Personally, I think there are more important things to be discussing politically on here at present such as what appears to be out woeful efforts at combating and preventing the further spread of COVID-19. However, Brexit has reared its ugly head back into the public conversation recently and it prompts me to worry even more for the future of the UK. Why? Because a no-deal Brexit [Pictured above are Boris Johnson and Jean Claude Juncker last year; image from Business Insider] which last year which at the moment we appear to be heading for and which I would have labelled disastrous last year but to be coming to that scenario in the middle of a pandemic…I’m lost for words….
Why is it increasingly likely? The government brought forward the Internal Market Bill which aims to ensure that post-Brexit, the UK nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the same standards and rules throughout. At first glance, that’s nothing contentious. It seems perfectly reasonable. However, the bill also says ‘Certain provisions to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law’ but also replaces parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as elements of it “cease to be recognised and available in domestic law”.
That is alarming and when it first made it to Parliament, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis defended the legislation. It came with a startling admission…
Yes, he actually did admit it. Consequently, it seems he has since been thrown under the bus by cabinet colleagues with some saying he mispoke by answering the wrong question, was ‘mistaken’. I can’t help but wonder what’s next…insanity? However, it is an alarming and deeply damaging admission that has driven widespread criticism and not just in the UK.
In the Civil Service, it has created tensions and been attributed to three resignations. Amal Clooney, wife to the actor George and high profile human rights lawyer quit from her role as a UK Special envoy over the lamentable ‘intention to violate an international treaty signed by the Prime Minister less than a year ago‘. Her resignation followed that of the UK law officer for Scotland Lord Keen and chief lawyer Jonathan Jones. Only the latter has been replaced so far. How anyone with a legal professional such as the Attorney General; Suella Braverman could support this is beyond me but it also has issues with the wider civil service code of conduct which states they have to act within the law.
The reasoning for their actions appears to be narrow. When opening a debate on the legislation, the Prime Minister received a brutal takedown by former Labour leader and current Shadow Business Minister Ed Miliband in a stunning performance. Remember, this was a politician who five years ago the press painted as weak, incompetent, chaotic and butchered a bacon sandwich. Well, he more than butchered Johnson; taking him to task for appearing to have not read the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement he signed or his new Internal Market Bill. When asked to offer up where in the new bill the provisions to protect trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, he offered to make way for the Prime Minister to offer those assurances. Only, with him speaking, Milliband knew he could only make way if someone objected. None was coming from the Prime Minister. Instead, he left the Commons chamber moments later with his tail between his legs.
He faced another grilling from Hilary Benn in the Committee on the Future relationship with the European Union’. His questioning centred on Protocol 16, otherwise known as the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol aims to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It allows for a common travel area permitting free movement of people between Britain and Ireland; Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK’s customs territory but as the UK as a whole diverges there maybe tariffs on goods between Northern Ireland and Britain. This was also part of Milliband’s questioning.
Johnson’s answering to that line of enquiry was not wholly convincing. However, that was not the most revealing answer he gave to Hilary Benn…
Did Boris Johnson accuse the EU of negotiating in bad faith? Well, he hopes they aren’t but that was the implication of what he said surely? Is that really what Boris Johnson thinks of the EU he was negotiating last year, that he really does not trust them to be negotiating in good faith? If that was the case, why agree to anything in the first place? However, in regards to the UK being a third party nation, by leaving the EU that is what the UK has or will become fully in 2021. It is the EU rulebook, it is part of WTO rules to apply tariffs too but he seems to suggest they were acting in bad faith for insisting on something they have to enforce and not give Johnson everything he wanted.
The EU have responded as you would expect; with dismay and they are even threatening legal action in the event the legislation is used. Why wouldn’t they? They now have reason to believe Boris Johnson did not negotiate with them in good faith based on this episode. Even more embarrassing for the Tories is that even the EU have turned to the words of one of their most revered former leaders; Margaret Thatcher to attack them…
EU President Van Der Leyen quoted Ms Thatcher’s April 1975 speech to the Conservative Group for Europe where she said, ‘it is a question of whether we should leave. Bt for Britain to leave would mean denouncnig a Treaty. Britain does not denounce treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and for any future trade or treaty we need to make’. Growing up in a working-class area that despised Thatcher, I never thought I’d be quoting her or even agreeing with anything she ever said but on this, she is right.
The United States have not reacted positively to the developments either. Remember, the pro-Brexit argument was that a trade deal with the US could make Brexit worth it. Yet, the US has close ancestral ties to Ireland and the response was grim. Congress speaker Nancy Pelosi took a dim verdict saying, ‘If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress‘. That was also the view of democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden who tweeted, ‘We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit’.
There have been a couple of Tory MPs, including Downing Street criticising Biden for his comments. They seem to have gone down well in some camps as Barack Obama’s now-infamous ‘back of the queue’ remarks four years ago. Meanwhile, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has faith the UK Government will ‘get it right’. So, the Trump White House is more supportive. The only problem there is the upcoming election. Biden could easily be President in a couple of months. By speaking out in such a way, does that mean these Tory MP’s are banking on Trump winning? It is a dangerous game as nothing is guaranteed when the US goes to the polls on 3rd November.
The government surely know this, hence why they sent Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stateside in an attempt to make reassurances. It did not seem to have gone according to plan and that was without the embarrassing mistake of his security guard. That was because Nancy Pelosi’s position had not changed in the slightest judging by the statement she released afterwards.
Significantly, Boris Johnson’s five living predecessors have all come out condemning the move. John Major and Tony Blair in a joint article for The Times wrote, ‘We both opposed Brexit. We both accept it is now happening. But this way of negotiating, with reason cast aside in pursuit of ideology and cavalier bombast posing as serious diplomacy, is irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice. It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal – crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation.’ Even David Cameron, who has kept relatively quiet since 2016 (I wonder why) has his ‘misgivings’ on the issue while Gordon Brown described it as an act of ‘self-harm’.
The most stinging criticism from is successors has come from Theresa May. The ex-PM seems more comfortable on the benches and appears to be one of the few Tory rebels left. She passionately argued, ‘Frankly, my view is to the outside world it makes no difference as to whether a decision to break international law is taken by a minister or by this Parliament – it is still a decision to break international law. This can only weaken the UK in the eyes of the world…our reputation as a country that sticks by its word will have been tarnished…Where will that trust be in future if they see a United Kingdom willing to break its word and break international law?’.
Now, I will probably have someone tell me to stop complaining, stop being a remoaner, you lost or whatever, I don’t care. What I do care about is the direction the country is going in and what I don’t get is how does this fit into the Brexit narrative? Brexit we were told would open more doors for us, make the country prosper more. We would be free to trade with whoever we wanted to in ways we couldn’t as members of the EU with the recent FTA with Japan supposed to be a shining example of that. Considering that is what we want as a country, how does it make sense if we breach the Withdrawal Agreement and break international? Who would want to trade with us then? Who would trust is enough to agree with an FTA when we reneged on our most recent treaty?
Trust in the UK would be tarnished and irreparably damaged, if it hasn’t already…
In terms of international law and our standing in the world, the UK is seen as a bastion of law and order. This is the country of the Magna Carta for Pete sake! If the UK were to break International law at this point, what does that do to our international standing? Our reputation would be in tatters along with our credibility. We would have no credibility to stand up to Vladimir Putin or Russia the next time a former Russian spy on foreign soil is poisoned (it’s ok Gavin Williamson, you can just tell him to go away and shut up). Or the next time a third world dictator abused his countries human rights, how would we credibly stand up to someone like that?
I always thought the UK was better than that but with concerns over our own human rights laws, perhaps that is the way we are going. The worrying question now is where are we headed?
For the future, I am concerned. This is all happening after a continual decline for the UK in the Fragile States Index since 2013. Yes, the UK is still in the very stable category but for how much longer? Only the UK and the USA in that very stable category have seen a decline in the past seven years and the gap to falling out of the category is 1.7. The UK is in the top 15 for the biggest decline since 2009 according to their rankings and 2019 alone saw the UK suffer the 4th worst decline. That should be worrying.
Fund for Peace, the American non-profit organisation who make these rankings, use social, economic and political factors to ascertain the status of a country. We are nowhere near as bad as Yemen but on the political aspects, we have seen a decline in the public services after a decade of austerity which even the UN arbitrator described as against human rights. We’ve seen our politics infiltrated by Russia and since 2016 the UK government did not even want to look as we found out when the Intelligence and Security committee eventually got to publish the Russia report.
Additionally, with legislation coming through this week I fear we are edging closer to the security services and military being allowed to act with impunity. The government announced plans for a Bill that would allow MI5 agents to break the law in regards to torture and their Overseas Operation Bill.
That’s an argument for another time but when Armed Forces organisations and Amnesty International have concerns over its implications then perhaps we all should. Perhaps, the legislation does not do what the government says it does? Don’t get me wrong, our security services do a lot of good defending the country and should not be sought by false claims but if there is a case for them to answer; if they have been involved in torture for example or anything else against International law then they should be held accountable. No one should be above the law and not within a five-year window either.
If that applied to everything you would never have had any real form of justice for Bloody Sunday 1972. A thorough and proper investigation that was not a whitewash was not started until 1998 and not concluded in an unlawful verdict until 2010. The deaths of those 15 individuals would never have seen justice under such proposals.
I’m drifting off there so on to the Economic. Economic inequality is already huge after a decade of austerity and as the pandemic has born those inequalities bare. It has also highlighted increasing examples of corruption with Robert Jenrick granting planning permission for a Richard Desmond £1 billion development in East London to save him £45m in tax. In handling the pandemic, giving contracts to companies linked to Dominic Cummings without going out to tender is also right up there. It also says it all about the functioning of a country when it takes a Premier League footballer (Marcus Rashford) campaigning to ensure disadvantaged school children could be fed over the summer than the government proactively solving the issue on their own accord.
Also, at a time the Government is bringing in more draconian measures to help combat the spread of coronavirus and imploring us all to follow the new laws. Where is their authority and credibility in imploring the public to follow the rule of law when they are actively aiming to break international law? I am in no way suggesting anyone should break the law but it is not a consistent example being set by those who govern us when it seems it is one rule for us and another for them.
The real worry is, by being seen as actively breaking international law in this way, reneging on a treaty in the Withdrawal Agreement that they agreed to last year and campaigned a General Election on (all points made excellently by Miliband again; above) could be the tipping point in escalating the decline of the country further.
I hope more than anyone that my fears are displaced because no one will win in that scenario.