Good Friday Agreement”. Perhaps the current crisis is such that – as the Liberal Democrats have not tired to demand – a second Referendum will eventually give the people a chance to correct what had been sloppily started in the first place by a government whose leaders were unable to see that leaving the European Union might be the first nail in the coffin of the United Kingdom for since 1998 its fate had been inextricably linked to an evolution allowing for a peaceful process towards self-determination in all of the island of Ireland.
This is the idea that the two Protestants Charles Stewart Parnell and Oscar Wilde may have shared, while their personal approach to life could not have been more different, although both became victims of the viciously defended double standards of morality in the late Victorian Age. Seeking parallels between the current opposition and Parnell’s attempt to “take advantage of Gladstone’s dependence on the Irish Party” (still the Oxford Companion to British History), the Tory Party speaker betrays some kind of historical, not personal amnesia which seems typical of people who set out to deceive their audience – just as the present Prime Minister in his leadership campaign displayed a kipper wrapped in plastic to claim that it had to be put between blocks of ice because of EU regulations. In fact, the speaker of the Commission told the press that such were the regulations imposed by the British government – a piece of information, of course, withheld from the Tory members. Similarly, no explanation was given that Charles Stewart Parnell was an Irishman who fought for some sort of Home Rule – not what the Irish Republic has now had for seventy years – and that in this context he sort of “boycotted” parliamentary procedure. Nor was is said that, again, this crisis is mainly about a problem the “inventors” of the referendum had not foreseen: the resurgence of the Irish Question once Brexit was on the agenda. The opposition to the “Back-Stop” displayed by certain parts of the Tory Party in historical terms is propped up by the experience of the resistance against the Third Home Rule Bill passed in 1912 – since it was then that the Union seemed at stake. Now there is an allegiance to the European Union in both Northern Ireland and in Scotland – the majority of the people there having voted to remain – so that it is no accident that it is once again from the fringes that movement has set in to resolve the current crisis.
For one moment, I saw Theresa May sitting on the government benches – rather than “sulking” at the opposition benches as the Prime Minister was described by someone from across the house, she was smiling to herself at the mess emerging from plan to stop parliamentary interference altogether. Her agreement was “something”, an opposition member said yesterday, now “nothing” was in the offing. Since I am only a citizen concerned about what has happened to a country I have spent more than a year of my life in – all visits combined and six months spent at Dundee University in 1983/1984 when the Scots still expressed their ire at having been misled by a Labour Government to believe that any majority for a devolution bill would suffice, while the bill had asked for “40 per cent of the Scottish electorate” to be in favour. In fact, only 32,85 per cent were in favour on 1st March 1979 (Oxford Companion to British History). It was only in 1997, during the summer of which my wife and I travelled around Scotland, that another referendum initiated by the Labour Government of Tony Blair led to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Anyone who actually believes in himself saying that s/he governs in the name of all people should have known that this process of devolution, once started, would be irreversible and have to be applied not only to Wales but also, in the end, to the province of Northern Ireland. Obviously, this history lesson was not one learned by the current Tory leadership in time to avoid the Brexit crisis.
The EU, however, have kept silent while closely observing the back and forth at Westminster. They need to be diplomatic and keep their nerve in the face of chaos as triggered by the present resident at 10 Downing Street. While I have kept a German newspaper article on Her Majesty’s Leader of the opposition showing him a very unlikely candidate to follow any of his two Tory predecessors into Number Ten, today’s headlines reveal that talks across the house may have allowed for another man to emerge that could help to lead the country while waiting for the crisis to pass: Kenneth Clarke, now no longer a member of the Tory Party and, like any good caretaker manager, no-one keen on winning another term in his own right but thinking of the country first could perhaps find a majority in the house of an alternative cross-party government for the next few months. At the end, this might turn out to be another instance of crisis management possible across party boundaries based on what I learned happened during the First World War about women’s right to vote when the Committee charged with sorting out the matter started off with issues everyone could agree on before passing on to more thorny matters. And the consensus this time clearly was to prevent the No-Deal Brexit from becoming reality. Within a few weeks of his arrival at Number Ten, the present resident had achieved what his predecessor had managed to avoid for two years: unite the opposition in one cause. So if things turn out well, the interregnum may have had one good side: it helped politicians to focus on the purpose of Parliament once again.
I sincerely hope that none of the cards still up their sleeve are going to trump the will of Parliament not to budge and that in the months to come reason will once again determine the relationship of government, the people, and the EU.
All best wishes,
Jörg W. Rademacher, 5th September 2019