Unionism and the Conservative Brexit deal rebellion

jack_sheldon.1image_normalThis week, MPs voted in favour of renegotiating the parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that relate to the ‘backstop’. The backstop and the land border between the UK and Ireland has been one of the most divisive Brexit issues for the Conservatives. Jack Sheldon and Michael Kenny discuss what this tells us about the party’s attitude to the Union.

‘Something ghastly called UK(NI) has been created. Northern Ireland will be under a different regime. That is a breach of the Act of Union 1800’. Owen Paterson MP

I am concerned about the prospects of a Northern Ireland that risks being increasingly decoupled from the United Kingdom, and about how that could undermine the Union that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’. Justine Greening MP

‘I would really like to support the deal of this Prime Minister and this Government, but the issue for me is the backstop. I served in Northern Ireland and I lost good colleagues to protect the Union. I will not vote for anything that does not protect the Union’. Sir Mike Penning MP

Concerns about the implications of the Irish backstop for the integrity of the domestic Union contributed significantly to the scale of the 118-strong backbench rebellion that led to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement being defeated on 15 January, by the extraordinary margin of 432 to 202. Following a debate and vote on 29 January, the Prime Minister has now committed to seek legally binding changes to the backstop, in the hope that this might win over at least some of the rebels before the next vote.

What do the arguments that have been made about the backstop tell us about the nature of the ‘unionism’ that prevails in the contemporary Conservative Party? This is a pertinent question, given that the sincerity of professed support for the Union from Conservatives has regularly been called into question by academic and media commentators in recent years, with increasing numbers of critics suggesting that leading figures from the Tory Party have harvested ‘English nationalist’ sentiments and are willing to put the future of the Union at risk.

As part of the Between Two Unions project we have been examining how Conservative parliamentarians feel about the Union and looking at what we can learn about this in the context of Brexit. We have conducted interviews with senior party figures on both sides of the Brexit divide, reviewed speeches and other public interventions, and conducted an analysis of contributions to the Commons debate on the Brexit deal. We have been able to identify a number of patterns in the unionist discourse of Tory parliamentarians.

One very notable aspect of Conservative thinking about the Union is the dominance of a ‘unitarist’ understanding of the Union. For many Conservatives uniformity across the whole of the UK, underpinned by Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, is seen as essential to ensuring that the Union remains together. Divergence between the UK’s component parts is for many viewed with suspicion.

When we interviewed MPs last year there was strong support – among committed Remainers as well as Brexit supporters, it should be noted – for the Prime Minister’s statements that no British Prime Minister could support a differentiated Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. This widely held view goes some way to explaining the backlash in much of the parliamentary party to the version of the backstop that is included in the Withdrawal Agreement – featuring provisions that could lead to divergence in certain circumstances.

One further feature of this kind of thinking deserves emphasis. This is the tendency for Conservative parliamentarians to view the DUP’s position as an important benchmark for assessing the implications of the Brexit deal for the Union. This sentiment cropped up in our own interviews. While some MPs we spoke to expressed reservations about the DUP’s wider policy positions and the implications of the Tories’ reliance upon them, their Unionism is seen by a large group of Conservative MPs as a standard to aspire to.

In the Commons debate numerous MPs expressed similar sentiments to Daniel Kawczynski, for whom the DUP ‘are our interlocutors, and if they are telling us, as the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, that they have genuine concerns about the backstop, it would be irresponsible for us to ignore those concerns’. In historical terms such statements are striking: until the past decade or so the DUP were highly marginalised in British politics, including by Tories.  

During the course of the debate on the Withdrawal Agreement an alternative narrative in relation to the Union was also aired. On this view – expressed most clearly by Theresa May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington – it is no deal rather than the backstop that would ‘cause profound and possibly irreversible damage to the Union of the United Kingdom’. In his speech Lidington claimed that the ‘tensions resulting from such an outcome in Scotland and Northern Ireland would be severe’, said that he had heard from ‘moderate people on the nationalist side that have been content with the Union that they are becoming more anxious, more hard-line and more questioning of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status’ and argued that the consent of these people is ‘hugely important to preserving the Union’.

This argument carries echoes of a competing Conservative tradition of pragmatic stratecraft, which is comfortable with the development of distinctive arrangements for the governance of the UK’s periphery. Lidington’s view is shared by a few Conservative backbenchers but is far less resonant than the orthodoxy described above – something clearly reflected in May’s decision to seek changes to the backstop rather than mount a defence of it. The evidence from the interviews that we conducted suggests that one reason the pragmatic view has failed to resonate is that relatively few leading Tories see Brexit as posing a threat to the Union. There is in fact considerable confidence among the parliamentary party about the future of both Northern Ireland and Scotland in the Union. This is particularly the case in relation to Scotland, following the relative success of the Scottish Conservatives in gaining 12 seats from the SNP in 2017, which seems to have convinced many backbenchers that the threat of Scottish independence has been seen off.

The accusation that leading Conservatives are exponents of a new, atavistic English nationalism overlooks the continued attachment of Conservatives to the language and symbols of the Union. Our research would seem to suggest that support for the Union remains a high priority for members of the parliamentary Conservative Party. However, the unionism that most Conservative parliamentarians advocate takes a very particular form, with the UK understood in unitarist terms, and divergence seen as an inherent threat – despite the markedly different ways in which the composite parts of the UK have been governed by the British state, both before and after devolution.

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Centre for Constitutional Change and is reposted with permission.

About the authors

Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, and a Research Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change, working on the ‘Between Two Unions’ project. He was previously a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, and is a former editor of the Constitution Unit blog.

Professor Michael Kenny is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.