Like the Wizard of Oz, it’s all smoke, mirrors and illusion when it comes to Brexit, writes Joyce McMillan.
The new year approaches, in the land of Oz that the UK has lately become; and we Munchkins are supposed to mark the occasion by dancing on the grave of Theresa May’s Brexit Agreement, now universally pronounced dead as a doorknob. If the inspired lyricist of The Wizard Of Oz was still with us though – and it was Yip Harburg, the man who also gave us Brother Can You Spare A Dime – then it seems likely that he would write one of his vaguely sinister Munchkin songs for the occasion; it might be called “The Backstop, Oh, The Backstop, We’ve Been Told It’s Bad.”
For if those who are in favour of Brexit are asked, this Christmas season, why they think Theresa May’s Brexit deal should fail, then the chances are they will say, “Ah, it’s the Irish backstop. She should never have agreed to that.”
Committed opponents of Brexit, of course, have dozens of good reasons for opposing the deal; like all possible Brexit arrangements, it is an abysmally poor deal compared with the one we currently have as full members of the EU.
The current British political deadlock, though – and the accompanying threat of a no-deal Brexit – is caused not by opponents of Brexit, but by those in Conservative ranks, and their DUP allies, who want a Brexit in which Britain simply walks away from the EU, regardless of the consequences; and insofar as the Irish Backstop provisions in the Prime Minister’s deal prevent the UK from doing that, it has become their bete noire, and – for some – conclusive proof that Theresa May is a bad negotiator, incapable of standing up for Britain’s best interests.
Yet most of that is legal and constitutional nonsense, possibly even more misleading that the famous “£350 million a week for the NHS” claim on the side of the Brexit bus.
The Irish Backstop, after all – under which Theresa May has agreed that Northern Ireland will remain in a customs union with the EU until another way of guaranteeing a soft Irish border can be found – is nothing more than a guarantee of the continuation of the Good Friday Northern Irish peace agreement of 1998, enshrined not in any EU law, but in a full international treaty between the British and Irish governments.
And what is bothering the far right of the Tory Party, it seems, is that the EU, with Ireland as a member, has not been prepared to facilitate the breaking of that treaty, just in order to provide them with the clean-break Brexit of their dreams.
Every adult human being knows, of course, that in the real world there are no “clean breaks”, certainly not after a relationship of more than 45 years; and the Good Friday Agreement, in its essence, embodies that kind of mature recognition of complexity.
In the fantasy world of extreme Brexiteers, though, Britain’s right to trade, to prosper, and to remain at peace comes with no entanglements, and no rules whose terms we cannot dictate ourselves; and they dwell on the issue of Northern Ireland not because they give a damn about the place – of whose needs, history and politics they often seem strikingly ignorant – but because it provides a symbolic last hill on which they can take a stand against their imaginary EU enemies.
In essence, they claim to oppose the Northern Irish backstop because they cannot tolerate any difference in status, or customs border, between the UK and Northern Ireland, since that would threaten the unity of the United Kingdom; and that if the whole of Britain remained in the customs union to avoid that outcome, then a full Brexit could be delayed indefinitely.
Yet there are already substantial regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, for example to prevent the spread of animal disease; there are also major legislative differences in areas such as abortion and gay marriage, which seem to trouble the DUP and the Tory right not at all.
The idea that a customs border down the Irish sea would violate some previously perfect Union is emotive tosh, in other words, laced with a large measure of hypocrisy; and the notion that the whole of the UK would have to stay in the customs union to prevent this unthinkable outcome is also nonsense, an Oz-like illusion behind which lurks only the odd frightened man, or woman, in a suit.
And beyond all that, there is the fact that the people of Northern Ireland not only voted to remain in the EU in the first place, but are so strongly in favour of the backstop arrangement that if they do not get it, or something very like it, a clear 52 per cent of them now say that they would vote to leave the UK, and become part of a united Ireland within the EU. This is the outcome to which the infantile posturing of Theresa May’s Westminster rebels and allies has brought the United Kingdom they claim to love; and if the Brexit shambles ends in their losing Scotland as well, it will be no more than they - and all those who have compromised with them - deserve.
The list of those who have failed wholeheartedly to oppose them is long, of course, and includes Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, as well as Theresa May and her mealy-mouthed Remainer colleagues. If there is one thing we Munchkins can do, though, as the year turns, it’s to stop singing the Backstop song, and letting the Brexit extremists off with their nonsense about it.
The people of Northern Ireland want the backstop, Ireland as a whole wants the backstop, every British company that does business in Ireland or Northern Ireland will benefit from the backstop; and the more the government insists on the whole UK being part of the backstop, the better off we will be.
There is, in other words, nothing wrong with the backstop; and those who would tell you differently - well, let’s just say that if they’re rolling out the old mendacious smoke and mirrors at a rate that makes the Wizard of Oz look like an amateur, it would not be for the first time, in this long and sorry Brexit story.