Making the headlines last week was the unprecedented and frankly outrageous news that a certain politician has offended certain other politicians.
I am referring, of course (what else would it be?), to the news that Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, made a remark that those who advocated Brexit without a proper plan have a ‘special place in hell’.
By ‘plan’ he was largely inferring to the Tory Party’s chaos of opinion on the Northern Irish backstop.
Naturally, the victims of this malicious attack responded maturely, evidently disappointed that politics had descended to such name-calling and insulting.
Andrea Leadsom called Tusk ‘disgraceful’ and ‘spiteful’, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage labelled him an ‘unelected, arrogant bully’ while the DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson chose the rather quirky ‘devilish Euro-maniac’.
We should be so proud to have these good people in British politics and not the childish bureaucrats of the European Union!
The point is, insults such as these are thrown around all the time in the world of politics. Imagine if we swapped one Donald for another, and reported every insult that the President of the United States crammed into 280 characters?
Rhetoric is used to convince, and, as all public speakers will know, the more shocking and memorable, the more effective.
The late Liberal Democrat Lord Paddy Ashdown was famously reminded of the danger of this in 2015, when he said he would ‘eat his hat’ if his party lost the dozens of seats that the exit poll predicted. Tusk is doing nothing new, yet he faces enormous backlash.
This is because when a right-wing, anti-establishment figure uses this kind of language, no one bats an eyelid, yet when a centrist, establishment politician such as Tusk descends to the same level, it is a scandal. Tusk can’t win.
He is, in the eyes of the Brexit campaigners, a crooked enslaver of the British people disguised as your average establishment politician; don’t be fooled, beneath the receding hairline, plans for world domination are being hatched!
Yet, when he slips and resorts to the level of certain Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage, he is labelled as arrogant, divisive, and despotic. If Boris Johnson had said such a thing, he would be hailed by the right-wing media for speaking the truth. Donald Tusk using the very same language used by so many Brexiteers paradoxically ‘proves exactly why we should leave the EU’, according to Jacob Rees-Mogg in an article for The Sun. In other words; its only okay when we do it, Donald!
In the midst of all of this, Downing Street thought it time to weigh in on the drama, stating that Tusk’s remarks are ‘not helpful and have caused widespread dismay’.
The problem Theresa May faces is that the European Union is interested in securing the safety and prosperity of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, doesn’t really care what happens, as long as it can get through parliament.
In fact, this attitude forms the current nucleus of her rhetoric – my deal or no deal. Her entire game plan is built on bringing the whole country as close to the chaos and uncertainty of no deal as she can, so that MPs might decide to choose her deal as the marginally lesser of two evils.
But is this not a complete failure of democracy? May sees leaving the EU as an end in itself – once we’re out, then she has delivered on the ‘will of the people’. But this is completely twisted. MPs first responsibility is to work in the interest of the people; this is the principle representative government is founded on. ‘My deal or no deal’ is a threat – vote it through, or the country will suffer.
She may deliver Brexit, but nothing like the one people asked for, the one leave-vot- ers thought would make their lives better.
So, yes, for our master pragmatist Prime Minister, Donald Tusk’s deep concerns about the Irish border aren’t helpful.
He is being divisive and dogmatic, whereas May is the one calling for unity. But this unity has the sinister implication that MPs should abandon their own convictions about what is best for their country, that they should cease to represent those that voted them in.
That’s not to say division should always be welcomed with open arms, but instead that Brexit is simply too crucial to legitimately adopt such an ‘anything goes’ attitude.
Sure, Tusk’s remark is hostile, and inflammatory, but perhaps that’s what’s needed in order for hard-line Brexiteers to understand the grave potential for dangers facing Northern Ireland after leaving the European Union.
The backstop is an insurance policy, so that if the negotiations are not sorted out in the two-year transition period after March 29th, there won’t be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Given that the removal of security and checks at the border was a cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Brexiteers who wantrid of it put peace between the Republic and Northern Ireland at risk.
This was barely even considered by the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, an ambivalence that has only strengthened as the ERG and others are willing to put the two decades of stability between the two countries on the line to achieve their deluded and damaging vision of Brexit.
So I don’t blame Donald Tusk for saying they deserve a special place in hell; it could be hell that is unleashed if they get their way.