Thankfully I’ve never been through a divorce, either as a kid or a sometime aspiring adult. Divorces invariably fall into two categories: those whose protagonists hate each other’s guts and can’t wait to be shot of each other and those where one deluded half laments “we can work this out” ad nauseam, whilst the other is already riding off into the sunset (probably already astride another horse). Very few are amicable. And the kids are always the collateral damage, developing into the next generation of emotional fucktards, crazies and psychos.
The UK’s now triggered divorce proceedings from the awkwardly happyish and dysfunctionally functional family that was the EU28 has already taken on characteristics of all three divorce flavours. Deluded Remainers had harboured faint hopes of scuppering the democratic will and engineering some kind of flaccid Brexit in the spirit of “we can work this out”, a spirit reciprocated in some quarters in Brussels. And if the calculating intervention of Tony Blair is anything to go by, I suspect that the Remain voice will pipe up again if/when it becomes clear that the UK’s pissed off ex hasn’t even turned up to the match, let alone played the UK’s ball game.
Hardcore Brexiteers have been giving the two-fingered salute over the Channel for months and have been desperately trying to jilt the ex further by whoring IndyUK out to any and every potential suitor who may open their legs and give Ol’ Blighty the kind of easy (trade) access that will succour the country’s insatiable appetite for free trade. Never mind the slight technical hitch that the UK’s membership of the Customs Union makes the consummation of such brazen international flirting (for now) impossible. Fake news, I’m sure.
Some on the continent hate us as much as some of us hate them. I can only imagine the number of shrugging shoulders in the Élysée Palace, accompanied by a Gallic “bof” of disdain. There is no love lost and hasn’t been for centuries. Plus ça change. But the London-Brussels party line is that both sides want to keep it amicable (for the sake of the kids?). Of course they do. Theresa May’s relentless rose-tinted positivity in wanting a one-size-suits-all deal is betrayed by an approach that has thus far been antagonistic, abrasive and, as Sir John Major referenced, charmless. Donald Tusk’s misty eyed sadness at being served formal divorce proceedings was swiftly tempered by a promise to “protect the interests of the 27” and a pragmatic observation that there would be no winners in this divorce.
Few people give too much of an EU Commissioner’s ass for the views of yesterday’s political chip wrappers. If anything, such interventions entrench the counter argument. But Blair is right <dry retch>: the UK will not be driving this bus. And once the game of negotiation poker starts, the gloves will be off. The PM will encounter pothole, after roadblock, after brick wall as the vested interests of 27 independent sovereign states (and don’t forget our friend the European Parliament) clash in the pursuit of a pound of the UK’s flesh and a deal that must be ratified unanimously. And Mrs May doesn’t have a Full House to play, let alone a knockout Royal Flush, even if Prince William has got off his useless arse and gone Euro schmoozing. The ex-lovers will overtly hate each other very soon.
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. John Lydgate’s 15th century statement of the blindingly obvious is tailor made for the Gordian Knot that is Brexit. But many Brexiteers aren’t listening. One of the many shortcomings of referenda and plebiscites is that the result gives a veneer of authoritative utilitarianism- the greatest good for the greatest number of people, delivered by the will of those people. Unfortunately, as single issue, closed question balloting masks and distorts a maelstrom of unfathomable complexity, the opposite becomes true. The diversity of issues and the breadth, depth and inter-connectedness of modern world vested interests means there will be very few outright winners. There will probably be very few outright losers either. For the most part, there will probably be a groundswell of zero sum stasis, at least in the short term: winning here, losing there; giving here, taking there. There is nothing utilitarian in this insipid risk/reward profile of Brexit. But perhaps this is the best or least worst manifestation of what Donald Tusk meant when he said that divorce negotiations would be an exercise in “damage control”? As Lord Hill, the UK’s former EU Commissioner, observed on Newsnight on Wednesday, “protect the downside”. He has a point.
In truth, and in another (contemporary) statement of the obvious, nobody has a Scooby-doo what the impact of this divorce will be politically, constitutionally, economically or socially. Time and the economists (those pesky experts at it again) will tell us in several years. The blanket media coverage of speculation, conjecture and scenario painting since 12.30pm on Wednesday 29 March is nothing more than a twitchy feeding frenzy to fill the void of Brexit’s own Phoney War. The trench warfare will be slugged out inch by painful inch over the next two years.
What about the kids in all of this? As the eldest, and by far the stroppiest, Kevin the Teenageresque child, Scotland- or at least The Sturge- is screaming “I hate you” in even less dulcet tones than usual towards Westminster. The Sturge wants Scotland to pack its bags and leave home as soon as possible, in search of the bright lights and wealth of an independent Big Smoke. The problem for The Sturge is that, like so many angry teenagers, she might have just scored a massive own goal in demanding IndyRef#2 to appease her fellow, but far less canny, SNP militants. Her parental nemesis at home in No.10 was always going to say “do one” in the short term. In the longer term, The Sturge will get her referendum but at a time to be decided by Westminster. By that time the shape of the divorce and trade deal will be clear and Scotland will have to stick or twist. And this is the rock and hard place that The Sturge finds herself wedged between: a good Brexit deal will pose the usual questions, risks and uncertainties about flying the coup; a bad Brexit deal may give Scotland the shot of junk the Nats crave to head for the bright lights. Except those bright lights are, judged by The Sturge’s fervent Europhilia, shining from the continent not Britain. But whilst Spain is still on that continent and a paid-up member of the EU club it will veto any Scottish accession application whilst it has its own troublesome separatist teenagers in Catalonia and the Basque. Scotland hasn’t got a leaping sturgeon’s chance of joining the EU as an independent state, even before it fails the various economic tests of accession eligibility. Och nooooo.
Wales has typical middle child syndrome: subordinated by the eldest for respect and usurped by the youngest for affection, it is largely ignored and bristling with chippy indignation. Some boyo called Carwyn Jones (Wales’ First Minister apparently) is puce with the “lack of respect” that the PM showed Wales by not asking Jones to contribute to the drafting of the Article 50 trigger letter. Er, sorry bud, it’s a UK thing you see. But who really cares? Wales is the turkey that voted for Christmas and in Brexit it has got what it voted for. As a beneficiary of EU subsidies to the tune of over £4 billion since 2000 for “structural funding” (Euro speak for clearing up some of the EU’s grimiest shitholes like Merthyr Tydfil), this cash is going to dry up faster than a Cardiff nun’s chuff. Sorry Wales, but your pocket money is suspended for the foreseeable future. Well you did ask.
As the youngest sibling, poor Northern Ireland has the most to lose from the divorce. Tortured by its violent past and haunted by the most troublesome of upbringings, it seems that adolescent angst will continue to test both its soul and territorial integrity. As it shares an open and fluid border with another EU state, the prospect of a physical border and customs and tariffs checks is a very real prospect. Leaving aside the commercial costs to businesses on both sides of the border, the sight and presence of a physical border is anathema to everybody on the island of Ireland. Republicans are once again rattling the cage for a united Ireland on just the border issue alone. If ever there was a case for another notorious European fudge to get to the “right” answer, this is it. Northern Ireland’s emotional and physical well-being depends on it, lest it becomes tomorrow’s enfant terrible once again.
We are but two days in to the divorce and it is already getting exhausting. The first salvos are being fired by both sides and the intractability of a legion of issues are now floating, turd like, to the murky surface. As I currently see it, I’m with Tusk- there are no winners here. Apart from the bloody lawyers of course.
Protect the downside in the first instance Mrs May. Whilst unfashionable, it would be a prudent (and patriotic) place to start.
Failing that, get yourself a nice fat slice of cake, eat it, polish the rest off and wash it all down with a nice pot of Earl Grey splosh. We are British after all. And then be thankful we’re not America.