Sunday National, 13th June 2021.
When a DUP politician says “from my cold dead hands,” you don’t expect them to be brandishing a fistful of sausages. But there he stood, cro-magnon, recreational naturist and Member of Parliament for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson, under a poster bearing the legend “Ulster is British.” Sammy doesn’t want to save Ulster from salami, but to deliver the six counties from the evils of the Northern Irish Protocol.
While Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement forestalled the prospect of a physical infrastructure of border posts, it mapped instead an effective regulatory border down the Irish Sea. This kept Northern Ireland in the single market, and shunted the rest of the UK out of it. The deal included rules on importing chilled meats – including Sammy’s clutch of wee willie winkies – from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. These rules were meant to come in in the spring, but the UK government decided to give itself a little extra time to get around to honouring its obligations without discussing it with the European counterparts.
Having unilaterally extended the grace period, Boris Johnson and his ministers have now decided the “brilliant” deal they struck with the EU27 is now “excessively burdensome.” Just as the burdensome commitments to faithfulness in your marriage vows can be solved by adopting a “flexible, pragmatic approach” to fidelity, Captain Impunity thinks the nags and scolds of the EU should lighten up and think of the Protocol as guidelines rather than rules. After all, what’s a little law-breaking between friends?
And so now, the UK government and their former allies in the ailing Democratic Unionist Party are acting out, apparently unironically, the script of a famous episode of Yes, Minister in real time. According to Edwin Poots – the new DUP leader after Arlene Foster was ousted back in April – the EU is attempting to starve the plain people of Northern Ireland. “Processed meat is typical of food that would be sold in Iceland and other shops,” he said. “It’s very often the people lowest paid who utilise those pizzas, lasagnes and various commodities.”
I’m assuming this isn’t quite what Gordon Brown had in mind when he talks about the union being an instrument of social justice. The people’s banger is deepest red, notwithstanding its modest meat content, chilled or unchilled.
Not to be outdone, Boris Johnson’s Environment Secretary took to the airwaves to give the nation a stirring address on the condescension and culinary bigotry of our European friends and allies, protesting he had “no idea” why the EU imposed “idiosyncratic” rules on mystery meats crossing the market frontiers. But the Camborne and Redruth MP had his suspicions.
“I suspect it links to some kind of perception that they can’t really trust any country other than an EU country to make sausages,” George Eustice told Nick Ferrari. “I think that’s a nonsense. I think we’ve got a very good sausage industry in this country, we’ve got the highest standards of food hygiene in the world,” buttonholing this noble address to the listeners of LBC with the stirring finale: “There’s no problem with our sausages or indeed our chicken nuggets.” Now there’s a slogan to put on your tanks. Scandalised meat manufactures of Lincoln and Cumbria, unite.
They say laws are like sausages: better not to see them being made. This UK government has somehow managed to combine both unsightly exercises. But the confected “sausage wars” is entirely in keeping with the political nonsense which propelled Boris Johnson into Downing Street and which helps keep him there.
When he was cutting his teeth as the Telegraph’s European correspondent, a young Boris Johnson specialised in serving up these kind of cold cuts to the paper’s outraged gammon back home, who gobbled up any story of jobsworth Eurocrat diktats, published by editors cynical enough to give their readers what they wanted, irrespective of how economical with the actualité their star correspondent’s copy actually proved.
EU mandated banana-straightening, prohibitions on the sale of prawn cocktail crisps – these kinds of tall tales from Brussels weren’t just our future Prime Minister’s standby. They have been a staple of the right-wing Eurosceptic media in Britain for decades, reliably generating screamer headlines stoking up imagined grievances against the bloc, deftly repackaging deregulation, lower welfare standards and fewer environmental protections as the working man’s preference, and everything else as officious, foreign, ‘elf ‘n safety namby-pambyism.
This kind of reactionary plainness is absolutely central to the emotional tone and emotional appeal of this Tory government. It seems appropriate the Tories now represent Hartlepool. Town legend has it that the locals hanged a monkey that washed ashore from a shipwreck off the coast because they thought it was one of Napoleon’s spies. I don’t know if this was one of the episodes Jacob Rees-Mogg had in mind when he was waxing lyrical in the Commons this week about how we should all be proud of “our marvellous history,” but in the 18th century, the military conflict between the UK and France was at least real.
Now, we just have a UK government which intermittently talks as if it wishes it were, and tabloids ready to descend into fever dreams about war, gunboats and Dunkirk at the drop of a bicorn hat. I suppose it is an emotional distraction from any meaningful self-reflection about the UK’s true place in the world – the fact Britain is now a solidly middle-tier power, in decline, consoling itself with nostalgia as it contemplates the risk of further internal fragmentation and consequential loss of international prestige. Great, Britain isn’t.
When he signed the Brexit deal, Johnson said it was an opportunity to “bring an end to far too many years of argument and division,” “building a strong new relationship with the EU as friends and sovereign equals,” and to “move forward as one country.” Fat chance.
The figure of meddlesome Brussels official – and pantomime resistance to their decrees – is intrinsic to the Tory Eurosceptic worldview. The idea that leaving the European Union would eradicate these antipathies and suspicions from British politics is powerfully naïve – particularly when it is so clearly in the Conservative Party’s political self-interest to let the friction continue. It is in this context we should understand the remarkable attempts to rehabilitate the notion that “home rule” is some kind of answer to Scotland’s problems, devolving more power to Holyrood, while leaving the UK government as a kind of night-watchman state, responsible for defence and foreign affairs.
Firstly, this argument comes from a place of political unreality. This UK government has no interest in this kind of reform agenda. If anything, this Conservative administration has shown every desire to contract – rather than expand – the sphere of devolved authority. But even more fundamentally – why would anyone want the UK to retain these responsibilities?
If the sight of Boris Johnson dragging his gusset around the sands of Carbis Bay doesn’t persuade you of the advantages of an independent foreign and defence policy, look at it this way. If the state of the health service is important enough for you to devolve, if education and justice and the environment are matters you would like to see democratically determined in Edinburgh rather than in London, why on earth would you want questions of who we sell bombs to and in what quantity, of who we wage aggressive war against – to be determined by Her Majesty’s government in London?
“Stick with Britain for boats, bombs and the opportunity to kill and be killed in the country’s future wars” seems to me one of the wildest cases for the union yet conceived. If you are prepared to trim back the role of the UK state so far, why insist on leaving these critical issues in the hands of Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and their successors?
Does your political experience really suggest this is a cunning plan?