Recently, various pro-Brexit voices have been claiming that the Good Friday Agreement is dead. There is certainly a big danger of it being a casualty of Brexit, but it is certainly not something to be sacrificed. Instead, it’s worth thinking about why it is under strain — in order to save it.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, was a remarkable achievement. After an extended peace process, which had built up sufficient trust to make a breakthrough possible, it finally brought a way to share power between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, ending decades of armed conflict.
The problem was, and is, that there is legitimacy in the claims and the stories on both sides. Finding a route to the point when both communities can co-exist peacefully is the sanest way to peace. My reading of the story is that the fundamental change that made this possible was that the UK and Eire had both been in the EU for long enough for people to get used to it.
It is possible for communities to co-exist on a day-to-day basis, but the fundamental question which is hard to fudge is “on which side will you be if there is a war?” In other words, “Will you fight for Dublin or for London?”. Peace is possible when there has been enough peace and stability for long enough to mean that question is not at the back of people’s minds.
On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.
In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.
This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”
In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.
So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.
I was out today with a group of people from East Herts for Europe in Ware. In among the leafleting and gathering 161 signatures on a petition for referendum on the terms of Brexit (once the government actually works out what those are, and actually manages some meaninful negotiations). There were some fascinating conversations.
In the referendum campaign, I was focussed on Cambridge, but friends in Hertford and Stortford talk of street stalls getting significant opposition. The case for Europe was worth making and clearly needed to be made. The constituency was the closest in the country to 50:50.
Now the feel is different. It’s unwise to draw any conclusions from those who didn’t want to stop and talk, but conversations today were rich. Some shed light on people’s real worries over Brexit, and others on their attachment to it.
Messages of support for Remain
There were people who stopped to thank us for being visible. There were stories of people feeling gutted by the result and of people from elsewhere in the EU feeling unwelcome since the referendum.
Privileged access for big business to government in the Brexit process threatens to make it a “Brexit for the rich”, not the people who voted for it and already felt left behind.
The Independent for 26 August 2017 ran an article by Jon Stone and Joe Watts, based on a report saying that big business and banks have been dominating access to government over Brexit, while labour groups and NGOs have been marginalised.
Without access to the report itself, its not possible to verify its assertion, but at the very least it seems highly credible Last year I blogged about Brexit as a new “class war” in which it felt as if the wealth were grabbing the opportunity of Brexit to re-shape Britain in a way that exaggerates wealth divides.
Advocates of “trickle-down” economics will say this is fine: prioritise the key wealth creators and everyone gains. That didn’t work under Margaret Thatcher, and there’s little scope for it working now, except for those who are temperamentally-equipped to gain from a brutalising “each person for themself” mentality.
The Great Repeal Bill has finally been published. It’s grab for power from No.10 which is both an assault on parliamentary democracy, and a sharp illustration of the impossibility of achieving a Brexit that is actually good for the UK. It is also the polar opposite of the “take back control” slogan of the Leave campaign.
On the face of it the idea is simple: repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which provided a mechanism to bring into UK law things emerging from the EU, and shift all EU-derived law into British law. British and EU law have been so intertwined for so long that simply repealing everything would create some big holes, so this could be seen as a pragmatic solution. It means that on the day after leaving the EU, UK law would be in the same place that it was the day before.
The fire at Grenfell Tower is clearly a very serious event. A 24-story building, newly refurbished was engulfed in flames. Advice to people to stay in their flats in the event of fire catastrophically wrong. Reactions to the disaster throw a spotlight on the failings of the government.
So far, so bad. There is grief and there is anger. At the time of writing this, it’s not clear whether the fire was a result of building regulations not being followed, or not being sufficient to ensure fire safety. Whatever the actual cause, many people have died nasty deaths.
Pulling the lens back from the fire itself, it raises serious questions of government.
Under normal circumstances people look to government to provide order and stability. In difficult times governments also have blame and anger projected onto them.
It’s happened. Donald Trump has been inaugurated as US president. Promising to “put America first”, his isolationism, divisiveness and seeming-instability take him out of contention to be the “leader of the Free world”. Angela Merkel’s highly-qualified welcome when he was elected marks her out as having the courage and standing to hold him to account.
We are in the surreal world where a wise and highly-experienced candidate who got more votes than him watched him be sworn in, knowing her campaign was damaged by false allegations that had her dubbed “crooked Hilary” while Trump has shaken off allegations that would finish most political careers and seems to have been facing a string of potential court cases, whose disappearance should raise an eyebrow.
I finished a recent post by saying that we urgently need wise leadership, in the face of the situation brought on by the referendum result (and the probably consequences of Trump’s election). “Wise leadership” can sound like a euphemism for a forceful leader who imposes a solution — which sounds more than a little fascist, and is the opposite of wise leadership — but it seems worth being more explicit about this.
Drawing on Kleinian / group relations language
It seems worth expressing this in terms of language that the world of group relations has developed from the work of Melanie Klein. In looking at small children, Klein developed two terms to describe the early stages of mental life (though inevitably this is a simplification). She coined the terms “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions for them — the terms are a little unfortunate, because they don’t mean that someone is paranoid or schizoid or depressed, but it seems worth staying with them. She suggests that these are not stages we move through, but ways of processing that continue to be part of who we are, continuing as parts of our mental life into adulthood: it is sometimes helpful to think of them as layers (or strands) in our being, and one or other is more prominent at any one time.
I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.
One of the ironies of the referendum campaign was the (unsubstantiated) claim that the EU is about to create a European Army. Yet as anti-federalists get jumpy about the tone of Guy Verhofstadt’s comments on closer co-operation on defence, Trump pushes for something similar. Has closer co-operation on defence just become a really good idea, and essential for the UK to be part of?
The sequence of events feels almost surreal. During the referendum campaign several former generals, including Lord Guthrie, came out in favour of Brexit, supposedly over fears that the EU is about to create an EU army. In the swirl of half-stories it was not clear what was actually being said: there has been shared policy on security and defence for a long time, which became the Common Security and Defence Policy in the Lisbon Treaty. Crucially, anyone with a grip on the different stories of EU member states would be aware that this is very complicated — particularly because of the anxieties in Germany about armed forces serving a purpose that’s anything other than defensive. A move as big as creating a fully-fledged European Army would also need treaty changes, which require the agreement of all the member states, so there is no chance of it happening without the agreement of the UK as long as we are in the EU.