May's hapless approach to Brexit threatens to tear Union apart

Theresa May has finally seen fit to promise Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland some input into the Brexit process. The leaders of the devolved nations will get a "direct line" to Brexit secretary David Davis in the form of a new forum meeting about once a month.

Too little, too late comes to mind. Given that Davis' Commons statements typically feature no announcements of substance whatsoever, one wonders how meaningful a gift this really is.

May had the right idea at the start of her premiership when she travelled to Northern Ireland and Scotland, both of which voted strongly Remain, to assure their leaders she would pursue Brexit in a manner which respected their concerns.

She then proceeded to do nothing of the sort. Without bothering to consult with Northern Ireland or Scotland, she went to the Tory party conference and effectively announced a hard Brexit outside the single market. She didn't use the phrase specifically - May insists, against all logic and evidence, that there are no choices to be made - but by making immigration a red line, promising to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and insisting Westminster would make all decisions on food labelling, it was clear which direction she was travelling.

Nicola Sturgeon was reduced to tweeting out her disapproval.

May is acting in this heavy-handed way because she feels she has Sturgeon trapped. There has been no real boost for independence post Brexit. Support levels are around where they were after the 2014 referendum.

What's more, leaving the single market makes it harder for the SNP to win an independence referendum, because of the economic impact. If it's a choice between the European single market and the British single market, Scots will note that the UK channels far larger sums. If the last vote was lost on economics, this one would be even harder to win.

Westminster also knows that Sturgeon only has one more throw of the dice. If she lost another referendum the issue really would be lost for a generation.

In Ireland, ministers believe they have a fall-back option to prevent the return of a hard border for people in Ireland. A system of free movement has been a feature of Ireland since partition. It was recognised in EU law by Protocols 19,21, and 21 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU.

With these seeming safety nets in place, May became complacent. Her conference speech announcing hard Brexit was aimed not at holding the nation together, but at safeguarding internal loyalty in the Tory party. She may have had good reason for that. Barely a day goes by without a Cabinet minister leaking whatever their current favourite dreamland Brexit plan is to the media. Most of them bear no resemblance to anything Europe would accept. They are less like Cabinet secretaries than school children playing Model United Nations. But regardless, their actions show how tenuous May's power is.

This approach led to the Institute for Government today issuing a stark warning that May is risking a "full-blown constitutional crisis" by her approach to the nations of the UK.

They are right. As with so much else, May has utterly misjudged her position. She has prioritised internal party management over the health of Britain.

There was so much she could do. In Scotland, for instance, leaving the EU involves the devolution of agriculture and fisheries back to Scotland. These were anyway devolved matters, but because they came under EU jurisdiction, Holyrood and Westminster had to follow the same policies. It might go against Britain's constitutional convention for May to block that transfer of powers, but she has it within her power to do so. By guaranteeing that she would allow it through, she would have some crucial leverage over Sturgeon, which she could use to push her away from a referendum she privately is not interested in holding.

May could also offer both Scottish and Northern Irish leaders a role in the great repeal bill, as it gradually went over EU law in the years after Brexit and repealed them. This would essentially add up to devolution plus.

Instead, the prime minister has closed her ears to Scottish and Northern Irish concerns and pushed ahead with the most radical possible interpretation of the vote, while adopting a form of harsh, ugly anti-foreigner rhetoric which further alienates the SNP.

In Ireland, it is English anti-immigration sentiment, more than Brexit itself, which threatens the return of a hard border. And yet May, far from trying to control it, has validated and encouraged it.

Once Britain leaves the single market and customs union, there will have to be checks for goods on the Irish border, to ensure they have the right classification for tariffs. Their components need to be assessed to establish whether they are in compliance with 'country of origin' rules. They must also be tested to see that they live up to single market standards, which will be even more laborious and complex. Some workers may find that their Northern Ireland qualifications are not valid in the Republic of Ireland. There may be similar problems with pensions. All this can be prevented, but it would take time and intelligence, two qualities which the Bexit ministerial team have not so far demonstrated.

The emergence of these checks will come amid continued English fixation over immigration. And there’s the problem: the Republic of Ireland will still have freedom of movement. All the Polish and Romanian plumbers who Brexiters are so concerned about will still be able to freely travel there. And from there they will be able to get to Northern Ireland over an open border and from there into the UK.

How long will it take for right-wing tabloids to start whipping up hysteria over this flow? It does not matter whether it is real or not - presumably no more people will use this route to illegally work in the UK than will use the rather simpler route of overstaying a tourist visa. What matters is that it provides easy fodder for the prowling moral lunacy of the right-wing tabloid press.

None of this is necessary. May could have tried to heal the dangerous wounds of the Brexit vote by pursuing a moderate strategy which kept the UK in the single market, while giving the devolved assemblies genuine roles of substance in the Brexit process, instead of the belated promise of monthly meetings with Davis.

But she chose to confirm every part of the nationalist narrative: She pays no attention to the wishes of the British nations, she pays them no respect, she fobs them off with meaningless meetings while making all the key decisions without consulting them, and she does nothing to calm the growing English nationalism and xenophobia whose political currents put the United Kingdom at risk.

May thinks she has the strategic advantage. In fact, she is largely frittering that advantage away while poisoning the relations between the nations of the United Kingdom.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Brexit damage: Vets warn anti-foreigner rhetoric putting people and animals at risk

Look at any part of British society and you’ll see the damage Brexit is doing.

Take veterinary services. Yesterday afternoon, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) wrote a letter to the prime minister. These are not radical organisations. They never really put out political statements of this sort. They stay in the background, concerning themselves mostly with relatively dry questions of policy detail. But they've been forced to issue a warning that Brexit - and Theresa May's descent into anti-foreigner rhetoric - are putting people and animals at risk.

Around half the veterinary surgeons registering to practise in the UK each year are from overseas - mostly the EU. Europeans are particularly prevalent in public health roles like the Government Veterinary Services. In the meat hygiene sector, some estimates put the number of veterinary surgeons who graduate overseas at 95%. And these people - the people who look after our pets, who check our food - are feeling increasingly uncomfortable in this country.

A passage in the letter reads:

"We have received reports that the increasing focus on foreign workers is causing personal distress to individual members of the veterinary profession who live and work in the UK. There are also reports of a negative impact on recruitment and retention: those involved in public health critical roles, such as meat hygiene, are having increasing difficulty recruiting much needed EU veterinary surgeons to work in the UK; leading experts from overseas are turning down employment offers from top UK universities; and many others are considering leaving the UK due to a feeling it is no longer welcoming to foreigners. There is a danger that the language and rhetoric around Brexit, alongside the ongoing uncertainty for non-British EU citizens, could seriously impact the veterinary profession’s ability to fulfil its essential roles."

It's worth repeating: these are not knee-jerk pro-immigration groups or left-wing opposition parties condemning government rhetoric. These are regulatory and national representative bodies who rarely, if ever, dabble in politics of this sort. They are issuing a stark and sober warning.

This is the product of the xenophobic language coming from the government, the talk of naming and shaming companies who hire immigrants, of locking up landlords who do not check the papers of immigrants, of treating EU citizens in the UK as "one of our main cards". These actions are not just shameful and hideous in their own right. They are actively putting the public at risk.

The veterinary profession doesn't just look after pets. It monitors and controls the spread of disease and assures the quality of the food we eat. If it goes into decline, the animals we love and share our homes with are in more danger. But there is also a very significant public health risk to go alongside the emotional one.

This is a useful reminder of the fact that immigrants, from the EU and elsewhere, make our society function. They are not just here to claim benefits and lower wages. They live beside us every day, performing vital services.

None of this is seen in the day-to-day debate. The economic and political discussion around immigration is constantly framed in terms of them taking and not giving. We hear that they are a drain on public services, but not that their financial contribution to the Treasury is what allows those services to function. We hear that they take housing needed for Brits, but not that they create and stimulate demand. We have treated them like a black hole, something that sucks in money and services but does not contribute. It is repeated so often that it goes beyond a lie. It becomes the framework through which we see the immigration debate. People are completely blind to the necessity of immigrants to our society because it has been so long since anyone suggested they did anything productive.

But while anti-immigrant newspapers and politicians whinged, immigrants were there: Treating your cat. Picking your fruit. Treating your condition. They are crucial to the running of this country and unless we start recognising that, it'll be this country which suffers the consequences of their absence.

The section of the letter I’ve quoted is merely on the rhetoric coming from the government. The policy implications of Brexit are even more serious. In the future, the two organisations warn, “changes to the mutual recognition system or immigration restrictions could have a profound impact upon the veterinary workforce”. That means Britain may face a shortage of vets as it loses half its annual intake. It means a potentially catastrophic impact on TB testing and meat hygiene. It means abattoirs may be unable to export their products because the UK veterinary requirements are not recognised by European authorities.

It's like this all over the country, in sectors which are as diverse as they are vulnerable to sudden changes in policy. Our industries are being sabotaged by an extreme nationalist economic agenda and the cultural aftershock of an openly xenophobic government.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

'Remainer treason' plan shows Brexiters are losing the plot

On the face of it, it is just a foolish demand from an unknown councillor. Christian Holliday, a Conservative representing Burpham on Guildford Borough Council, set up an online petition this weekend demanding anyone still supporting EU membership after Brexit is charged with treason.

"Amend the Treason Felony Act to make supporting UK membership of the EU a crime," it reads. The Act would apparently be amended to include the phrases: "To imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others, to support UK becoming a member of the European Union" and "to conspire with foreign powers to make the UK, or part of the UK, become a member of the EU".

It's easy to laugh. Sometimes laughter is the only thing that keeps you in a tolerable mood when your country seems to be having a protracted emotional breakdown. And yes, we have always had overexcited, foolish councillors around us. But Holliday's totalitarian petition should not be viewed in isolation. It stems from a history of eurosceptic thinking which has always viewed the lending or giving up of sovereignty as intrinsically unpatriotic. For some reason they do not feel the same way about bilateral treaties, or WTO membership, which also often involve giving up some sovereignty. But regardless of their consistency, this is a standard form of thought on the eurosceptic right.

It has been injected with steroids by the Brexit victory. What was once a fringe view now goes right up to the heart of government and the press. Brexiters' instinctive response to criticism is to first of all question people's patriotism and then accuse them of treason.

On Saturday night, Stewart Jackson, MP for Peterborough and parliamentary private secretary to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU), tweeted his outrage at "Remoaner whining" at that bastion of left wing activism, the Economist. He then added: "Cancelled my subscription. UK patriots shd do similar."

Again we see that same idea: To be patriotic is to demand Brexit on the hardest possible terms. To believe otherwise is to, at best, not love your country. And at worst wish to betray it. Once you accept the first interpretation, the second is never very far away.

This message is being amplified by the eurosceptic press. Take the front pages of the Mail and the Express last week when MPs dared to ask for a parliamentary debate on the terms of Brexit. "Damn the unpatriotic Remoaners," the Mail shouts, and their "plot" to "subvert the will of the British people". Note how it emulates the language of war: failure of patriotism, scheming fifth columns, the enemy within, the lionisation of the public and the assumption that all of them are on your side. Look at how the 52-48 vote has been redefined: the British public on one side and unpatriotic Remoaners on the other. The Express takes that idea to its logical conclusion. After all, if someone is acting to subvert the country, they have to be stopped. So it is natural that we "silence EU exit whingers".

Three things have brought us to this place: cynical political strategy, rampant nationalism and post-truth politics.

Look at the briefings against chancellor Philip Hammond by unnamed Cabinet colleagues in the Telegraph this morning. "He is arguing from a very Treasury point of view," the source said. "He is arguing like an accountant seeing the risk of everything rather than the opportunity."

It is astonishing to see ministerial scrutiny, especially from a chancellor, being framed in a negative context. The clear underlying thought behind the comment is that a commitment to Brexit should be the motivating force in Hammond's mind, with concerns about the likely consequences an afterthought.

We see the same thing across government. Trade body officials visiting Davis at the Brexit department report being taken aside by civil servants and told to go in saying that Brexit opens up many possibilities. If they enter making critical comments they are shown the door after five minutes. Any view outside of hard Brexit is intolerable.

Davis refuses to even acknowledge that membership of the single market even means anything anymore. Any talk of whether we will stay a member is met by the insistence that there are a "spectrum of outcomes". Boris Johnson says 'single market', as a term, is "increasingly useless". And May herself says "there is no such thing as a choice between 'soft Brexit' and 'hard Brexit'" when there quite demonstrably is. It is defined by membership of the which she, Johnson and Davis refuse to say out loud.

Emotionally, this is a defence mechanism. When Davis was responding to Labour's opposition day motion on Brexit last week the pound fell again as he spoke and then rose once he sat down. He quite literally acts against the national interest by speaking. When the evidence of the danger of your opinions is so obvious, perhaps the only option is to retreat into fiction.

They are dealing in the politics of the post-fact world. All that matters is the great historic mission of returning full sovereignty to Britain, even though such a thing is neither possible nor desirable.

These three elements - cynical political manipulation, nationalism and post-truth politics - are doing something dangerous to this country. On the national scale, they are driving us towards an economically catastrophic exit from the single market. But internally, on the social bonds between us, they are a poison, a poison which encourages people to mistrust and despise their neighbours on the basis of their politics. Those willing to engage in the talk of treason and lack of patriotism should urgently explore their conscience.

Ian Dunt is the editor of 

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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