Saturday 29 December 2018

Northern Ireland is no one's backstop


The treatment of Northern Ireland in the context of the negotiations between the EU and the UK has shown the inconsistency of the EU’s position with regard to nationalism.

The EU rightly condemned Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia. This was not so much because the referendum that led to this secession was held under dubious circumstances. Crimean secession would have been condemned even if the vote had been completely free and fair. The reason is that Crimea is a part of a sovereign nation state called Ukraine and parts of sovereign nation states may not legally secede without permission.


This position was reiterated with regard to Catalonia. It simply did not matter whether a majority in Catalonia wanted independence or whether they didn’t. So long as Spain refuses to allow a legal referendum on independence and refuses to recognise the right of Catalonians to create a sovereign nation state, then Catalonia will remain legally a part of Spain.

There are similar examples all over the world. The right of a sovereign nation state to maintain its territorial integrity is insurmountable so long as it does not oppress or attack the people living in part of its territory. It was only because Serbia attacked the people in Kosovo that international opinion was willing to make an exception and grant the right of Kosovo to become independent.

International opinion has also favoured the right of colonies to become independent, but it is important to recognise what is and what is not a colony. Argentina was a Spanish colony. Catalonia is not a Spanish colony. If you really can’t see the difference, you might benefit from a pair of glasses. If Catalonia were to be described as a colony, then half of Europe would have a colonial relationship to the other half.  

The peculiar thing about Northern Ireland then is that the EU is unwilling to treat it in the same way as it treated Catalonia and Crimea. Northern Ireland is not a colony. Some Irish nationalists, thereby making the case for Ulster unionism, still speak of the people of Northern Ireland as settlers having been planted there. But if we treat everyone whose ancestors moved somewhere in the fifteenth century as illegitimate colonists then we are liable to end up thinking that virtually the whole population of the United States of America has no right to live where they do.

Northern Ireland is an integral part of the sovereign nation state called the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland has no more legitimate claim to a part of that nation state than Russia has a claim to Crimea. It simply does not matter that Crimea was once a part of Russia. Nor does it matter if the majority of the population of Crimea think of themselves as Russian, speak Russian and would like to secede from Ukraine. Crimean secession would be illegal even if all these things were true. It is for this reason that nearly the whole world continues to protest against Russia’s annexation of the territory of a neighbouring state.

But this argument obviously ought to apply equally to Northern Ireland. When the 26 counties chose to secede from the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland remained. It indeed has never left the United Kingdom. Secession doesn’t give you the right to claim someone else’s territory, otherwise the Confederacy if it had won would have had the right to claim New York. For this reason the Republic of Ireland has no more claim on the territory of the United Kingdom than does Russia with regard to the territory of Ukraine. Indeed it has less for Northern Ireland was never part of a sovereign nation state called the Republic of Ireland.

There are various treaties that exist between the UK and Ireland, which allow both the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic to hold votes regarding Northern Ireland’s status, but the UK as a sovereign nation state can choose to renounce or renegotiate any treaty that it pleases. Lots of historical treaties have become obsolete, have been broken, or simply no longer apply.  The UK therefore could decide that such treaties that currently exist between itself and Ireland were obtained by coercion as a result of terrorism and were therefore inconsistent with the British Government’s longstanding policy of not appeasing terrorists.

It could also argue that the Irish Government has used the existence of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to hinder British foreign policy (Brexit) and that the Irish Government is using this agreement to further its policy of gradually annexing Northern Ireland.

The purpose of the Irish backstop is to put Northern Ireland into the Republic’s sphere of influence and to show that while the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is seamless the border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain may become real. Checks may be required. British goods and citizens may in effect be moving from the non-EU to the EU when they travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Could such a border exist between Catalonia and the rest of Spain? Obviously not. Spain would not accept it, because it would encourage Catalan secession. Would any other sovereign nation state in the EU accept such a regulatory border? No. This is the sort of thing that a sovereign nation state goes to war to prevent happening. If you don’t fight for your territorial integrity, what do you fight for?

No-one is going to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The British are not going to do it, nor are the Irish, nor are the EU. But the Irish Republic has used this non-issue to further its irredentist and quite illegitimate claim to Northern Ireland and it has done so with the backing of the EU. This alone must be grounds for the UK Government reviewing the Belfast Agreement. It is quite intolerable that, backed by terrorist threats, the Irish Government seeks to move towards a position where it can call for a referendum on Irish unification. This is no better than Russia using military force to win a referendum in order to justify its claim to Crimea.

It is time for the UK, just like Spain and Ukraine and indeed the vast majority of states in the world, to assert that our territory is indivisible. Secession and annexation is no more legitimate a foreign policy goal in Ireland than it is Ukraine. The Republic of Ireland has no more claim to the territory of another sovereign nation state than does Haiti have a claim to the Dominican Republic.  The mere fact that you share an island does not allow you to steal another person’s home.

The EU’s hypocrisy on this issue is dangerous for stability in Europe. In attempting to punish Britain by furthering the aims of Irish nationalism it will encourage such nationalism elsewhere in Europe. Why shouldn’t Russia seek to reunify what was once “All the Russias” including parts of what is now the EU such as Poland and the Baltic States. If reunification is a morally worthy goal for Ireland, why not for Austria, Russia or dare I say it, Germany. No doubt Austrian, German and Russian nationalists would be delighted to go back to their 1914 borders.


Saturday 22 December 2018

What did you learn Nicola?



I don’t want Mrs Sturgeon to click her ruby slippers together while repeating endlessly that there’s no place like Scotland. Nor is it helpful to once more hear nationalists repeat clich├ęs like “A hard Tory Brexit makes independence inevitable.” But it might be useful to revisit Scottish independence in the light of what we have all learned since the decision to leave the EU.



1. If there were a second referendum on Scottish independence, it would not be a Yes/No question.

Scottish nationalists still think that they would have the advantage of campaigning for Yes, but this would reverse the precedent set by the Electoral Commission to make the EU referendum a Remain/Leave question. Obviously any future Scottish independence referendum with a Yes/No question would be challenged legally.   

2. In order to win Scottish independence, the SNP would have to win four times.

In order to have a legal referendum on independence, the SNP will have to gain another pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament (i).

They will then have to win a vote to Leave the UK (ii).

They will then have to win a second referendum to Leave the UK after the terms of deal negotiated with the UK become clear to the Scottish public (iii).

It has already been established both by the actions of the SNP after the 2014 independence referendum and the Remain campaign after the 2016 EU referendum that campaigning for a second referendum is legitimate.

They will then have to win a vote in the UK’s Parliament (iv), although it will never be possible for the SNP to have more than 59 seats there.

It has been shown recently that the UK Parliament may if it chooses reject the result of a legal referendum. No-one questions that it would be legal for the UK Government to decide to water down leaving the EU to such an extent that it would be Brexit in name only. It would likewise be within the power of the Government to reverse Article 50.

Therefore the UK Government could decide that Scottish voters did not understand independence or that the SNP exaggerated the benefits and minimised the costs. Perhaps the SNP would have a bus that claimed Scots would be better off by £1000 per year after independence. Perhaps they would make some other claim that turned out to be false in the period after the vote. Well this could be used by the Remain dominated Parliament in Westminster to argue that the Scottish Leave vote was illegitimate.

3. The slogan “Independence in Europe” involves a contradiction.

If the UK cannot leave the EU without surrendering to a Carthaginian peace, not leaving at all or leaving without a deal, then what sort of independence would Scotland have in the EU? If Scotland could never leave the EU once we joined, then we would have the independence of a prisoner.

Some Scottish nationalists would be quite happy to surrender their hard won sovereignty to Brussels just so long as we are not ruled by London. But this is to apply the logic of “anyone but England” to matters rather more serious than football.

4. Being in a different trade bloc to your closest economic partner makes no sense.

Even after nearly 100 years of independence the Irish economy is hugely dependent on trade with the UK. Being in a different trade bloc to the UK will damage trade between the UK and Ireland and may lead to tariffs. This would still more be the case in the event of Scotland becoming independent. The Scottish economy is closely integrated with the other parts of the UK, but this could not survive if the UK were outside the EU while Scotland chose to join. Even if Scotland didn’t join the EU there would still need to be trade negotiations between the UK and Scotland. Anyone who thinks trade negotiations are straightforward hasn’t been paying attention. After all, the UK hasn’t haven’t reached them yet with the EU. We can’t even agree on the divorce terms.  

5. Borders are not simply lines on a map

The negotiations over the Irish backstop show that keeping open a border between a non-EU country and the EU is complex at best, impossible at worst. Technology may allow tariffs to be collected and migration to be monitored. But it is proving difficult enough when Ireland is not in Schengen. How much more difficult would it be if Scotland were forced to join Schengen. It is after all a condition of EU membership.

6. You can’t always get what you want

Scotland would have to simultaneously negotiate trade deals with both the EU and the UK. This would be the case whether or not Scotland chose to join the EU. If the UK is able in the future to make trade deals with other countries like USA, Australia and New Zealand, these deals would not automatically apply to Scotland and so would have to be negotiated too.

The key lesson we have learned in the past two years is that the EU has used the negotiation process to try to prevent the UK from leaving. We have been offered a deal that is worse than remaining. What would prevent the UK doing the same to Scotland? What would prevent the UK working together with Pro UK Scots, Remainers, to thwart Scottish independence and make the price of that independence so high that Scots would be left in the position of having to accept either Scottish independence in name only or a “No deal” with tariffs and border controls between Gretna and Berwick? If it is legitimate for the EU to act in this way why couldn’t the UK Government do likewise? No doubt there would be lots of goodwill towards Scotland, after all none of us can remember any Scots saying anything nasty about our neighbours, but what if that goodwill began to evaporate as the divorce ran into difficulty and disagreement?

So what did you learn Nicola? Up until now your answer to ever question has been independence. The Emerald City lies on the horizon and if only we could get there we would find it was in fact the Sapphire city with a Saltire flying from its highest point. In the Wizard’s bag we would each find what we needed and the Yellow Brick Road would turn out to be paved with gold. But Scottish nationalism is not going to get there if it continues to think in clich├ęs. There are hard questions to answer and they are getting harder. The hardest of all is this.

We have learned that a referendum decides nothing whatsoever. The losers just keep on campaigning as if nothing had happened and fight to overturn the result. The logic of this though is that that there never will be another referendum in the UK. Did you learn that lesson Nicola? If so, how do you achieve independence?

Saturday 8 December 2018

Turning the key


There were always two types of empire. There were those like the British and the French that spread overseas. British and French people would move to Delhi or Saigon and pretend they were living at home only it was rather hotter. These empires were always fragile. The other type of empire spread from a small centre, but did not, for the most part, spread overseas. The Russian Empire and the Chinese Empire are still largely intact because where they spread was contiguous. The same, dare I say it, might be said for the American Empire moving from a coastal strip to embrace most of a continent by means of colonisation.


A feature of both the Russian/Soviet and the Chinese Empires under communism was that there was always a pretence that they were democratic and that their various parts were autonomous or even independent. Both the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic held seats in the UN in 1945. So too did the countries that would later make up the Warsaw Pact. But the Polish October and Hungarian Revolution in 1956 ably demonstrated that these places had neither sovereignty nor any real freedom. But this had already been made clear in 1953 when the German Democratic Republic, with the help of Soviet tanks crushing demonstrators, had shown its name to involve a contradiction.

The citizens of these empires could either pretend along with their rulers that they lived in free democratic societies, taking part in elections, campaigning for this or that or even trying themselves to become part of the ruling elite, or they could just ignore as best they could the whole thing.  Just as the various parts of the Soviet Empire pretended that they were free and democratic, so the people, for the most part, pretended to take part. This was the only sensible way to live. There was no point battering your head against a door that wouldn’t open. Rather the key to existence was to retreat into private life, say what needed to be said, play the game and keep your real thoughts to yourself.

Eventually patience was rewarded. While the Russian Empire did not completely collapse, it turned out that by some miracle it was possible for Warsaw Pact countries to once more become sovereign nation states and even more miraculously it was possible for parts of the Soviet Union to leave. It would have been utterly pointless for Latvians and Estonians to have attempted to leave the Soviet Union in 1971. To have even suggested it would have been unwise. My guess is that if the Soviet Union had been able to hold itself together until Mr Putin reached power then it would have been impossible for the Soviet Republics to have asserted their sovereignty. But there was a window of opportunity between 1991 and 2000 when the Russian Empire for the first time in its history was willing to lose territory without a fight.

It was something of a leap into the dark for the Soviet Republics. They had to give up their currency (the Soviet rouble) and the trading relationship they would have with the other members of the Soviet Union including Russia was suddenly very uncertain. There were also conflicts and border disputes some of which are still continuing. These have led to the deaths of nearly 200,000 people. But countries could leave the USSR. They were allowed to.

But while the Russian Empire reached its peak in1945 and went into decline in 1991 another empire has been rising out of the ashes of its threefold defeat in 1806, 1918 and 1945. While Russia since the fall of Constantinople has been the successor to the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the EU is its successor in the West.

While Latvia was able to leave the USSR in 1991 by 2004 it was already a part of the EU. It had so to speak voluntarily entered into a prison put its own key in the lock and then chucked it out of the window.

It must have seemed to the Latvians and all the other citizens of the EU Empire that they were free and that they had free and fair elections which might really change things, but just like in the Soviet Union these were all illusions.
We face momentous events, but it is becoming boring. If it turns out that we really can’t leave the EU, then it is a subject that is no more worth studying or writing about than Marxism/Leninism.

If politics in Britain is constrained within carefully defined limits, then it rapidly becomes clear that certain debates are pointless. If Britain can’t leave the EU then self-evidently Scotland cannot properly leave the UK. If the one can be prevented, so too can the other with rather more ease. I doubt very much that a radical Labour Government would be allowed to be quite as radical as it thinks it might be. So too I don’t think a truly conservative, low tax, low public spending, free market Conservative Party would be allowed. We are left then with the mush that extends from the Labour moderates to the Conservative moderates. They each believe more or less the same. It isn’t worth arguing about.

We may still break free. Nothing we would have to face would be anything like what the former members of the Soviet Union had to go through in order to gain their freedom. A few traffic jams must be a price worth paying for the cause that we are supposed to hold higher than any other: freedom and democracy. But has this cause always just been a pretence? An opium to get the masses to enlist.

Too much already has been written about the EU. Let us await events. If it turns out that we are trapped, take comfort from the fact that there will be other chances. There is no need to wear yellow vests. Our present politics will not survive the failure completely to leave the EU in 2019, nor indeed, I suspect, will the EU. If Britain can’t leave the EU, then no-one can. EU citizens will then retreat into private life just like Soviet citizens before them, but we will wait for the moment when the walls begin to crumble. I don’t think we will wait that long.