Henry Hill: Conservatives explore plans to buy off SNP with… yet more powers

22 Oct

Tories draw up plans to ‘buy off’ SNP referendum demands

Ever since New Labour first set up the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, there has only been one game in town when it comes to how to defeat the nationalists and hold the United Kingdom together: “more powers”.

It’s fair to say that it hasn’t worked so far. In the just over two decades since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, for example, the SNP have gone from a marginal force to a political hegemon and independence from a minority pursuit to, at best, a parity position in public opinion. In Wales, meanwhile, the Senedd is brute-forcing nationalist sentiment out of the most incoherent foundations.

Yet the sheer weight of intellectual inertia that has built up behind devolution is such that it remains, despite everything, the reflex response to political difficulty, and this week Bloomberg revealed that this Government might be no exception. They have reportedly seen a memo drawn up by Hanbury, a consultancy working with the Government on the separatist problem, which suggests adopting a policy of ‘accomodation’ to forestall a second independence referendum:

“The government should instead focus on a “Four Nations, One Country” policy by transferring further financial powers, differentiation on policies connected to the EU vote, such as immigration. The document says that the new settlement will be the subject of another paper.”

It goes without saying that there is no mention anywhere in the piece of policies to give effect to the ‘One Country’ part by re-asserting Westminster’s rightful prerogatives as the seat of this country’s sovereign, national government, in the manner of the UK Internal Market Bill.

All of this comes as Michael Gove pledged this week to ‘reset’ relations with the devolved administrations, which have deteriorated in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the FT, this will take the form of ‘institutional’ reforms to improve inter-governmental communication rather than new powers (although it may well just preparing the ground for the concessions envisioned by Hanbury).

This will please Scottish business organisations, which have reportedly urged Westminster and Holyrood to end the ‘stand-off’ over Brexit as the negotiations enter the closing straight.

Stephen Daisley has a great piece for the Spectator outlining why Westminster’s retreat-to-victory approach to the Union is so, so wrong, and I explored similar issues in a recent piece for These Islands on the folly of federalism. If a Government with a majority of 80 really feels it needs more than “once in a generation” to refuse a second referendum, better arguments are available.

Reckless joins ‘Abolish the Assembly’ as ex-UKIPs MSs set up new group

It has become a source of visible irritation to a section of the Welsh devocracy how often the MSs (formerly AMs) who were elected under UKIP’s banner in 2016 have re-organised themselves in the years since.

UKIP broke through in Wales with seven AMs, but the group was almost immediately riven by internal power struggles. Following the decline of UKIP it has splintered yet further, with some joining the Brexit Party before that too ran out of steam. Now the ‘unionist right’ of Welsh politics is dividing over another question: whether or not to abolish the Senedd altogether.

This week, Mark Reckless became the second MS to defect to Abolish the Assembly, the leading devosceptic party (which despite initial refusal is apparently now going to rebrand to reflect the institution’s new name). It will be interesting to see whether this means they will adopt his preferred solution: Reckless doesn’t favour full re-integration, but rather an arrangement wherein Wales’ devolved competencies are exercised by MPs.

Abolish face competition for the abolitionist vote with Neil Hamilton, the sole MS still sitting under the UKIP banner, who has set up his own ‘Scrap the Welsh Assembly’ campaign – a reminder of the personality clashes which have dogged the UKIP caucus. Meanwhile three other ex-Brexit Party MSs have set up the Independent Alliance for Reform, who has the aim suggests are opposed to getting rid of devolution (and with it, of course, their own roles).

Reckless’ defection will give Abolish a high-profile front-man for the upcoming devolved elections and could make them more dangerous to the Conservatives, whose leadership have been firefighting outbreaks of anti-devolution sentiment amongst the grassroots for months.

All of this comes amidst fresh tensions over the Welsh Government’s anti-Covid-19 strategy. As Guido reports, Mark Drakeford has tried to bounce Westminster into stumping up the cash for his ‘firebreak’ lockdown by announcing it before securing sufficient funding. This is a repeat of tensions we saw between the Scottish Government and the Treasury earlier in the pandemic, and is starting to spark calls for the devolved governments to ‘pay for their own lockdowns‘.

Commentary

  • Unionists must stop playing by separatists’ rules – Stephen Daisley, The Spectator
  • A fundamental misunderstanding – Ian Smart, Blog
  • Where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales? – Matt Smith, ConservativeHome
  • The little-known £5 billion subsidy which helps unravel the RHI riddle – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • The Prime Minister must not resign himself to the union’s demise – Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph
  • Can Unionists better game Scotland’s two vote electoral system than the Nats? – Graham Stewart, The Critic
  • Wales has never been a nation – Polly Mackenzie, UnHerd
  • Why are the devolved nations so ungrateful? – Toby Young, The Spectator

‘We need to talk about the Union’: An inside look at the new group of Conservative MPs fighting for Britain

16 Oct

Amongst the many changes wrought by the pandemic, one which people might not have predicted has been the way it has brought the constitutional conflict back up to the boil.

For several years after the Brexit referendum the question of Scottish independence remained relatively quiescent, even as the SNP fought tooth and nail to prevent the UK’s exit from the European Union because of how difficult it made their ultimate ambition.

But the breakdown of the ‘four nations’ consensus on Covid-19 has changed all that. Less than a year out from crucial Holyrood elections, the Scottish Government continues to enjoy the ‘rally round the flag’ effect that Boris Johnson has lost (despite a growing laundry list of woes). Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, are talking seriously about introducing internal movement restrictions inside the UK.

After decades of complacency and a blithe assumption that conceding more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay could buy them off indefinitely, the Government has at least started to wake up to the scale of the challenge. The UK Internal Market Bill was a welcome sign that ministers were prepared to defend the legitimate role of Westminster in national life.

But there will be much more to do over the next few years – and the new Conservative Union Research Group aims to make sure the Party is equipped to do it.

CURG is the brainchild of Robin Millar, the newly-elected MP for Aberconwy in North Wales. A committed unionist – he set out his thinking on the Union in a recent piece for the Daily Express – he was spurred to organise after realising how badly devolution had affected government attitudes towards constituencies such as his. When raising questions about flooding, for example, a response from DEFRA was simply forwarded from the Welsh Government, and at one point the Secretary of State expressed sympathy only for English constituencies affected.

Millar says he isn’t an instinctive centraliser. He’s a fan of subsidiarity and pushed for greater local power whilst a county councillor in Suffolk. But whilst he might be sceptical about Westminster’s capacity to directly run North Wales, he believes that it has not lost its ultimate responsibility towards all British citizens – but, after decades of ‘devolve and forget’, that it sometimes forgets that.

After speaking to other Welsh colleagues, Millar reached out to MPs from other parts of the country including David Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. The goal was to set up a “simple, focused, and open” group to help backbench Tory MPs (although there were ministers who wished to join) work more effectively in Parliament on Union issues.

Membership has reportedly grown “organically” since the launch, and as of today, the URG apparently counts more than 70 of them amongst its membership. Crucially, four fifths of these represent English constituencies.

Whilst the name obviously invites comparisons with the European Research Group, Millar is clear that the URG is not a “disgruntled caucus”. The Government’s stated goal is to defend the Union, and the URG intends to help.

The Committee: Selaine Saxby, Fay Jones, Robin Millar, Andrew Bowie, and James Davies.

One way of doing this is simply making sure that MPs know more about the Union. Many MPs don’t come into politics to talk about the constitution, and Millar ended up setting himself a lot of reading up over lockdown to make sure he was across the issues. That’s perhaps one reason why the URG is geared towards mobilising people with shared convictions, rather than advocating for a specific and detailed set of solutions.

In Parliament, the group will hopefully help pro-UK MPs to make better-informed and more coordinated interventions on relevant issues by preparing briefing notes and other support. The UK Internal Market Bill is an obvious example, but the URG leadership are keen to highlight that there is a Union dimension to a huge range of issues. Ministers aiming to raise the Government’s profile in devolved policy areas won’t disagree.

Over the longer term, Millar hopes the group will be able to hone the intellectual arguments unionists need to take on the separatists. This involves tackling misleading comparisons between the British and European unions, challenging misleading attacks on the ‘English Government’, defending Westminster’s role in overseeing legitimately UK-wide initiatives such as the Shared Prosperity Fund, and combating the idea that support for the Union is nostalgic or reactionary.

It also means pressing the SNP on the inconsistencies in their vision, including the increasingly salient question of whether territories such as Orkney and Shetland should have the right to go their own way in the event of an independence vote: “Where does separation stop?”

They might also try to persuade ministers to broaden and deepen their arguments against granting Sturgeon a re-run referendum after next year’s Holyrood election. Simply repeating the “once in a generation” mantra won’t be enough, but better arguments are available.

It is too soon to say what sort of ideas might come out of this process. But even if it just gets minds concentrated on the problem and people talking about the Union, the URG would be doing the Party and the country a service. For too long, nationalism has enjoyed the advantage of having permanently-established parties and caucuses focused exclusively on attacking the United Kingdom. It is past time that unionism counter-organised.

Tim Ambler: How to replace quangos

8 Oct

Tim Ambler is a writer, academic and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.

Westminster governments have for years festooned themselves with public bodies, collectively barnacles on the ship of state. This summer, Michael Gove said, in a much touted speech: “we surely know the machinery of government is no longer equal to the challenges of today.”

The Public Administration Select Committee and the National Audit Office have also complained of the lack of any clear taxonomy of these “arm’s length bodies” (ALBs) and their excess number. To govern well, the Government needs to strip itself of quangos and other bodies that are not part of governing at all.

Over 30 years ago, Robin Ibbs created executive agencies to provide government departments with specialist units to deliver policies. Crucially, their performance should be measured against pre-defined quantified targets and reported annually. They are essentially part of governing.

Other ALBs include quangos – both independent and not independent of government at the same time.  Whitehall and ministers are confused by which ALBs are truly part of the executive and which are independent.

Ofqual, for example, is an independent regulator and the Secretary of State should not have overruled its judgement.  Public Health England, however, is an executive agency and Matt Hancock was wrong to claim he did not have direct control.

The NHS is, technically, a quango and that is clearly nonsense. If being part of the government is more important, they should be “executive agencies”; if being independent is more important, they should be accountable to another branch of state.

Government, or the “executive”, is only one branch of the state – the others of note here being the legislature and judiciary. Democratic accountability derives from Parliament, our elected representatives; the executive is only democratic to the extent that it is accountable to Parliament.

The word “independent” needs clarification in this context. Individuals and quoted companies are independent of government, but still have to do what the Government tells them to do.  Governments govern.

In the case of ALBs, it means managerial independence. Government sets their objectives: what they should achieve, but not how to do so. When Gordon Brown famously gave the Bank of England its independence in 1997, the Chancellor set the objectives (the target rate of inflation), but not how they should be achieved; the setting of interest rates moved from the Treasury to the Bank itself. The BBC’s objectives are laid down in its charter, and the funding, as with all ALBs, is a matter for the government, but the BBC itself has managerial independence.  All ALBs falling into this category are “public corporations”.

The Cabinet Office lists 16 “non-ministerial departments” and 185 quangos. In a report released by the Adam Smith Institute today, I propose reclassification as either executive agencies, or as public corporations answerable to a branch of the state other than the executive, merger with another body or its parent department, privatisation, or closure.

Regulators and ombudsmen are also supposed to be fully independent of the executive and should therefore, like the National Audit Office, be answerable to the first branch of the state, namely Parliament. Furthermore, economic regulators were only created to transition their markets from state monopoly to competition and then depart. Ombudsman bodies should take over this function as part of continuing to ensure fair play for consumers. Tribunals should be part of the third branch of the state, namely the judiciary.

This leaves a fourth category: national assets such as parks and museums, which are neither governing us, and therefore should not be part of the executive, nor do they fit into the judiciary.

The legislature is not geared to supervise each one of these bodies. A clear taxonomy for all public bodies demands a further branch of state to supervise these public corporations, here termed “Guardians”. These would be answerable to Parliament, and therefore be democratically accountable.

Commons’ Select Committees already approve the appointment of the chiefs of major ALBs, although some consider they make rather feeble use of that authority. Ideally, both the Government and select committees should agree appointments.  The logic of this paper is that the Government should have the casting vote in the case of executive agencies, and select committees in the case of public corporations and other bodies reporting directly to Parliament.

Executives should focus on governing – no easy task. The current Government is considering how it should be streamlined to do so most effectively. This paper, and especially the proposed taxonomy, is a contribution to that discussion. While savings are not the objective of the exercise, we estimate that streamlining the quango state could mean nearly 34,000 people off the taxpayer payroll, and a saving of £3.25 billion a year.

As a result of abolishing all quangos, we are left with the following taxonomy: four branches of the state – Parliament, Government/executive, Judiciary and Guardians, the last three all reporting to Parliament.

In this paper’s analysis, the first group would be 30 (NAO, Ombudsmen and Inspectorates) and the existing 24 Ministerial Departments would remain with 69 executive agencies. 34 tribunal and court services would be added to the Judiciary and the Guardians would supervise 86 public corporations.

This taxonomy clarifies the role of each public body and removes those that should not be part of government. The public have been clear for years that the quango has got to go, today then comes an idea that delivers that and a more accountable system. A more slender and nimble government meets Gove’s call for better government too.

A message from Ross to the Government – and Cummings. They’ve no excuse not to make the Union their top priority.

4 Oct

In a conference which has so far been pretty light on major cut-through moments, Douglas Ross’s speech to (from?) the Scottish Conservative fringe (if you missed it, catch it here) stands out.

Rather than simply focusing his fire on the Scottish National Party, the new Tory leader opens with a blunt message for Tory colleagues south of the border: shape up on the Union, or ship out.

Too many Conservatives, he says, have either given up on the United Kingdom or are even antipathetic to it, saying that: “Many, including some who govern our country, want to see a UK government focused on England.”

Where is this message directed? His deployment of the charge of ‘English nationalism’, a well-worn Remainer trope, has some thinking it could be a shot across the bows of Dominic Cummings and those conducting the negotiations with the EU. Leaving with a deal, in this few, might help to win back some of those former ‘No’ voters who have switched to independence in the aftermath of the 2016 vote.

Yet others are sceptical about the Brexit aspect of this argument, arguing that the detail of it simply doesn’t have the cut through in Edinburgh and Glasgow that politicians and commentators based in London might expect. If the Scottish Nationalists can’t even get traction for their latest grievance campaign against the Internal Market Bill, this argument runs, its not likely that a crucial slice of the electorate is waiting avidly to hear from David Frost.

Instead, Ross’s speech was about waking the Government, and indeed the wider Party, up to just how serious the situation in Scotland has become. Whilst out-and-out ‘English nationalists’ may still be relatively rare creatures, at least amongst the upper echelons of the parliamentary party, complacency is a much more serious problem. Even Tory MPs who are well-disposed to the Union are often not aware of the scale of the challenge.

Fortunately for Ross, the lack of interest he attacks is far from universal. On the parliamentary side, the newly-launched Union Research Group suggests that there remains a strong current of goodwill towards the Union amongst Tory MPs. On the grassroots side, there may soon be a new Friends of the Union group, and independent outfit Conservative Progress recently gathered senior figures from the voluntary party for the launch of their own ‘Love our Union’ campaign.

But these efforts can’t compensate for a lack of direction from the top. The Prime Minister has at his disposal the whole machinery of Her Majesty’s Government, not to mention that of the national Conservative Party and the Tory donors’ address book. Boris Johnson might not have come into politics to fight for the Union – any more than did May to deliver Brexit – but it is the challenge which now confronts him and will, if he loses, define his premiership.

If some of his senior lieutenants don’t place much personal value on the future of the UK, he must impress on them in the strongest terms that it is his personal priority – and, therefore, theirs too.

Henry Hill: The challenges involved in reviving the ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19

24 Sep

Whereas Brexit didn’t give the Scottish Nationalists the lift-off they were expecting, the Covid-19 pandemic really does appear to be putting the post-1998 constitutional order under even greater strain.

This became apparent over the summer with the breakdown of the Government’s efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ response to tackling coronavirus, resulting in a confusing spread of different rules across the United Kingdom and the spectre of internal movement restrictions between the Home Nations.

As a result, the true extent of devolution has become more apparent than ever and this seems to be hardening opinion on both sides. In Scotland, the Scottish Government continues to have a ‘good crisis’ – at least in PR terms – whilst in Wales devoscepticism has arrived as a noteworthy political force.

This week, however, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have changed tack again. The Scotsman reports that she has written to Boris Johnson to request “urgent four-nation talks” about how toughen lockdown. According to the paper:

“The topics highlighted by the First Minister include what further actions might be necessary, what support is required for affected sectors and what arrangements can be put in place to ensure that devolved administrations are not constrained in making what they judge to be essential public health decisions.”

Kenny Farquharson, writing in the Times, describes this approach as “alignment plus”. His explanation for the new approach is that the First Minister recognises that many Scots risk getting quite different information depending on whether, for example, they prefer Scottish or national radio and television stations. With public patience likely to start fraying as we head into another six months of restrictions, the less room for confusion there is the better.

Of course, it would be a little naïve not to look for possible mischief in any SNP overture to the Government, and one can see how this could make things tricky for Johnson. By urging the Prime Minister to adopt tougher restrictions, Sturgeon can once again appear ahead of the game to a solidly pro-lockdown public – which is doing her standing no harm in Scotland – whilst also sharpening the possible split between the Government and Conservative backbenchers, who are growing increasingly restive about how ministers are handling the imposition of economic and social restrictions.

If the Prime Minister does end up leaning into a more restrictive, four-nations approach, residents in England may end up facing some of the more draconian measures which are currently in force elsewhere. For example, Scotland has banned household visits (and Wales restricted them to ‘extended households’), whereas the Government currently still permits these subject to the ‘Rule of Six’ and appropriate social distancing restrictions.

Wales has also used the pandemic to start smuggling in somewhat bizarre public health nannying, such as a new ban on off-licences and supermarkets selling alcohol after 10pm. It will be very interesting to see whether or not that restriction is repealed once the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

Sturgeon also used her letter to call (inevitably) for more powers. The Scotsman says she “also highlighted that devolved administrations’ ability to take action is curtailed by a lack of financial levers to deliver economic support.” This demand is obviously in tension with the Government’s desire, embodied in the UK Internal Market Bill, to defend the coherence of the British common market and the broader constitutional settlement.

Henry Hill: It is past time the Government worked out a British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement

17 Sep

Joe Biden’s latest intervention in the battle over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill is a useful reminder of a couple of truths which the Right in this country are prone to forgetting.

The first is that the ‘Special Relationship’, upon which the entire Atlanticist world-view rests, is a fiction. The US does have a unique bond with an island nation off the coast of Europe – but it isn’t this one.

Second, this crisis highlights once again how utterly woeful unionists on both sides of the water have been in developing a proper theory of the Belfast Agreement and selling it to journalists and policymakers either at home or overseas.

What does a ‘theory of the Belfast Agreement’ mean? It means an expansive understanding of what its provisions entail, and even more importantly, what they don’t entail, plus a narrative in which these interpretations make sense.

Over the past four years, both an uninterested UK Government and its unionist allies have been utterly routed when it comes to shaping popular understanding of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As a result, even as sincere a unionist as Theresa May ended up accepting that Britain was under a treaty obligation to ensure that absolutely no border infrastructure was necessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This understandably outraged those who recognised how extraordinarily it would be to have an external party impose an internal tariff border on a sovereign nation, and proved the undoing of May’s deal. Boris Johnson then won the leadership with a vow that he would never accept such a thing. But he was no better equipped to challenge the line being peddled by Dublin and Brussels than his predecessor, so he folded. Now his belated efforts to (possibly) un-fold are causing the Government serious difficulty.

At every turn, the weight provided to the Agreement’s offers to each side are completely different. Quite limited references to cross-border cooperation are spun out into vast entitlements, whilst Unionists are fobbed off with the suggestion that having a broad swath of economic policy set from Dublin doesn’t technically change Ulster’s constitutional status. To imagine the Irish nationalist reaction to the same proposal in reverse – Irish policy set by London – is to see what a nonsense that defence is.

It’s not as if a unionist interpretation of the Agreement doesn’t exist – Lee Reynolds, the Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionists, set one out on this site in 2018. But there has been no concerted effort to sell it. The Government has a potential ally in David Trimble, who actually negotiated it, but has failed to give him any prominent role.

Would such a campaign have been a magic bullet? Of course not. The European Union would still have had every incentive to weaponise Northern Irish issues, and the sort of US politician who goes to bat for the IRA doesn’t really care one way or the other what the Agreement does or doesn’t say. But as with the Prime Minister’s attempt to refuse the Scottish Nationalists a second referendum, having a clear and defensible justification for what you’re doing can be the difference between being perceived as an honourable opponent or an untrustworthy chancer.

If the Government really wants to get ahead of the problem with regards to Northern Ireland, it should finally sit down and work out what the British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement is. Better decades late than never.

Henry Hill: It is past time the Government worked out a British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement

17 Sep

Joe Biden’s latest intervention in the battle over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill is a useful reminder of a couple of truths which the Right in this country are prone to forgetting.

The first is that the ‘Special Relationship’, upon which the entire Atlanticist world-view rests, is a fiction. The US does have a unique bond with an island nation off the coast of Europe – but it isn’t this one.

Second, this crisis highlights once again how utterly woeful unionists on both sides of the water have been in developing a proper theory of the Belfast Agreement and selling it to journalists and policymakers either at home or overseas.

What does a ‘theory of the Belfast Agreement’ mean? It means an expansive understanding of what its provisions entail, and even more importantly, what they don’t entail, plus a narrative in which these interpretations make sense.

Over the past four years, both an uninterested UK Government and its unionist allies have been utterly routed when it comes to shaping popular understanding of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As a result, even as sincere a unionist as Theresa May ended up accepting that Britain was under a treaty obligation to ensure that absolutely no border infrastructure was necessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This understandably outraged those who recognised how extraordinarily it would be to have an external party impose an internal tariff border on a sovereign nation, and proved the undoing of May’s deal. Boris Johnson then won the leadership with a vow that he would never accept such a thing. But he was no better equipped to challenge the line being peddled by Dublin and Brussels than his predecessor, so he folded. Now his belated efforts to (possibly) un-fold are causing the Government serious difficulty.

At every turn, the weight provided to the Agreement’s offers to each side are completely different. Quite limited references to cross-border cooperation are spun out into vast entitlements, whilst Unionists are fobbed off with the suggestion that having a broad swath of economic policy set from Dublin doesn’t technically change Ulster’s constitutional status. To imagine the Irish nationalist reaction to the same proposal in reverse – Irish policy set by London – is to see what a nonsense that defence is.

It’s not as if a unionist interpretation of the Agreement doesn’t exist – Lee Reynolds, the Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionists, set one out on this site in 2018. But there has been no concerted effort to sell it. The Government has a potential ally in David Trimble, who actually negotiated it, but has failed to give him any prominent role.

Would such a campaign have been a magic bullet? Of course not. The European Union would still have had every incentive to weaponise Northern Irish issues, and the sort of US politician who goes to bat for the IRA doesn’t really care one way or the other what the Agreement does or doesn’t say. But as with the Prime Minister’s attempt to refuse the Scottish Nationalists a second referendum, having a clear and defensible justification for what you’re doing can be the difference between being perceived as an honourable opponent or an untrustworthy chancer.

If the Government really wants to get ahead of the problem with regards to Northern Ireland, it should finally sit down and work out what the British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement is. Better decades late than never.

Henry Hill: It is past time the Government worked out a British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement

17 Sep

Joe Biden’s latest intervention in the battle over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill is a useful reminder of a couple of truths which the Right in this country are prone to forgetting.

The first is that the ‘Special Relationship’, upon which the entire Atlanticist world-view rests, is a fiction. The US does have a unique bond with an island nation off the coast of Europe – but it isn’t this one.

Second, this crisis highlights once again how utterly woeful unionists on both sides of the water have been in developing a proper theory of the Belfast Agreement and selling it to journalists and policymakers either at home or overseas.

What does a ‘theory of the Belfast Agreement’ mean? It means an expansive understanding of what its provisions entail, and even more importantly, what they don’t entail, plus a narrative in which these interpretations make sense.

Over the past four years, both an uninterested UK Government and its unionist allies have been utterly routed when it comes to shaping popular understanding of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As a result, even as sincere a unionist as Theresa May ended up accepting that Britain was under a treaty obligation to ensure that absolutely no border infrastructure was necessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This understandably outraged those who recognised how extraordinarily it would be to have an external party impose an internal tariff border on a sovereign nation, and proved the undoing of May’s deal. Boris Johnson then won the leadership with a vow that he would never accept such a thing. But he was no better equipped to challenge the line being peddled by Dublin and Brussels than his predecessor, so he folded. Now his belated efforts to (possibly) un-fold are causing the Government serious difficulty.

At every turn, the weight provided to the Agreement’s offers to each side are completely different. Quite limited references to cross-border cooperation are spun out into vast entitlements, whilst Unionists are fobbed off with the suggestion that having a broad swath of economic policy set from Dublin doesn’t technically change Ulster’s constitutional status. To imagine the Irish nationalist reaction to the same proposal in reverse – Irish policy set by London – is to see what a nonsense that defence is.

It’s not as if a unionist interpretation of the Agreement doesn’t exist – Lee Reynolds, the Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionists, set one out on this site in 2018. But there has been no concerted effort to sell it. The Government has a potential ally in David Trimble, who actually negotiated it, but has failed to give him any prominent role.

Would such a campaign have been a magic bullet? Of course not. The European Union would still have had every incentive to weaponise Northern Irish issues, and the sort of US politician who goes to bat for the IRA doesn’t really care one way or the other what the Agreement does or doesn’t say. But as with the Prime Minister’s attempt to refuse the Scottish Nationalists a second referendum, having a clear and defensible justification for what you’re doing can be the difference between being perceived as an honourable opponent or an untrustworthy chancer.

If the Government really wants to get ahead of the problem with regards to Northern Ireland, it should finally sit down and work out what the British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement is. Better decades late than never.

Henry Hill: It is past time the Government worked out a British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement

17 Sep

Joe Biden’s latest intervention in the battle over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill is a useful reminder of a couple of truths which the Right in this country are prone to forgetting.

The first is that the ‘Special Relationship’, upon which the entire Atlanticist world-view rests, is a fiction. The US does have a unique bond with an island nation off the coast of Europe – but it isn’t this one.

Second, this crisis highlights once again how utterly woeful unionists on both sides of the water have been in developing a proper theory of the Belfast Agreement and selling it to journalists and policymakers either at home or overseas.

What does a ‘theory of the Belfast Agreement’ mean? It means an expansive understanding of what its provisions entail, and even more importantly, what they don’t entail, plus a narrative in which these interpretations make sense.

Over the past four years, both an uninterested UK Government and its unionist allies have been utterly routed when it comes to shaping popular understanding of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As a result, even as sincere a unionist as Theresa May ended up accepting that Britain was under a treaty obligation to ensure that absolutely no border infrastructure was necessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This understandably outraged those who recognised how extraordinarily it would be to have an external party impose an internal tariff border on a sovereign nation, and proved the undoing of May’s deal. Boris Johnson then won the leadership with a vow that he would never accept such a thing. But he was no better equipped to challenge the line being peddled by Dublin and Brussels than his predecessor, so he folded. Now his belated efforts to (possibly) un-fold are causing the Government serious difficulty.

At every turn, the weight provided to the Agreement’s offers to each side are completely different. Quite limited references to cross-border cooperation are spun out into vast entitlements, whilst Unionists are fobbed off with the suggestion that having a broad swath of economic policy set from Dublin doesn’t technically change Ulster’s constitutional status. To imagine the Irish nationalist reaction to the same proposal in reverse – Irish policy set by London – is to see what a nonsense that defence is.

It’s not as if a unionist interpretation of the Agreement doesn’t exist – Lee Reynolds, the Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionists, set one out on this site in 2018. But there has been no concerted effort to sell it. The Government has a potential ally in David Trimble, who actually negotiated it, but has failed to give him any prominent role.

Would such a campaign have been a magic bullet? Of course not. The European Union would still have had every incentive to weaponise Northern Irish issues, and the sort of US politician who goes to bat for the IRA doesn’t really care one way or the other what the Agreement does or doesn’t say. But as with the Prime Minister’s attempt to refuse the Scottish Nationalists a second referendum, having a clear and defensible justification for what you’re doing can be the difference between being perceived as an honourable opponent or an untrustworthy chancer.

If the Government really wants to get ahead of the problem with regards to Northern Ireland, it should finally sit down and work out what the British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement is. Better decades late than never.