Good news for Brexiteers, for a change. The agreement by the Brexit ‘inner’ Cabinet to pursue mutual standards recognition as well as full control of our laws is a belated but welcome development. Even if the British government has no plans for radical deregulation at the moment, a deal formed on this basis would give us maximum future flexibility to do so. Where it makes sense for us to remain in high alignment with the goals of EU regulation, mutual standards recognition would at least allow for innovation and competition in exactly how things are regulated.
Of course, it goes without saying that it would have been a lot better if this rather technocratic measure was merely a part of a much more visionary and aggressive Brexit strategy, but we are where we are.
It also goes without saying that, given the pathetic emollience and timidity that characterises Theresa May’s leadership, without something or someone to stiffen her backbone we are highly unlikely to end up with a final deal close to this position. Perhaps it is time for the gloom and pessimism to descend upon us yet again.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps, just perhaps, Ulster’s unionists in the shape of Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party will come to our rescue one more time. Widely credited as having saved Brexit after May’s catastrophic attempted surrender to Irish/EU demands that would have guaranteed a soft Brexit last year, the notorious intransigence of Ulster’s Protestants might do so once more.
It has often been said during these negotiations that the DUP must not overplay its hand, for fear of letting in a pro-Sinn Fein Corbyn government. However, on current trends that just amounts to a short-term stay of execution: time is fast running out for Ulster’s Protestant majority, and they know it. Once with two-thirds of the province’s demography, their ancient fears of greater Catholic fertility have been borne out. Now, the Protestant/Unionist majority is wafer-thin and still thinning, with Catholics forming a huge majority of children at primary school. At the same time Protestants, no longer feeling at home in a province where Sinn Fein have created an ever more assertive Irish nationalist culture, emigrate to Britain in far greater numbers.
If the Union is to survive in the years ahead, it means persuading a large proportion of Ulster’s burgeoning Catholic population to vote for maintaining it. That is not quite as daft as it sounds: before ‘the Troubles’ Ulster’s greater prosperity, the creation of the British welfare state and the National Health Service convinced many Catholics that although Northern Ireland might be a cold house for them, it was nonetheless one they could live in. In recent years, of course, all that was turned on its head. The wrecking of Ulster’s economy and society by years of bitter sectarian strife and the Republic’s transformation into a Celtic Tiger has inverted the case based on self-interest: both heart and head point to a United Ireland.
However, it is possible – just – that Brexit might turn the tables once more. The EU is making threatening noises concerning the Irish Republic’s low rate of corporation tax, which was central to attracting large amounts of inward investment, and Eire risks being consumed into an increasingly authoritarian super-state run from Brussels. (Whatever fantasies Nigel Farage may maintain, the Irish Republic will never vote for leaving the EU because that would assuredly mean returning to life in Britain’s shadow.) Meanwhile a properly executed Brexit – in other words one involving total sovereignty outside both the European Single Market and Customs Union – which allowed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to forge ahead as a newly self-confident nation-state gives Unionist Ulster a chance, however slim, of averting an otherwise inevitable destiny of becoming part of a 32-county republic.
So the DUP have no alternative than to throw caution to the winds, go for broke and demand the full Brexit.
Come on, Arlene – No Surrender!