Last week, Boris Johnson, with his paintbrush and easel at his holiday villa in Marbella, touched up his self-portrait as the reincarnation of Winston Churchill. Meanwhile, another bodysnatcher, Johnson’s Brexit tsar, David Frost, was also in sunny Iberia. In Lisbon on Tuesday evening, he channelled the intellectual father of modern conservatism, the 18th-century Irish writer and politician Edmund Burke.
Frost demanded that the EU agree to rewrite completely the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal treaty that Johnson hailed in October 2019 as a “fantastic deal for all of the UK”. His speech was entitled, in imitation of a famous Burke pamphlet, “Observations on the present state of the nation”.
In case his audience somehow failed to make the connection between the former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association and one of the greatest political thinkers these islands has produced, Frost reminded them – how could they have forgotten? – that he had previously given a speech entitled “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe”. Geddit?
For those who did indeed get it, the first response was surely to sigh, like the ghost in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there”. The second was the dizzying feeling that the “present state of the nation” is that of a skydiver, free-falling downwards from Burkean conservatism into pure Tory anarchism.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote that “good order is the foundation of all good things”. Somehow, when his soul was transmigrating to be born again in Brexit Britain, that bit got lost in translation.
Disorder is now the royal road to all the good things that will come to those who keep the Brexit faith. Tearing up international treaties is, like the mass culling of pigs and fruit rotting in the fields, merely a manifestation of the creative chaos from which the new universe of “Global Britain” will emerge.
It is rather unfortunate that the ground on which this big bang is set to explode, Northern Ireland, is a place that knows all about big bangs and the misery of chaos. And even more so that it is a place held together by one of those documents that Johnson and his government now hold in such contempt: an international treaty, the Belfast agreement of 1998.
Before Frost gave his speech on Tuesday, he knew full well that the EU was about to put forward a generous, sensible and very helpful set of proposals to deal with the difficulties in the practical implementation of the protocol. These proposals, unveiled on Wednesday, give civic and business leaders in Northern Ireland pretty much everything they have asked for to make the new arrangements work smoothly.
This is exactly the condition Edmund Burke warned against: an idea of ‘freedom’ unmoored from any commitment to order
Anticipating this EU move to calm everything down, however, Frost and Johnson chose to pre-empt the solutions by creating a new problem, one they know to be insoluble. They have hyped up an issue that no one in business or trade in Northern Ireland gives a damn about: the role of the European court of justice (ECJ) in any potential disputes about the interpretation of EU law. Deprived of the movement of sausages as a casus belli, they grasped another dubious foodstuff – the red herring.
The role of the ECJ in relation to the protocol is so vital that Frost and Johnson apparently forgot about it for 21 months. Johnson agreed to – and hailed as a triumph – the withdrawal agreement in October 2019. The alleged concern about the ECJ emerged suddenly in the “command paper” published by Frost on 21 July this year. On Thursday, the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, confirmed that Johnson had never once raised it in their discussions about the protocol. Yet we’re supposed to believe that this is a red line, a matter – unlike, say, keeping your word – of the highest principle. The UK government has developed a variant on Groucho Marx: these are our principles and if you don’t agree to fight us on them, we have others that we can provoke you with.
The only reason for dragging the ECJ into the arena now is that it is one issue on which the EU cannot ultimately yield. There are many layers of dispute resolution mechanisms already available within the withdrawal agreement and they can all be used intelligently if there is a will to do so. But the EU is held together by its laws – and the ECJ is the institution that underpins them. That cannot change.
Frost is well aware of the futility of his demands – indeed, it is the whole point of his Lisbon performance. Instead of declaring victory, accepting the EU’s munificent offers and turning down the heat in Northern Ireland, he and Johnson prefer to make an impossible demand so that they can blame the EU for rejecting it.
They are, as the South Belfast MP, Claire Hanna, has put it, “mining for grievance”. Northern Ireland has a rich seam of this precious political ore. Frost and Johnson know that they can use it to mint the hard currency of complaint and self-pity. However badly it scars the social and political landscape of Northern Ireland, they are determined to keep digging.
The only consolation for Ireland and the rest of the EU is that they are not being singled out for high-handed contempt. When Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, tweeted on Wednesday that the intention was always to dishonour the protocol because “cheating foreigners is a core part of the job”, he was being uncharacteristically modest. Cheating Brits has been a core competency as well.
The whole ECJ issue is being whipped up as a matter of sovereignty. But who, for the Brexiters, is really sovereign? It is clearly not parliament, which voted overwhelmingly to ratify the withdrawal agreement they now want to tear up. It is not the people, who voted to give Johnson a whopping majority on the basis of this fabulous oven-ready deal. It is, rather, whatever it suits Johnson, or Frost, or Cummings when he was in power, to do or say at any given time.
This is exactly the political condition that Burke warned against: an idea of “freedom” that is unmoored from any countervailing commitment to order. Without an ordered structure of governance, he argued, freedom dissolves into anarchy and arbitrariness.
If there are any conservatives left in the Conservative party, they should reflect that this is indeed where the Brexit project has led them. In the name of “freedom” from the EU, it has undermined adherence to both national and international law and licensed a unilateral declaration of open mendacity.
It is all too obvious that Northern Ireland doesn’t count, except as a pressure point to be squeezed whenever Johnson feels like it. It is being used to try to solve the great political dilemma of Brexit: who do you blame when you’ve killed the scapegoat? The need for the scapegoat is becoming steadily more urgent, hence the political necromancy of revived conflict with the EU.
But if Northern Ireland doesn’t matter, what about Britain? Do conservatives now have such a low opinion of their own country that they are Are conservatives happy for it to be governed arbitrarily, by people who dishonour not just international treaties but their own parliament and electorate? And if you really are content to be governed by quirks and caprices rather than by laws, would you really want those whims to be Boris Johnson’s?
• Fintan O’Toole’s new book is We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958