Macbeth was an early adopter of the No Turning Back approach. In the play, he tells his wife: “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”
Britain itself is now a Shakespearean tragedy. It almost doesn’t matter who is prime minister. The danger, and alas the likelihood, is that the Conservative Party will follow Macbeth’s advice and just keep wading.
Damn the evidence, the wasted billions, the broken businesses, the miles of red tape, the UK’s new status as an international laughing stock; just plough on deeper into the mire in the belief that they might somehow emerge victorious.
The Tories’ radical wing, the ERG and the now-discredited Tufton Street think tanks, may be observing a period of embarrassed near-silence after Liz Truss’ implosion, but on Monday this witches’ chorus made it clear to Rishi Sunak that they wanted him to push on with fighting Brussels. The irony is the issue they want to fight over; because Northern Ireland is a shining example of what the UK’s relationship with the EU could have looked like had Brexit negotiations been handled sensibly.
NI is like a massive economic experiment which shows the world what would have happened if the UK had stayed in the single market. Instead of learning from this, the Brexiteers have told the new PM a condition of their support is to press on with Truss’s legislation and tear up the Protocol unilaterally, break international law and risk a trade war with the EU that the UK could not win. It would be suicide for a country already at the mercy of suspicious markets.
The move is madness, not least because UK intransigence over Northern Ireland has already led to our universities and scientists being blocked from the Horizon programme, a massive economic and reputational hit on its own. And the EU has even come up with proposals to improve the deal and lighten the regulatory hurdle at the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They should be welcomed with open arms.
That would be a relief to most of Northern Ireland. The simple fact is that despite the noisy protests of the DUP, the Protocol is broadly popular in the province and for good reason. NI has, because of the compromise which Boris Johnson negotiated, had the best of both worlds for years now and does not want to give it up. Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, says, “Most people are grasping the opportunity that exists with access to both markets”.
NI is a member of the single market in goods, and yet it is still part of the UK. That gives it untrammelled access to a market of more than 453 million people across the European Economic Area and, with a bit of form-filling, access to the 65 million in England, Scotland and Wales too.
This is not a perfect state of affairs, but it is considerably better than the deal that was negotiated for the rest of the country and it shows. The NI Statistics and Research Agency says that over a three-year period, Northern Ireland has grown more strongly than the rest of the country. Output is up by 4.8% compared to UK GDP growth of 1.3%. Northern Ireland’s economy is now larger than it was before Covid, something the UK as a whole has failed to achieve. It must be doing something right.
Many businesses would like the Protocol to be simpler, with fewer forms and far fewer checks at the border with the rest of the UK. But there are few doubts that the Protocol has helped NI businesses to boost exports and trade. As the Irish Central Statistical Office reports, imports from Northern Ireland in the first four months of 2022 increased by 30% compared to last year and exports to Northern Ireland rose by 41%.
Compare that to the rest of the UK, which is running the largest trade deficit since records began and where trade with the EU is 20% lower than it would have been without Brexit.
The difference would be even more marked if it were not for one simple fact – the UK government’s threats to unilaterally rip up the NIP have had a chilling effect on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Northern Ireland. Stephen Kelly sees foreign firms with cold feet all the time: “More firms across the world are looking into NI and logic tells them there is a unique opportunity here they should be grasping… but they also read the papers and see the news and the one big thing that is important for foreign investors is political stability, and they can’t see that in NI at the moment.”
Even so, Northern Ireland attracted 38 greenfield FDI projects in 2021 – a 31% increase compared with 2020 and an 8.6% increase compared with pre-Covid-19 levels. This is why the DUP’s actions in refusing to let Stormont sit until the Protocol is totally destroyed, are so damaging. Urged on by the ERG, their ideology is undermining their country’s attractiveness foreign firms.
What would help even more would be if the new government learnt the lesson from the experience of Northern Ireland. Being in the single market is much better for growth and uncertainty damages the inward investment the UK desperately needs if it is to get out of this economic hole.
You might think that for a country in search of a viable growth plan this would be a no-brainer. But the governing party remains in the grip of a mania that is not rational.
Anyone who thinks that the collapse of the mini-budget and Liz Truss’s premiership have dulled the appetites of the ERG and the libertarian ultras has not been paying attention.
Like Macbeth, the Brexiteers started down a road with no way back, and they will not change direction. They will do more damage to the country and the Conservatives before one or both finally collapses.
The Scottish play does not end well, and it will not end well this time. But Macbeth also pulled the whole structure down with him as he went.