Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Naked Brexit


Arlene Foster is sad! So sad 😦 Why is Arlene sad?

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has accused the Irish government of hijacking the Brexit negotiations to promote a united Ireland… She said: “The Irish government are actually using the negotiations in Europe to put forward their views on what they believe the island of Ireland should look like in the future.”

The sacred Brexit negotiations are being misused to promote a nationalist cause! Outrageous!

This is Burroughs’s naked lunch, the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”, is something Britain — a declining power treated with far more deference than its actual power warrants — should have tried to put off as long as possible. Now it’s Britain that’s on the end of the fork. And it’s their own fork.One of the small pleasures of this horrible Brexit process is getting to see the British delusions of grandeur smack up against reality. The day after the referendum result I wrote

I think the British are going to be shocked to discover how much the rest of Europe resents them. It’s like a bad marriage: Europe has been making all kinds of compromises and telling Britain how much they love it to keep the union together.

One of the favourite expressions in the British political lexicon is “punching above our weight”. It’s kind of creepy, and kind of obnoxious, viewing all international relations as competition (but the British see all relations as competition), and all competition as a form of pugilism, but it’s an obsession with them. Whereas the Dutch, say, can be content saying “We’re not a world power, but we make a positive contribution and live a good life,” the British need to think they’re better than others, and if they’re obviously not better, at least that they’re better than you might expect given how useless they are. Allies have gotten used to flattering this obsession, and conniving at British financial crimes, and the British have gotten used to accepting this flattery as their due, an inevitable consequence of British ingenuity and

In truth, it is more a matter of rolling your eyes and agreeing to ignore the irritating behaviour of a demented old uncle, because he can still make trouble if you confront him. Now, Britain has decided to make trouble anyway, so there is no longer any motivation to avoid the confrontation.

In this case, the trouble Britain can make is a legacy of the Empire, and the way the international system was wired in Britain’s favour after the Second World War. Former Texas governor Ann Richards famously said of George W. Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.” Modern Britain was born on third base and can’t stop grousing about how they’ve been cheated out of their home run.

It would have been wise for the British to support the international institutions that maintain the illusion of British significance and power. A declining power has everything to gain from appealing to status quo bias. But that requires that they acknowledge their trajectory, and that is emotionally very difficult. (The same is true of the US, and in that sense Brexit and Trump really are part of the same phenomenon.) They suspected that the rest of the world despises them, and decided to provoke what they feared, rather than live in uncertainty.

When it comes to punching, the British have always preferred to use the Irish. Now, deliciously, they’re finding that the EU gives even the lowly Irish leverage over them. The EU was a mechanism for allowing the disagreements in Europe to be managed in a way that did not require ultimate resolution. One of those disagreements was the status of Northern Ireland. Britain decided it couldn’t live with that, unilaterally upending the Good Friday agreement with its Brexit referendum (and poking a finger in the eye of Irish nationalists by effectively taking the unionists into the government). Now they are shocked that the Irish are insisting that, since the Brexit negotiations are forcing a change to the constitutional arrangements of the island of Ireland, that the EU exert its influence to ensure that the change happen in the direction they favour. And that makes Irene sad:

It is wrong that the Irish government … will not allow the process to move forward until they have certain things they demand. I have always felt it very difficult to have an agreement in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but we haven’t moved to the next stage to talk about trade.

Yes, it’s very difficult. That’s why some might have said it should have been thought through before unilaterally triggering a 2-year deadline for leaving the EU.

Northern Irish unionists are used to “negotiating” with the Republic of Ireland with the power of a 400-pound London gorilla backing them up, with more than 10 times the Irish population. Now, suddenly, the Republic has an 800-pound gorilla backing them up, with nearly 10 times the UK population. That’s why Irene is left spluttering about how unreasonable they are being.

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