Following the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union just over a year ago, I wrote “Brexit: A Sleep Walk into Disaster.” You can read it here . A year on from the most unexpected and significant vote in my lifetime, it’s appropriate to return to this polarising subject. Now that Article 50 has been invoked by Westminster and Brexit negotiations have commenced in earnest, there’s no turning back. The divorce papers have been served, the lawyers have been instructed and all that remains (pardon the pun) is to hammer out the details of a potentially bitter and acrimonious deal. If that sounds unduly bleak, it’s nevertheless an accurate representation of the volatile times we’re living in. We’re deep into uncharted territory. Britain’s exit was always likely to be messy.
The highly charged and febrile atmosphere has only been heightened, of course, by yet another political miscalculation by a Conservative leader. A year has passed and we’ve been subjected to another unnecessary and unhelpful vote inspired by a misplaced sense of Tory arrogance. Incredibly, Theresa May, having initially indicated that her government would last its full term, made the catastrophic decision to ape her predecessor in calling a vote that a clear majority neither wanted or needed. As far as political miscalculations go, May’s volte face wasn’t far behind Cameron’s in terms of futility and ineptitude. The thought process was clear. Britain’s premier evidently believed that Jeremy Corbyn was too weak to mount any sort of credible challenge and that an enhanced parliamentary majority was virtually assured.
It sounded plausible enough but it didn’t quite work out like that. Corbyn proved much more durable and popular than May imagined and the Tory leader ended up losing her Westminster majority rather than augmenting it. Just like 2010, the UK was left with that most undesirable of electoral outcomes-a hung parliament. However, the context had changed so much in the intervening years that a desperate May was forced to turn to some unlikely and unorthodox allies to shore up her ailing administration. There were many Tories who’d been aghast with the Clegg coalition in 2010, but last month’s general election heralded an even more unlikely alliance. This time, the Conservatives didn’t turn to the Liberals for support but Northern Ireland’s deeply contentious Democratic Unionist Party. Yikes!
Hardly the strong and stable environment we were promised for the critical Brexit negotiations. It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it? And the early indications emanating from Brussels are that the discussions are going to be far from cosy and straightforward. The contrasting mood music from the competing participants is instructive, to say the least. While Britain’s negotiators have been at pains to seem all sweetness and light over the last year, Brussels’ approach seems altogether less accommodating. The British have seemed keen to present themselves as bastions of accommodation and compromise, while their EU counterparts have adopted an altogether stricter tone. All or nothing seems to be the essence of the EU’S position; as negotiators have been queuing up to tell the British that they can’t merely cherry pick the parts of EU membership that are most advantageous to them and ignore everything else. It’s not quite hard ball, but European politicians and negotiators are understandably loath to hand Britain’s leavers their wish list on a plate. Why rush to settle when you hold all the aces? Did anyone honestly think it was going to be any other way?
One might feel more sorry for May and her government if the wounds weren’t so obviously self-inflicted and avoidable. Britain’s prime minister now faces the toughest task of all: steering the UK through a time of unprecedented instability when the whole world must appear resolutely set against her. Attempting all this with no parliamentary majority and having been thrust into an arranged marriage with the unappealing DUP must be an extremely lonely place to be. How unnecessary this predicament was. If Cameron had only backed the courage of his convictions and stood up to his internal dissenters by trying to reform the EU from within, this whole unsavoury mess could have been avoided. Alas, that ship has long since sailed and we’ve all been subjected to crippling uncertainty and political chaos as a consequence.
A year ago I wrote about the law of unintended consequences and the period post the Brexit referendum has illuminated my point. While it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see that Brexit had the potential to unsettle the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, few could have predicted the remarkable way in which the Brexit vote has rekindled the debate on Irish reunification. Prior to June 23rd last year, the whole concept of Irish political unity (as it’s historically been understood) was completely off the agenda in any real and current sense. Even Sinn Féin seemed more than comfortable in their place atop Stormont’s power-sharing pyramid.
The Brexit referendum has changed that dynamic inexorably. For the first time in a generation, the Irish unity debate is firmly back on the agenda in a meaningful way. And a majority of unionists supported Brexit? Indeed, were the referendum to be reprised tomorrow, most of them would still vote exactly the same way. Maybe it makes sense to them! How Ireland will fare in negotiations is uncertain but there is no doubt that the Brexit discussions will shape Ireland’s political future in a profound way. Whether it’s hard or soft, centred on land or at sea, the Irish border is set for its biggest shake up since its creation in 1922. How the hastily arranged DUP-Tory love-in will affect these seminal issues is anyone’s guess.
The recent plethora of elections has left many cold and apathetic about Brexit and the immediate future. Increasing numbers are turning off politics. It’s easy, of course, to see European political machinations as remote and impersonal. But something extraordinarily significant and fundamental is happening over the next couple of years. And we all have a stake in it. It’s no exaggeration to state that the world as we know it is being turned on its head. Old certainties and ideologies are threatened as a new political order and arrangement presents itself. Maybe it will all work out okay in the end but nothing should be taken for granted. Everything is on the table and it’s possible that the UK and Europe will change dramatically over the next decade on the back of the landmark Brexit negotiations. The stakes have never been higher. I guess that’s what happens when you make yourself an unnecessary hostage to fortune. Strap yourselves in. We could be in for a very bumpy ride.