Brexit and Identity Politics: A Case Study of Globalization in Flux


By Kenneth Maxwell

On January 15, 2019, the British prime minister, Mrs Theresa May, suffered the greatest parliamentary defeat in British history when members of the House of Commons voted 432 to 202 to kill her BREXIT deal which sets out the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU on March 29th.

She had pulled a previously scheduled vote before the Christmas parliamentary recess fearing defeat.

But the delay only added to the disenchantment.

She tried mightily to keep the 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on board. She has depended on the support  of the DUP to sustain her minority Conservative government since she lost conservative seats in an ill-timed general election she called in 2017.

But it was the so called “back stop” in the EU/UK exit agreement which involved the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the only land border between the EU and UK, that proved totally unacceptable to the DUP, and consequently they vociferously failed to support her.

In fact it was the “back stop” that became the final straw that broke the camel’s back of her EU/UK Brexit deal.

The problem was in some respects of Mrs May’s own making.

Her “red lines” had called for Britain to leave the customs union and the single market.

The back-stop was an insurance policy that in the event that the two sides could not reach an agreement, Northern Ireland was to remain within the EU’s regulatory and customs arrangements.

This was intended to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the elimination of which was one of the great achievements of the “Good Friday” agreement which ended the violent Northern Irish “time of troubles” when the British army intervened and Catholic and Protestant paramilitary forces clashed throughout the province, and the IRA carried out a bombing campaign and political murders in Ulster and England.

There is some irony that the perennial British-Irish question should become a stumbling bloc to British exit from the EU.

However, the Conservative Party and the DUP do agree on one thing. That is they will unite to prevent a general election and to keep the Labour Party out of government.

So when the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn put down a no-confidence motion in the government after Mrs May’s catastrophic defeat they joined together the very next day to defeat Corbyn by 325 to 306.

Not that Corbyn was surprised by this outcome.

He has never been a great fan of the EU which he has long seen as a capitalist plot.

Nor is he a fan of the DUP having for years been a sympathiser with Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalists.

And despite the total disarray of Mrs May’s government, Corbyn is still behind in the opinion polls.

The Northern Irish question and the “back stop” is in a curious way a revenge of King James the First and his 1609 “plantation” of English and Scottish Protestants in Northern Ireland on the land seized from the exiled Catholic Irish earls.

By 1620 there were 40,000 Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster. The Protestant Oliver Cromwell’s violent repression in Ireland took place after his victory in the English Civil War.

The failed attempt by King James the Second with French support to take back the English throne via Ireland was defeated by the Protestant Dutch William of Orange, King William III, then co-ruler of Britain, and who was married with the protestant Queen Mary II, who was James’s eldest daughter.

It was Ulster Protestants that invented identity politics.

The bonfires and marches and noisy commemorations of “King Billy” and of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and extreme presbyterianism, is at the core of Northern Irish identity politics, and is the life blood of the DUP.

If Theresa May thought the DUP had it in their DNA to compromise she was sadly deluded.

They inherit 400 years of stubbornness.

David Cameron who was caught by a television crew while on his morning jog the day after Theresa May’s catastrophic defeat in the House of Commons, said that he “did not regret” calling the referendum, which of course, caused all the trouble in the first place.

It was his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, moreover, who during the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition government that Cameron led, introduced the Fixed Parliament Act of 2011, which introduced fixed-term elections and which created a five year period between general elections.

This allows Theresa May to lose a vote in the House of Commons on the central plank of her policy and yet remain as the prime minister, and then to go on and win the support of her party and the DUP in a non-confidence vote twenty four hours later.

Nick Clegg is now in California as a chief adviser to Mark Zuckerberg where he is Vice President for global affairs and communications at Facebook.

So while Cameron jogs and Clegg defends Zuckerberg, Brexit is back to gridlock in the British Parliament, which knows want it does not want, but does not know want it wants.

The country meanwhile remains bitterly divided.

The business community dispairs and prepares for a “no-deal” crash out at 11 pm on March 29, 2019, the date and time set in law for Britain’s EU exit.

Which is something the hard line Brexiters in the Conservative party, led by Jacob William Ress-Mogg, the MP for North West Somerset, their alt-right wing leader, has always wanted all along.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been called the “honourable member from the 18th century.” He is an alt-Catholic who, he says, would prefer to take the “whip from the Roman Catholic Church, not with the Parliament.” (The “whip” in question is the parliamentary party member who guarantees voting according to the party leadership’s directives.)

His personal wealth (together with his wife) was estimated to be £150 million in 2016. He has six children and is opposed to abortion under any circumstances and voted against same sex marriage. Though it is unlikely he much approves of the current Argentinian Pope on Rome.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg, much like the DUP,  is better described a being an MP from the 17th century. 

It is a very odd irony that the alt-Protestant DUP and the alt-Catholic Ress-Mogg should now hold the Conservative party and the fate of Brexit in their collective uncompromising obstructionist hands.

Editor’s Note: As the EU crisis deepens, a key aspect of the crisis is how identity politics community wide redefine the collaborative framework which has been put together, in many ways cobbled together, which is called the European Union. Many aspects of what is referred to as the EU are not part of the initial treaty of Rome, notably the agreement for the free flow of Europeans within the EU geographical space.

But more broadly the past two decades of globalization are being rolled back yet it is not the return of the classic nation state. Although the Pentagon has referred to the return of great power politics, what can be lost in characterizing the next phase of historical development, is the semi-sovereign nature of the world’s most powerful nations.

Collaboration and global rules are a key part of how the great nations conduct their trade, commerce and global security; at the same time identity politics and national identities are being reasserted to modify to some extent how collaboration and global rules are themselves being redefined.

The featured photo is of Jacob Rees-Mogg and is credited to the Edmund Burke Institute.