This was first posted on Facebook on 7th September 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network. Every time I tried to begin a post here about politics, since Thursday, I kept thinking “But David Graeber is dead.”
David Graeber died in Venice on Wednesday 2nd September. I didn’t know him personally and my sense of loss is only what I feel when a writer I admire and respect and want to keep writing is gone: there will never be any more clear sharp insightful essays and articles from him, never again. He was 59 and I am old enough to feel strongly that this is far too young to die.
I watched PMQs on Wednesday, and Boris Johnson, fresh from his holidays, reacted to Keir Starmer’s questions with an outpouring of poisonous bile. He didn’t look well, not that his illness excuses his behaviour: as John Crace noted, PMQ is essentially a kind of Westminster performance, something perhaps only political afficionados care to watch: but it is a dance with rules, a question followed by an answer, a follow-up question, a follow-up answer. Boris Johnson was interrupted mid-flow by the Speaker, who very gently and politely told him to answer the question. I don’t think I’m inventing this: Lindsay Hoyle looked worried.
Boris Johnson didn’t answer the question. Boris Johnson answered no questions from Labour or other opposition MPs on Wednesday: all questions were met with a kind of spiteful bleary anger at the opposition MP presuming to ask.
Boris Johnson claims to have had a refreshing Scottish holiday, cold swims and no midges. He didn’t look it, or act like it. He acted like a tired and petulant king who feels all of these questions from his subjects are impertinent when they owe him loyalty and respect and uncritical devotion and he will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of his love.
According to James Forsyth, writing in the Spectator, the first topic of discussion for the Cabinet was how to prevent Scottish independence. The plan is to just keep saying no to a referendum (for a Scottish independence referendum to be legally binding on the Westminster government, the Scottish Parliament requires a Section 30 order issued by the Westminster government, which neither Boris Johnson nor – most likely – any other UK Prime Minister will be minded to grant if it looks like Scotland will vote Yes).
While Nicola Sturgeon will (and must) keep pushing forward preparation work for a second Scottish independence referendum, it is vastly unlikely that she will be pushed into holding a referendum during the pandemic. Sturgeon doesn’t want to hold a second indyref until she is confident she has a solid majority who will vote yes, and to get that will take door-to-door campaigning, face-to-face talking: online and TV won’t do it. And for that, she needs the pandemic to be decisively over: Scottish independence needs a vaccine.
What both the Tories and the SNP are eyeing now is not the independence referendum – but the Scottish parliamentary elections in May. The SNP could win an absolute majority: the Tories hope to increase the number of their MSPs. Scottish Labour is likely to lose seats – whether to Tory gain or SNP gain or Scottish Green. (The LibDems are likely to stay just where they are.)
If the SNP win a majority, or increase the number of their seats and with Scottish Greens have an absolute majority for independence in Holyrood, then – if there is a vaccine before 2024 – there is every chance that there will also be an independence referendum, and Scotland will vote – and Scotland will leave the UK, constitutionally, peacefully, and with huge complications disentangling the joint institutions, from the nuclear submarine base at Faslane, to the DVLA in Swansea. If Scotland becomes independent, that’s how it will go, I think.
What Boris Johnson truly resents is that Nicola Sturgeon is a far better First Minister than Boris Johnson is a Prime Minister. Through the pandemic, Sturgeon has held daily briefings, provided clear instructions, followed through on expecting her cabinet to stick to the guidelines or be sacked: she has not needed to use three-word slogans, disappear for several weeks on holiday, bluster, or rampage. Scotland’s death count is lower than England’s: Sturgeon’s strategy of clear plain information and consistency worked better than Johnson’s bluster and twisting. Sturgeon, polling has made clear, is better trusted and respected even in England than Boris Johnson is: she’s popular, across the board, and he is not.
And that must rile Johnson no end. That, I think, is why his Cabinet’s focus on Scotland: not because they think they need to act now to prevent an independence referendum, but because he very much wants Tories to win big in May 2021 in order to push back against Nicola Sturgeon. If Sturgeon loses significant numbers of seats in May 2021, especially if she loses them to the Tories, she will face a leadership challenge, and whoever wins, I’m sure Boris Johnson will prefer an alternative to Sturgeon.
You may think this sounds horribly petty, and it is. But I am convinced Boris Johnson’s government develops policy by opinion polling. Johnson’s strategy – or Cummings, it doesn’t really matter which – is to release an idea by a controlled leak to a trusted hack, who will then publish it as “Number 10 source announces government plans to – ”
Depending on the strength of public reaction to this kind of leak, Boris Johnson will then either move ahead with the policy, or it will drop quietly into the mud and not be heard of again til the next time.
Scottish independence isn’t the issue that the Cabinet need to focus on right now if they’re serious about preventing break-up of the UK: they need to focus on Northern Ireland, and in many respects, they may be too late.
The transition agreement, which ends on 31st December, is supposed to lead to a situation where the rest of the UK is firmly outside of the EU’s trade area, a third country with only whatever mutual agreements the UK’s negotiators can manage to get for us, while Northern Ireland is inside the EU’s trade area, a special relationship set up to keep the transparent border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, to preserve the Good Friday Agreement.
Under this agreement, all goods sent to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK must be labelled as for goods sent to the EU from a third country. The UK will have a hard border down the Irish Sea. This is the deal Theresa May initially rejected because she knew her DUP supporters would never accept it: Boris Johnson embraced it as his “Oven-ready deal”.
Need we say: there has been no preparation for this deal? Businesses that send goods to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK have been barracking the government demanding to have the required government regulations to tell them how to label their goods for export. They have got no answer. It’s September: the new rules start 31st December: the businesses affected needed to know weeks or months earlier than this, such is the lead-time required for redesigning packaging.
What this could mean for Northern Ireland in January 2021, is food shortages. Right away. Because supermarket suppliers would not be allowed to ship their goods into Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea border, without the correct labelling, and there is not a chance they’ll have this in time.
But what if the reason Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings isn’t bothering to fix regulations for having Northern Ireland as an odd amphibious nook, a part of the UK that still lives in the EU, because he is not planning to follow through on that agreement?
The stream of insults Boris Johnson slung at Keir Starmer at PMQs, rather than answer his question, included the accusation that Starmer supports the IRA. While this read to most people like a tired old smear that Johnson and the Tories used to heave at Jeremy Corbyn, it may have more significance than that. (Starmer coolly pointed out the accusation was absolutely and provably untrue: he asked the Speaker to ask the PM to retract and apologise: to no one’s surprise, Boris Johnson didn’t.)
Now, not by the usual trusted-hack route of “10 Downing Street” source, but (says Peter Foster, on Twitter and in the Financial Times) “three sources with knowledge of plans” that the government has to include clauses in the UK Internal Market bill and this autumn’s Finance Bill to “eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement”.
I don’t think this is just a flag run up to see how people react to it: I think if it was, we’d be hearing about it from the usual hack route of the BBC or ITV news.
This may be serious, and if it is, then it may mean that when 31st December strikes midnight, there isn’t the treaty agreed to by Boris Johnson last year: the hard border down the Irish Sea isn’t happening, and the EU – and the Republic of Ireland specifically – is faced with a situation where they must either enforce a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, breaking the Good Friday Agreement and causing real financial hardship to businesses that expect a seamless flow of goods back and forth over that invisible border – or throw a hard border around the island of Ireland, keeping the Good Friday Agreement but throwing businesses in Ireland trading with the rest of the EU into disarray.
Neither option is at all acceptable to the Republic of Ireland, nor to the EU.
And this may be Boris Johnson’s/Dominc Cummings’ idea of a threat to force the EU to give way to the UK on their demands – demands which are, as EU negotiators have made clear, unworkable because they require the EU to grant unfettered and unprecedented access and privileges to a third country.
Dominic Cummings strikes me as that kind of ever-so-smart genius guy who has a whole long strategy planned out where he does A, and you do B, so he does C, and you do D, and so on and so on, until you end up exactly where he wants doing what he wanted: he sees himself as an arch manipulator.
The problem that kind of guy always has is with people who, when he does A, instead of responding with what he clearly wants, instead do X. Or Z. Or summon Cthulu. Or just walk away.
The third option besides “hard border in Ireland”, or “hard border around Ireland”, is the reunification option.
The Republic of Ireland has never that I recollect actively campaigned for the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic. After all, if they were the instigators of reunification, they’d have to pay for it – both financially and politically. If Northern Ireland becomes part of the Republic, so too do the hard-line unionist politicians, activists, and terrorists. This is a messy, messy situation: the Troubles, stirring already, are going to be back if the Good Friday Agreement is gone.
Boris Johnson stands ready to accuse Keir Starmer, at any hint of sympathy for or understanding of the reasons nationalists of Northern Ireland have for demanding Irish unity, of “supporting the IRA”. If sectarian violence explodes on the streets of Belfast, what does Boris Johnson care? But if it reaches England, Boris Johnson will want his voters to know that somehow Labour is to blame.
And that, with regard to Northern Ireland, is mostly what matters to Johnson: deflecting blame. Irish reunification would get rid of their “Northern Ireland problem”. I doubt very much if it would be peaceful. I doubt very much if Johnson or his Cabinet care, so long as it doesn’t touch them.
I say this with no pleasure at all: Irish reunification could be a lot closer than Scottish independence. If Peter Foster’s sources know what they’re talking about, and we’ll see that on Wednesday.
Now I am very tired, and very horrified, and David Graeber is dead.