As a Muslim I have much experience of being lectured about ‘unity’ by certain people and most of it has come from people primarily responsible for causing the division. For example, almost every Ramadan and every Eid-ul-Fitr (the festival after the end of Ramadan) we are told by people following misguided opinions (sometimes plainly contradicting the relevant facts) from Saudi Arabia that it’s Ramadan when it’s not, or (worse) that it’s Eid when it’s not. So I was not particularly receptive to the sentiment Theresa May was expressing, reported on the front page of today’s Guardian, claiming “we must bring our country back together, taking into account the views of everyone who cares about this issue, from both sides of the debate”. I presume ‘we’ refers to the government, but her speech is not about bringing anyone together but about reaffirming the supremacy of the extremist tendency that has gained the upper hand since the 2016 referendum. (The full speech can be found here.)
The posturing of Theresa May and her Tory Brexiteer allies towards her EU negotiating partners has been belligerent and arrogant. The EU naturally takes an interest in the situation of the border on the island of Ireland: it is in the interests of the state of Ireland and of people in the North living close to the border that there be no return to a full-blown border. Ireland is Catholic as is most of mainland Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia, northern Germany and parts of the Netherlands. The Tories insist that there be no “Irish Sea border”, yet this is a more logical place for a border than across any tract of land, least of all one where the erasure of the same border 20 years ago was central to a hard-won peace and where the people living near it very heavily voted against leaving the EU. The EU knows that support for leaving was only just above 50% across Britain as a whole and also that few competent politicians and technocrats in the UK support it.
In the opening few sentences, she reels off a barrage of empty slogans and promises:
The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.
But this is a government of the rich and powerful. May is married to an investment fund manager; her foreign secretary is Boris Johnson, a notoriously over-indulged, gaffe-prone buffoon who, if he came from a more modest background (let alone, as Gary Younge noted in today’s Guardian, if he were Black, or a woman), would never have had the opportunities in journalism or politics he has had, or got away with so much. We know that this is not a government that represents everyone; that is why it went into an agreement with a sectarian party in Northern Ireland rather than a government of national unity with Labour, which (officially) also accepts Brexit. Currently it ‘listens’ only to those who say what it wants to hear, while its press hurls abuse at dissenters, calling them “unpatriotic” and worse (as if there was much to be patriotic about right now).
She outlines five “tests” any agreement with the EU must pass. The first is that it “must respect the referendum”. But a ‘deal’ which plunges the country into isolation is not one that respects a referendum in which nearly half the population (including most of her own constituents) voted to remain in, and including the majorities in two of the four nations. In the run-up to the referendum the status of Norway was suggested as the best hope for us outside the EU (depsite the fact, stated at the time, that it would mean less control over the laws we had to implement from Europe, not more); now, it’s dismissed for that very reason. Some Tories have advocated it as a means to a quick and easy Brexit but it is a minority view. May also rejects the “Canada option” of a free trade deal, or trading on WTO terms, which she says “would mean a significant reduction in our access to each other’s markets compared to that which we currently enjoy” and “mean customs and regulatory checks at the border that would damage the integrated supply chains that our industries depend on and be inconsistent with the commitments that both we and the EU have made in respect of Northern Ireland”. Yet she cannot guarantee that she will get any better offer than that, and many in her own party prefer to talk about free trade deals with far-off countries and to downplay the importance of the EU to British trade.
Like it or not, there just is no good deal outside the EU for the UK other than what Norway or Switzerland enjoy; no other country is comparable, because countries surrounding the EU that are not in it are either very large (Russia), poor (much of North Africa, Ukraine, Albania) or far away and engaged in other free trade zones (Canada). We cannot simply go back to trading mostly with the Commonwealth as all those countries have found other trading partners since. It is not the European Union’s fault that parts of the UK have been “left behind” by the economics of the past 35 years; it is the result of British policy, and the present government show no sign of changing it. Discontent with the EU is largely the result of misinformation and propaganda in the popular press, most of it in the Tory media and Boris Johnson himself being the origin of many of the most egregious myths. The EU knows this; it knows that the better educated are against Brexit, and that Theresa May (who was against Brexit before the referendum, and as Hugo Rifkind of the Times pointed out on Twitter, did not mention any advantage to Brexit in her speech) is desperate. Why on earth would anyone want ‘unity’ with small-minded, ignorant people or with politicians who do not know what they are doing?
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