Iain Macwhirter: The Brexit war is over (and Sturgeon is celebrating)

“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” sang John and Yoko all those years ago. And it seems that for you, Tommy, the Brexit war really is over. Field Marshall Frost has shot himself. The Brits are in retreat as the European Court annexes Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson is in his bunker partying.

The truce also liberates Nicola Sturgeon. With Northern Ireland now legally in the single market, and also a paradoxical part of the UK, there is a solution to the issue that’s stymied the independence movement for five years: the threatened hard border at Carlisle.

Lord Frost didn’t actually mention the ECJ in his resignation letter but it lurked there in the background like a hooded legal crow. He has ostensibly left because of Boris Johnson’s tax and spend policies, which are, he believes, squandering the benefits of Brexit. What was the point of leaving the EU, he says, if only to reproduce in Britain what Tories call “the European social model”?

What he means is that Brexit only made sense if it meant using Britain’s new freedoms to create a low tax, low regulation entrepôt which could undercut the European Single Market. Firms would relocate to Britain, it was hoped, to produce cheap goods for export to the EU. Enterprise would flourish in “Singapore-on-Thames” as it was sometimes called. (Though Ireland did much the same with its 12% corporation tax, and something similar used to be SNP economic policy back when they had one).

Actually, Singapore is not the backward sweatshop people like to think it is. Average take home pay is higher than in the UK, as is immigration and social housing. But higher rate taxes are much lower, health is insurance-based and the original Asian “tiger” economy is built on a culture of capitalist individualism.

Britain was never really going down that route. But it provides a cover story for those on the Tory right, like Lord Frost, who realise that Brexit has brought little economic reward and a lot of pain.

No one really knows what route Britain is actually going down under Boris Johnson, but it certainly isn’t Thatcherite or Singaporean. He’s taken taxation and public spending to their highest rates since the 1950s and the Second World War respectively.

Britain has also now capitulated to the European Court of Justice. Or come to terms with reality as some of us might put it. Before Liz Truss, the flaky Foreign Secretary, even got her kitten heels under the desk, briefings had emanated from Brexit central that the game is up. Britain will accept the remit of the ECJ in Northern Ireland, as was implied by the Northern Ireland Protocol when Boris Johnson negotiated it two years ago.

The logic is obvious. If Northern Ireland is to remain in the single market it must obey its rules. The ESM rules are governed by the European Court of Justice. To have revoked this meant taking the province out of the single market, which meant breaching the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. This, because the GFA is supposed to create a borderless common economic space between North and South.

Of course, keeping Northern Ireland effectively in the EU for regulatory purposes, while Britain has left it, creates an equal and opposite breach in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. After all, if parliament is sovereign and untrammelled how can it accept foreign jurisdiction in one part of Britain? An internal border is anathema. As Boris Johnson told Emmanuel Macron during the sausage wars, how would France feel if saucisson made in Toulouse could not be legally sold in Paris? Macron’s reply was that Northern Ireland isn’t part of Great Britain, which is technically true. But it is part of the sovereign UK.

Perhaps unconsciously, Macron was expressing the essence of the EU strategy. Brussels needed to punish Britain pour encourager les autres. It rightly saw retaining Northern Ireland as a regulatory colony to be the best way to undermine Brexit and discourage other member states tempted to leave the EU.

The original Northern Irish Backstop, negotiated by Theresa May in 2018, involved keeping the entire UK in dynamic regulatory alignment with the single market. That was rejected by the UK Parliament. But accepting the ECJ now in one part of the UK can only be a prelude to accepting it elsewhere. And this is where Scotland comes in.

Lord Frost has inadvertently rescued Nicola Sturgeon. For years the independence campaign has been stalled – ever since it collided with the geopolitical logic of Brexit. How could the SNP promise borderless free trade with England after independence if the UK was out of the EU and Scotland was back in it? Scotland could not remain in the European Single Market and have a single market with the rest of the UK. How could independence therefore avoid the border chaos that’s emerged in Ireland?

Well, now, it possibly could. If Northern Ireland can remain under the jurisdiction of single market law and still be part of the United Kingdom then so can Scotland. What is the problem? No regulatory border is needed. Wales too might start arguing for alignment with the single market. This would give the nations and regions a kind of rolling opt out from Brexit, leaving England standing alone in not so splendid isolation.

The most likely outcome, and the one which Frost clearly saw coming, is that gradually the UK as a whole will start to adopt the regulatory standards of the EU by default – if only to keep trade moving freely. Such was the unspoken objective of May’s Withdrawal Agreement. The backstop is back.

The EU’s imposition of a barrage of no-tariff barriers in the Irish Sea – all those bureaucratic checks on supermarket lorries and banning of processed meats – has worked a treat. When it comes down to it, the UK does not have the stomach for trade war. Britons want an easy life. And that means getting on message with the single market.

Which is why some of us argued that it was senseless to leave it in the first place.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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