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Ten precedents for a compromise Brexit

A rally against the anti-secession law in Taiwan. Credit: Andrew Wong / Getty

A rally against the anti-secession law in Taiwan. Credit: Andrew Wong / Getty

April 17, 2019   9 mins

On the 1st April, Nick Boles stood up in the House of Commons and delivered a short but devastating statement:

“I have given everything to an attempt to find a compromise that can take this country out of the European Union while maintaining our economic strength and political cohesion. I accept that I have failed. I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise. I regret, therefore, that I can no longer sit for this party.”

To advocates of a ‘hard’ Brexit or indeed no Brexit, any compromise on the issue (including the Prime Ministers deal) would leave Britain ‘half-in and half-out’ of the European Union. Technically, they’re wrong – a country is either a member of the European Union or it isn’t; but leaving that aside, would being half-in, half-out be such a terrible thing?

History is full of compromises, some of them permanent, some which collapse, and others which can be seen, in retrospect, as a staging post to something else. Here are 10 of the most interesting examples.


1. The Crown Dependencies

There are three ‘Crown Dependencies’ – the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey (which together form the Channel Islands) and the Isle of Man.

Though the three territories are included within the British isles and their inhabitants are British citizens, they are not part of Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales) nor are they part of the United Kingdom (i.e. Great Britain and Northern Ireland). The UK is responsible for their defence and foreign policy, but otherwise they are direct dependencies of the Crown, with their own legislatures and legal systems – in fact the Bailiwick of Guernsey has three legislatures (one for Guernsey itself, one for Alderney and one for Sark). So, I hope that’s all perfectly clear.

The Crown Dependencies inhabit a half-way house between sovereignty and non-sovereignty. It obviously suits them well. They also inhabit another half-way house – Jersey, Guernsey and Man are not part of the EU but are part of the Customs Union. Looks like the UK might be joining them.


2. The Irish Free State

Next up is the most commonly cited ‘precedent’ for a compromise Brexit. It’s not an especially happy one, at least not in its early stages.

After years of struggle, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 granted independence to Ireland. Or did it? The Treaty was full of compromises – not least the fact that Northern Ireland was granted the power to opt out and remain in union with Great Britain, which of course it did. Furthermore, the Free State was still part of the British Commonwealth. George V remained king in Ireland and Irish legislators were required to swear fidelity to him as part of the deeply divisive Oath of Allegiance.

Even Irish supporters of the Treaty called it “the freedom to achieve freedom”. For opponents of the Treaty this was not enough and Civil War broke out in 1922. The pro-treaty side (which became Fine Gael) won the war, but the largest part of the anti-treaty side won the peace – emerging as Fianna Fail (Ireland’s dominant party from 1932 to 2011).

Ironically, it was the party’s founder Eamon de Valera who used “the freedom to achieve freedom” – leading Ireland to full independence in 1937.


3. The Dominions

Independence came to America in 1776; but what if the American revolution had never happened? What if the American subjects of King George Ill had been granted representation in return for their taxation? Would we have the Honourable Members for Boston Central and Manhattan Upper Westside sitting in the House of Commons? Unlikely. Rather self-governance would have evolved as it did in America’s northern neighbour. In 1867, Canada was granted Dominion status – though quite what that meant took decades to work out.

By 1907 Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland – were all recognised as Dominions i.e. self-governing states within the British Empire. The date for full Canadian independence is usually given as 1931, but some powers were not transferred from Westminster until 1982! It was a similar story with slightly different dates in Australia and New Zealand too. The outlier was Newfoundland, which had its own Dominion status separate to that of Canada. In the 1930s, however, its government ran out of money – and self-governance collapsed. The British stepped in for a while until 1949, when Newfoundland became the tenth Canadian province.

So, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, independence was evolutionary not revolutionary. I’ll leave you to decide whether America would have been better off following the same path.


4. Françafrique

Ok, enough about les Anglos for now. Let’s look at the decolonisation of another European empire – the French one in Africa. Whereas the British disengaged from sub-Saharan Africa with barely a backward glance, the French had trouble letting go.

Despite the formal independence of the successor nations, Paris remained deeply involved in their internal affairs – for instance, there were 19 military interventions between 1962 and 1995. The term Françafrique was originally a positive one, but became a byword for an uncomfortably close and murky web of political and business relationships. A notable episode was the so-called ‘Diamonds Affair’ when the French President, Valery Giscard d’ Estaing was accused of having received a gift of diamonds from the Bokassa I, the self-styled Emperor of Central Africa (in reality, a brutal and deranged dictator). Giscard vigorously insisted he’d done nothing wrong, but the allegations contributed to his electoral defeat in 1981. It didn’t help that little diamond stickers kept appearing over his eyes on election posters across the country.

It’s not that France is alone in having behaved badly in the developing world. But in the post-war period, there’s been nothing else quite like Françafrique, which encompassed over 20 African countries. What was the point of this postcolonial empire? Francois Mitterrand, who defeated Giscard in 1981 had this to say in 1957: “without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century”.

Complete rubbish, of course – and, now that we are in the 21st century, it’s obvious Françafrique is not the force it used to be, for either France or its former colonies. That’s for the best, but let’s hope that the unhealthy neo-colonial relationship isn’t replaced by an even worse one with China.


5. Finland

Finland knows all about half-way houses. In 1917, it escaped the Russian Empire only to be repeatedly invaded by the Soviet Union in the Second World War. The Russians kept attacking because the heroic Finns kept fighting back. By the end of the War, Stalin had imposed his rule over half of Europe and some nations were absorbed into the USSR. Finland was unique among Russia’s neighbours in remaining free. There was a price, however: territorial losses, reparations and a position of enforced neutrality.

Though postwar Finland wasn’t on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, it wasn’t really on the western side either. Political scientists coined the word ‘Finlandisation‘ to describe the process by which a large country strongly influences a smaller neighbour while leaving it formally independent. That’s somewhat unfair on Finland, which did what it had to do to maximise its room for manoeuvre. In time, Finland learned how to benefit from its obligatory cooperation with the Soviets – developing close economic ties while remaining sufficiently capitalist to profit from them.

Before the war, the Estonians were richer than their Finnish cousins across the Baltic Sea. But Estonia was one of the nations annexed by the USSR. By the end of the Cold War, when the Estonians regained their independence, it was clear that they’d fallen a long way behind their once poor relations.

Whatever the sacrifices and compromises, the freedom to be yourself is usually worth it.


6. Taiwan

In one way, Taiwan’s situation resembles post-war Finland: it’s a small capitalist democracy next to a giant communist neighbour. Of course, the parallels are not exact. Most importantly, Taiwan is fundamentally Chinese. Indeed, the official name of the Taiwanese state is the Republic of China (RoC)

Up until 1971, it was the RoC government in Taipei (the Taiwanese capital) that controlled China’s seat in the United Nations, not the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government in Beijing. While both governments claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China – mainland and islands – the rest of the world had to recognise the reality that it was the communist PRC that controlled almost all the land and people.

The Republic of China therefore languishes in diplomatic isolation, unrecognised by most countries despite the obvious existence of the Taiwanese state. It’s a deeply strange situation and yet this non-nation nation has prospered. It transitioned to democracy in the 1980s and has a per capita GDP of about $25,000 – that of the PRC is around the $10,000 mark, despite the years of rapid growth.

Though the PRC continues to regard Taiwan as a rebel province, and responds to the pro-independence movement with threats of invasion, it has also moved to deepen trading relationships and other forms of cooperation. Even more than Hong Kong, Taiwan provides a living model of what a democratic, free market China would look like. It would take the most blinkered Beijing ideologue not to see the interest in that.

It would be nice if the EU saw the benefit of an island neighbour free to do things differently.


7. Singapore

The British view of Singapore’s history is full of gaps. We recall the colonial past; commemorate the wartime occupation; and admire the hyper-modernity of the present. However, that leaves out a lot – not least the tumult of the post-war years.

Today, Singapore may be the very image of an orderly society, but in the 1950s and early 60s, Singapore was teetering between multiple opposing forces: between the British Empire and the independence movement; communism and capitalism; and, most significantly, between union and disunion with Malaya/Malaysia.

Look at Singapore on a map. See how small and vulnerable it looks – a tiny island, barely separate from the Malay Peninsula. It’s easy to understand why Singapore’s leaders chose semi-autonomy within the Malaysian federation as a path to independence (achieved in 1963). However, the ethnic, religious and political divides between Singapore and rest of Malaysia proved unbridgeable. Feeling threatened by Singapore’s economic power, Malaysia’s leaders moved to expel the island from the federation. And thus in 1965, Singapore found itself independent and alone – a city state without a hinterland.

One half-way house having collapsed, Singapore built another one – a system of government somewhere between a liberal democracy and a benign(ish) autocracy. That’s true of both the political and economic system, because contrary to what you might have heard, Singapore is not a capitalist free-for-all. A small state and low taxes is balanced against strict government control of the land supply and massive state-led investment programmes.

There’s no such thing as a ‘Singapore model’ for other countries to follow. The city state’s singular history and geography means that it is a model for nowhere else but itself. However, what Singapore’s story does show is that a hard-working nation, with a strong sense of identity and a competent government can overcome isolation, division and hostility to succeed in a competitive world.


8. The mixed economy

The Crown Territories, Ireland, the Dominions, Françafrique, Finland, Taiwan and Singapore: seven case studies in the complex relationship between sovereignty and reality. There are many others, but I’m going to conclude with three non-territorial examples of a historic compromise. First of all, in economics.

The 20th century was a fierce and often violent contest of ideas, not least between the free market and the centrally-planned, state-led economy. But in nation after nation, the eventual outcome was a half-way house between capitalism and socialism.

The social democracies of Scandinavia were once said to have pioneered the ‘mixed economy’, but the truth is that all industrial democracies are mixed economies. The precise division of the cake between the state and the market varies between nations and historical eras, but there is no example of either the public or private sector being reduced to insignificance.

The same is increasingly true of the developed and developing non-democracies. The only places left on the planet with an economically all-powerful state are pitiously poor – something they have in common with the only places on the planet where the state is powerless.

Ideological purity has its limits.


9. The Church of England

If the 20th Century was a contest between economic ideas, the 16th and 17th century was all about religion – in particular the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism.

In different parts of Europe there were different outcomes – and one of the most interesting was in England. Rather than choose between the rival forms of Christianity, the English created a mash-up of the two and called it the Church of England.

That, of course, is a huge over-simplification and overlooks the persecution of Catholics and dissenting Protestants – not to mention the long years of conflict, war and atrocity in England, Scotland and Ireland. And yet the middle way of Anglicanism came to provide a model of co-existence: a roof under which High Church and Low Church, conservatives and liberals, worked out a way to live with one another.

That this became true of the most important spiritual institution in what would become the world’s most powerful nation, is surely not without wider significance.


10. Theoretical physics

From religion, to science – and, specifically, the foundational theories of modern physics.

On the one hand we have General Relativity, which describes the fundamental forces of reality at the scale of planets, stars, galaxies and ultimately the whole universe. On the other, there is Quantum field theory, which does the same, but at the opposite end of the scale – atoms, subatomic particles and the general weirdness of the very small. Both theories are theories in the proper scientific sense, i.e. they’re not just hypothetical, they have real predictive power confirmed by experimental observation.

However, despite the evidence that backs both of them up, there’s a fundamental problem: they contradict one another. The mathematics by which we can explain the very big and the very small cannot be combined into a single theoretical framework. We’ve proved them both and yet they disprove one another. Awkward.

Many of the most brilliant minds of the age have devoted their careers to finding a Theory of Everything that can reconcile Relativity with the quantum stuff. So far, they’ve failed. One might reasonably wonder whether they’ll ever succeed; or whether they even need to. As long as they stay in their lane, the apparently irreconcilable theories both work – surely, the ultimate in agreeing to disagree.

Perhaps we just need to accept that there’s a fundamental contradiction woven into the fabric of creation. If nothing else, it puts our disagreements over Brexit into perspective.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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