When Theresa May first set the agenda for Brexit, the UK was a divided nation caught between two opposing opinions on the country’s membership of the EU. Fortunately, the May government succeeded in reuniting the British people against the Tory Party.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Irish border would be the key fault line in the EU talks. Not only is it the only land border the UK has with the EU, the free movement of labour between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is vital to the Good Friday Agreement. Any shift towards or away from the delicate between Irish integration and the British union could threaten the basis of the peace treaty.
The most viable option was always a sea border to regulate the flow of people and goods between the island of Ireland and mainland Britain. But this option was ruled out by May’s pact with the Democratic Unionist Party. The Ulster unionists feared that the sea border would effectively concede the ground to the nationalist argument about the status of the Six Counties. A land border would reinforce the idea that the province is really a part of the UK.
It soon became apparent that the only sensible option on the Irish border was ruled out by the Tory-DUP alliance. It was a matter of time before either the Brexit deal was scuppered, or the DUP would have to break with the Tories and set off a no-confidence motion in May’s ability to lead the ruling party and the country.
What was less obvious was the way that the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson would use the situation to make demands for a special status for Scotland and other areas of the UK. The floodgates were opened by the problem of the Irish border dispute. This is what the word omnishambles was invented for.
Although this is not the first time the Irish question has brought down a British prime minister, it is the first time in at least a century that the UK establishment has been shaken to its foundations by its failures on Ireland and Europe. It’s usually one or the other, but rarely both.
At least three Conservative leaders – Thatcher, Major and Cameron – have been brought down because they took the wrong stance on Europe. Margaret Thatcher was ousted in the midst of Tory squabbles over Europe, the Iron Lady was seen as too eurosceptical. Yet John Major would lose an election by playing the anti-EU card, even though he had been doing the opposite for seven years.
Finally we had David Cameron, the man who tried to end the tensions inside the Tory Party over Europe by holding a referendum. Bizarrely, Cameron held the referendum to stop change from happening. He thought he could never lose, and his decision cost him and his part dearly, but, most of all, it split the country down the middle. It laid the basis for a dysfunctional right-wing administration, and opened the possibility for its defeat at the hands of a scruffy socialist Labour leader.
Even still, the colossal wreck of May’s brief tenure has few precedents in British history. Perhaps the only comparison is the Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who managed to take the UK into the First World War and fail the crucial test of Irish Home Rule. The result was millions dead and the Easter Rising. The Liberal government did not survive the consequences of its own terrible decisions.
Sadly, the Conservative Party will not quite meet the same fate. There will be no strange death of Tory England for the foreseeable. What is clear is that the Cameron-May years can be seen as a period of unprecedented mismanagement. The style was not enough to hold together an administration with no substance. So May sought out the substance of nationalism. She was playing with fire.
Far from being one nation, Britain is staring into the abyss of its own history and finds it was never a united country and the crisis over Brexit was merely what revealed this fact. The irony is that it was British nationalism that tipped it over the cliff edge. It was just too much.
What more is there to say about this strange moment in British politics? May should be remembered for destabilising the UK for the sake of short-term electoral gain (which she couldn’t even secure in the end). It cannot be said that this ignominy was not well earned, and it was all for nothing in the end.
Photograph courtesy of Tiocfaidh ar la 1916. Published under a Creative Commons license.