Brexit Jack

Beyond the backstop: understanding Unionist sentiment in the Brexit debate

Published: 12 December 2018
Author: Jack Sheldon
Conservative MPs who offer their Unionism as the basis of their rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement have a very particular understanding of both the Union and Conservatism, says Jack Sheldon. 
As Theresa May prepares to face a confidence vote from her own Conservative MPs, one issue dominates the agenda – the Northern Irish backstop. In her statement to the House following the decision to postpone the planned Commons vote on her deal, the Prime Minister pledged to seek further reassurances from the EU on this. The backstop has come in for fierce criticism, much of it on the grounds that it poses a threat to the integrity of the domestic Union by providing for different regulatory arrangements for Northern Ireland from those that would apply elsewhere in the UK.
During the three days of debate on the deal held last week, this argument was made by MPs who oppose the Withdrawal Agreement from a whole variety of different perspectives. The DUP stuck to their view that the backstop involves a degree of regulatory divergence which is unacceptable. And from the Labour frontbench Jeremy Corbyncontroversially in the eyes of some – also criticised the fact that under the backstop ‘Northern Ireland would be subject to significantly different regulations from the rest of the UK’. The conversion of one-time supporters of a united Ireland to this brand of unionism is a sign of the extraordinary shift in the political kaleidoscope that Brexit has brought about.  
But it was the interventions from Conservative MP after Conservative MP that doomed the deal as it stood, and forced May to take the decision she did. Indeed, it is particularly striking that similarly fierce criticisms of the backstop’s implications for the Union were made by MPs from both camps in the Tory party’s Brexit civil war. Boris Johnson said that it will ‘not be good enough to say to the people of Northern Ireland that after all those promises we accept that they must be treated differently from the rest of the UK’. Shortly afterwards, arch-Remainer Anna Soubry argued that the backstop would be ‘not just vassalage’, but ‘clearly a threat to the Union of our country’. 
In fact, our research shows that during the three days of debate on the deal 24 out of 63 Conservative backbenchers who spoke argued that the deal would have negative implications for the Union, with only three suggesting that it would have a positive impact for the Union.  
Those criticising the deal on Unionist grounds included not only those with strong objections to the Withdrawal Agreement,  but also a number of MPs who indicated they would otherwise have been supportive, were it not for their concerns about the backstop. Sir Robert Syms, for example, said that ‘as a Conservative Unionist’, he did ‘not want to treat any area of the United Kingdom differently from my own constituency’. Sir Hugo Swire similarly argued for changes to the backstop, suggesting that if this did not happen the Prime Minister ‘will find herself short of votes next week, as there are those of us who put the Union and the integrity of the Union above all other matters’. And John Lamont, a former Conservative Chief Whip in the Scottish Parliament, claimed that the risk of Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK would be ‘contrary to the articles of Union, as I understand them’.
Most of the arguments that were made about the Union reflect a highly unitarist understanding of the UK,  invoking the merits of uniformity across its territories, and placing particular emphasis  on the idea of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty. Research that that we have conducted over the past year indicates that this is indeed the dominant view within the Conservative Party at Westminster.
However, this has not always been the case. There is a competing Conservative tradition of which gives emphasis to tolerating and even promoting distinctive arrangements for the UK’s periphery on pragmatic grounds – what the political scientist Jim Bulpitt, writing in the 1980s, termed ‘territorial appeasement and depoliticisation’. On this view there is a plausible Unionist argument to be made in defence of the backstop, as a means of mitigating the threat to the stability of the post-Good Friday Agreement settlement in Northern Ireland that would result from a hard Brexit.  Yet this kind of s argument was hardly  heard in the debate, though it has been made by a few figures such as  Sir John Major.
A vote on a deal that – regardless of whether May survives the confidence ballot ¬– seems highly unlikely to differ substantially from that currently on the table will need to take place at some point. If it is to stand any chance of passing, many of those Conservative MPs who have expressed concerns about the backstop’s implications for the Union will need to be persuaded that it can be reconciled with their understanding of what it means to be a Unionist. The prospects for this happening are not currently looking very strong.