Facing chaos and needing a scapegoat, the Tories seek an endless fight with Europe | Fintan O’Toole

The EU’s proposals on the Northern Ireland protocol offered what business leaders wanted, but the prime minister prefers failure and grievance

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.

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 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

Contributor

Fintan O’Toole

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Putin is up to no good. But Johnson needs little help in creating chaos | Nick Cohen
The ‘gobocracy’ that surrounds the PM is capable of doing Russia’s work for it

Nick Cohen

27, Jun, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
With Boris Johnson in control, the danger is that liberals will give up the fight | Nick Cohen
After the tumult and division of recent times, we must guard against resigned complacency

Nick Cohen

25, Jan, 2020 @6:55 PM

Article image
The Observer view on the urgent need for a fresh vote on Europe | Observer editorial
While Europe remains united in defence of its principles, the Tory party is hopelessly divided. Voters must be given a voice

Observer editorial

20, Oct, 2018 @11:50 AM

Article image
Brexit The Observer view on the Chequers agreement being a capitulation not a victory | Observer editorial
The prime minister has secured a scrappy trade-off in her party, but it won’t wash with the EU

Observer editorial

08, Jul, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Who says Britain can't negotiate a Brexit deal? We've got Frosty the No Man | Marina Hyde
Setting ourselves up as the country you really can’t trust seems an eccentric way of dealmaking, says Guardian columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

08, Sep, 2020 @1:57 PM

Article image
Johnson and Hunt don’t understand what it’s like when a wall falls. In Ireland, we do | Fintan O’Toole
The Conservative party chooses to ignore the truth about Northern Ireland’s frontier and the future of the union

Fintan O’Toole

30, Jun, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Cynical, shameful and disastrous: Johnson’s handling of Northern Ireland | Letters
Letters: Brexit ministers always intended to ignore the agreement they signed and blame the EU for the consequences, argues Adrian Ward. Plus letters from Mike Pender, Steve Fildes, Chris Webster and Amin Kassam

Letters

13, Jun, 2021 @4:24 PM

Article image
The Observer view on Boris Johnson's disastrous path to a Covid-19 Brexit
After a botched response to the pandemic, No 10 is now poised to sever EU trading ties and split the union

Observer editorial

06, Sep, 2020 @5:15 AM

Article image
The Observer view on the grim effects of Brexit being impossible to hide | Observer editorial
Johnson sold Britain a botched EU deal and no amount of spin or downright lies can conceal that it is falling apart

Observer editorial

14, Mar, 2021 @8:45 AM

Article image
As nationalists grip the Tories, I now support Change UK | Stephen Dorrell
The European election could give UK voters the voice Westminster has denied them

Stephen Dorrell

14, Apr, 2019 @8:00 AM