Brexit, the border and English nationalism

16 Jul 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 Jul 2018

Jacob Rees-Mogg debating at the Cambridge Union
Jacob Rees-Mogg debating at the Cambridge Union

It’s a few days before the Brexit crisis broke. A tall bespectacled Englishman wearing a double breasted suit is straddling the Irish border, speaking to Sky TV.

He has just completed a tour of the border and has thoroughly enjoyed his day out. “We set off from London City Airport, which is wonderfully quick and efficient, to Dublin and drove to Blacklion. On the way we crossed the border more than once, which is currently only marked by different road signs and the use of two languages in the Republic. The United Kingdom has miles per hour for our speed limits but Ireland uses kilometres. This ease of crossing the border was something everyone we met wanted to preserve.”

On the way he has met with a “charming farmer” a shopkeeper who runs an “amazing emporium” and “an impressive, young Sinn Fein supporter.”

And his conclusion after these encounters?  “I left feeling that it is even more important that the Government re-iterates its view that the UK will not impose a border and calls the EU’s bluff,” Jacob Rees-Mogg told his local paper The Somerset Herald.

Rees-Mogg is often not taken seriously enough. He is seen as lovable eccentric, an old Etonian who sometimes tweets in Latin, who named his sixth child Sixtus and for his uncanny resemblance to Walter the Softy of Beano fame.

In fact he currently holds the fate of the government, and, by extension, all of us in his immaculately manicured hands.

Rees-Mogg chairs the shadowy European Research Group which is believed to have a membership of up to 80 fellow Conservatives. It is a party within a party. And it has within it the power to pull the government down.

At the ERG’s core is the espousal of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – the notion that the UK parliament and it alone should be the supreme legislature for the UK.  This is an expression of British nationalism, and for nationalists of any ilk there are more important factors than the interests of business, of jobs and of the economy. We know that all too well here. For Irish nationalists, by definition, a united Ireland is a thing to be aspired to in itself even if that meant we would be worse off, the same applies to unionists in their allegiance to the UK.

Rees-Mogg and his colleagues are following in the footsteps of Enoch Powell, who, in the early 1970s was so opposed to then Prime Minister Edward Heath’s pro-European stance that he encouraged Tory supporters to vote Labour and then left the party to join the Ulster Unionists.

Powell argued that the preservation of British sovereignty and independence was an end for which “any disadvantage and any sacrifice are a cheap price.”

He asserted that the Conservative party was the party for patriots, warning that deviating from that could even destroy the party: “I intend no imputation against any person or party when I say that the mental association of patriotism with the Tory Party is strong and persistent. It is perilous to any party for the appeal of the country to conflict with the appeal of the party. To the Conservative Party it is a conflict which could be mortal.”

And back in 1973 he was already arguing that Britain had lost its sovereignty: “Do not laugh or shrug your shoulders,” he said. “You have been told. It is your own fault, and the fault of the public, if you do not listen.”

For Powell the idea of parliamentary sovereignty was not just the best form of governance, it was what defined the nation. He told a French audience in 1971: “It is a fact that the British parliament in its paramount authority occupies a position in relation to the British nation which no other elective assembly in Europe possesses. Take Parliament out of the history of England and that history itself becomes meaningless. Whole lifetimes of study cannot exhaust the reasons why this fact has come to be; but fact it is, so that the British nation could not imagine itself except with and through its parliament. Consequently the sovereignty of our parliament is something other for us from what your assemblies are for you.”

To follow in that tradition is  to assert that parliamentary sovereignty is what defines Britain; that any erosion of that sovereignty is unacceptable; that the Conservative Party is patriotic, and that therefore true Conservatives should and must oppose any arrangement that cedes sovereignty to Europe even if that comes at a cost.

This is not the politics of negotiation and compromise it is an absolutist position.

And it explains why David Davis, who has been connected with the ERG said that he believed that the government’s position paper on Brexit would create the “illusion” of parliamentary authority, and Boris Johnson in more colourful language said he believed it would result in Britain becoming a “colony”.

Rees-Mogg’s position was laid out back in May when he told his beloved readers at the Somerset Herald:

“If you look at the list of our Norman and Plantagenet Kings there were numerous rows over vassalage and bending the knee to their overlords, which of course King John agreed to do to the King Phillip II of France at Le Goulet. A vassal state is not a good state nor is it a strong state. In truth the vassal state is worse than membership of the European Union.”

Funnily enough May’s proposals fit that description. They envisage paying the European union for an arrangement which is not as good as the one the UK has through membership, whilst not giving it the right to help shape the policies and legislation which will govern future trade relations.

Rees-Mogg has already argued this point, and it is one issue on which he and remainers agree: that the government’s current proposals leave the UK in a worse position than being a full member.

His solution appears to be hardening to one which would actually prefer a no-deal Brexit. This would leave the UK falling back on World Trade Organisation rules, and would leave the Irish situation unaddressed.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph he claims: “We ought not to take Brussels too seriously about the Irish Question… The Commission hides behind faux concern for the Irish border undermining the single market, something that is, in the jargon, uncommuniataire. No doubt this will be left to the inevitable, tiresome 11th hour summiteering at the end of this process.

​“It is important to be clear about the border, our shared past and our common future. We will not impose a border. If there is a deal to be done about the border it will be precisely that: a deal. Nonetheless, if one side keeps refusing to bargain, no deal will be struck.​

“If Brussels or Dublin insist upon rejecting all the practical approaches that we propose it is, with regret, that we will have to graciously accept their rejection. If they either do not want to or simply cannot broker a deal, a deal will not be done.”

Rees-Mogg’s language is so unfailingly polite, so apparently reasonable that you have to read that passage several times for it to sink in. The reality is that his determination to leave the European Union is so steadfast that if that causes problems in Ireland, that’s really a matter for the Irish and Brussels to sort out.

The ERG comprises a minority within the Conservative Party but it is a powerful one and has enough firepower to force a leadership contest. Its members are most unlikely to vote in favour of a deal based on May’s current plan. That leaves May trying to recruit Labour and the Liberal Democrats to support her – a seemingly unlikely prospect.

And as time ticks on the prospect of leaving the European Union with no deal, and all that implies looms larger and larger.

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