The Fine Old English Tory Times (have they come again?)
Dr. Steve Baker
“Well, do you think Boris is the man to get us out of the EU?” It sounded less a question than a challenge. I didn’t know how to respond. I knew this guy only vaguely, so I was surprised by how quickly we’d moved from exchanging pleasantries to talking about the most hotly deliberated political issue of the day. I shrugged, noncommittally. “I think he’s our man,” He pressed on assertively. “He’ll get us out.”
It didn’t feel like the moment for a full-on political debate about Brexit, it’s relative merits, and whether Boris Johnson will achieve a withdrawal. It was after all a sunny Saturday afternoon and I had other things on my mind – mainly football. I wouldn’t usually shirk the opportunity for the cut and thrust of public debate, but Brexit has been discussed ad nauseum for years now and few minds have been changed in the ferocious exchanges. If anything, opinion seems to have hardened, and frankly, just at that moment, I felt like I was done with it; as bored as I was disenfranchised by endless Brexiting. Leaving the EU was never among my top ten political priorities. I resented having to vote on the question in the referendum back in 2016 and, if I’m honest, I’ve resented every wasted day spent on it since.
But I was curious about this guy’s bold optimism and his confidence in the new PM. And later I regretted not asking him where he thinks the whole Brexit saga will end? Why are so many unionists, like him, committed to leaving the EU? For all the talk about “taking back control” hasn’t the Brexit saga simply demonstrated how incidental and powerless Northern Ireland is within the UK, for it seems that where England leads, we’re all obliged to follow? Did he think that Northern Ireland would survive Brexit, because from what I can see the politics that have brought the UK to the brink of leaving the EU have also brought Britain to breaking point? How is it that canny Ulster men and women find themselves making common cause with a Tory clown like Boris Johnson and the antediluvian Jacob Rees Mogg?
The Democratic Unionist Party’s support for Brexit always seemed to me entirely contradictory and self-destructive; an act of extraordinary strategic ineptitude. At the same time, it was utterly predictable. The DUP’s preference for tub-thumping populism and a conservative brand of Britishness made any project that promised to reboot British greatness irresistible to the party. But the notion that Brexit means a return to British power and glory seems fanciful, especially since, so far, the Brexit vote has to open the way for a second Scottish referendum on independence and aroused again the question of the border in Ireland. How did the DUP and its supporters not see this coming? Or maybe they did.
I am happy to admit that maybe it’s me who has this wrong, and that perhaps I’m missing something: some grand game being played out that will see Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK through these turbulent constitutional times and delivered intact to the sunlit uplands of a Britain free of EU fetters. But if that’s the case, I am alarmed to be led there, not by a resurgent and revitalised Britishness, but an emerging, narrowly defined English nationalism.
A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of Conservative Party members would sacrifice the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland to achieve Brexit. And as I write, the Daily Telegraph – to all intents and purposes the inhouse broadsheet of the Conservative Party – carries an article by columnist David Green, entitled, “Northern Ireland is a burden on the rest of the UK. We can’t let it get in the way of Brexit.” For the Tory rank and file Brexit is all about England. To be clear, that’s the same rank and file to whom Boris Johnson owes his positions as party leader and UK Prime Minister.
In a scathing satirical poem penned in 1841, Charles Dickens lamented how ‘the fine old English Tory times’ have come again. Dickens paints the Tories ignorant parasitic rogues, cheered on by a compliant press. He concludes his verse:
The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the land,
In England there shall be dear bread — in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, rally round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English Tory days;
Hail to the coming time!
Like Dickens, Edward Carson had the measure of the English Tories. While ever steadfast in his unionism, Carson opposed partition, saying: “What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into Power.” As it was then, so it is now. The Tories are at their work again, and Ireland, north and south, is caught up in contemporary “Tory intrigues.”
Come to think of it, I could have been persuaded to vote leave had the referendum looked less like a scheme to rescue the Conservative Party from tearing itself apart over Europe. I’ve always considered the EU remote and undemocratic and thought its treatment of Greece during the debt crisis appalling. I have never been persuaded by Remainer arguments that the EU upholds workers’ rights and environmental standards. The truth is, workers and their trade unions are by far the best defence of workers’ rights, and as for environmental protections, these seemed far from the EU’s mind when it was negotiating the now defunct Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which sought ‘regulatory convergence’ with the US on food and environmental safety standards. More recently the Mercosur free trade agreement between the EU and countries in South America, seeks to facilitate the importation of beef and the export of cars. The proliferation of both commodities is a direct contributor to global warming. On top of this, to meet the demand for beef, the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro encourages cattle farmers and loggers to clear and torch large areas of the Amazon rainforest, the ‘lungs of the planet’.
In the end, I voted to remain because I didn’t want to be led out of the EU by a band of hard-right, little Englanders, whose free-market fantasies would be disastrous if implemented in a peripheral region like Northern Ireland, which historically has relied on a large subvention from the UK treasury; where manufacturing has collapsed, and the rest of the economy looks precarious. And I was conscious of how peace in Northern Ireland had been secured by the Good Friday Agreement, which at its heart has a relaxed and flexible approach to questions of sovereignty, identity and borders. Brexit flies in the face of all of that.
And perhaps that explains the DUP’s backing of Brexit and my unionist acquaintance’s anticipation that Boris Johnson will get the job done. The DUP never signed up to the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, in general, unionism’s support for the accord has always been lukewarm and fragile. It has struggled with the moral equivalences and compromises that sharing power with an erstwhile enemy demands. And so, perhaps in the minds of the DUP and its supporters, Brexit has the potential to reset politics; to bring back the old reassuring animosities between Britain and Ireland, unionists and nationalists; the opportunity to assert fundamentals rather than the slipper ambiguity of peace-making; to once again draw clear red lines and emphatically define ourselves in opposition to others. Brexit is an assertion of identity in a world when everything seems to be going to hell in handcart and “all that is solid melts into air”.
Anyone who didn’t see this coming, wasn’t paying attention. The alienation of working class unionism in particular has been palpable in recent years. The promised peace dividend never materialised; unionist power has waned; the economic structures that sustained working class Protestants are all but gone; and the United Kingdom is beset by various nationalisms that threaten its existence. Now, in the aftermath of the flag protests, unionism cannot even maintain the symbolic dignity it feels is its due. Similarly, across the UK, Brexit is often presented as the rebellion of a forgotten people whose industries have gone and high street shops are vacant, who in contemporary Britain feel culturally, politically and economically disenfranchised.
Seen in this light, I’ve never understood Remainers who see the threat of economic calamity as a deterrent. Of course, the Farages and Rees Moggs of this world are well enough healed to withstand any catastrophe, but the “left behinds” and socially excluded feel they have nothing more lose. The later understandably want and need change. Even among remain voters, there are many for whom the status quo holds no attraction. They have found a champion in the veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, whose election as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is the other shock dealt the UK body politic in recent years.
British politics is being radically transformed, and nothing will ever be the same again. It is a moment that is simultaneously terrifying and full of exciting possibilities. No matter how reluctantly and resentfully some of us were brought to this, there has never been a more opportune time to ask for something better than the unresponsive technocracy that went before, with its exclusionary politics and gross social inequalities. Surely we can do better than to put in its place dreary identity politics feed on nostalgia and paranoia, behind which free market zealots set about further dismantling public services and undermining conditions of employment. The Brexit debate feels like it is stuck in a rut of endless recriminations and attempts to turn back the clock to either the era of Rule Britannia or Cool Britannia. And so, I wish I’d been up for a robust political exchange in the street a few weeks ago. I’d want to know from where my unionist acquaintance derived his optimism? Does he see a future in which we take seriously the management of existing climate change and begin to take the necessary steps to avoid environmental catastrophe? Is it a future with a commitment to ensuing that everyone has a decent home? Is it a future in which we strive to deepen and broaden the democratic structures within which we live? What about workplace democracy, for a start? Is it a future in which health care and education are free? Because if this isn’t the envisaged future, then what has all this disruption been for? If Brexit isn’t about system change, then it is merely a changing of the guard, before we once again submit ourselves to mean old English Tory times? If our ambitions are so paltry, then the inglorious Boris Johnson is exactly the man to get the job done.