“I’ll never be neutral on the Union.” Prove it!

GUEST POST: Timothy McLean is a Parliamentary Researcher. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

“I’ll never be neutral on the Union” – the familiar battle cry we hear every time a new Northern Ireland Secretary takes up residence in Stormont House.  It’s time they showed some teeth…  

Boris Johnson is the first British Prime Minister since the Act of Union in 1801 to erect internal trade barriers within the United Kingdom. Which is kind of ironic, considering he is also the first Prime Minister to hold the title of Minister for the Union. In addition, the current office holder, Brandon Lewis – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – denies the existence of any border in the Irish Sea. If the Conservative party wants to be taken seriously on the Union, they must first acknowledge their mistakes and take action to correct them. 

The recent shenanigans that led to the disbandment of the Union unit within No.10 does not inspire confidence. While the political and media focus around the state of the Union tends to focus on Scotland, for obvious reasons, it is the situation which has been imposed on Northern Ireland that presents the biggest challenge to those who have been trusted with the care of our Union. 

Establishing committees to strategise and then implement policies across the Kingdom will not repair the damage to relationships which have been long standing between unionists in Northern Ireland and respective Conservative governments. The Northern Ireland Protocol is just the latest strain in that relationship. Yet the protocol is perhaps the most serious threat to the Union in my lifetime because it undermines the integrity of the internal market and gives succour to the separatists who would much rather align with Brussels than with London.  

Speaking at the DUP Party Conference in late 2018, Boris Johnson said this: 

“If you read the Withdrawal Agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called Ukni. This is how Brussels sees it. Ukni is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. Ukni is in large part to be ruled by Brussels.” 

Such a firm statement gave us Unionists hope that Northern Ireland’s equal position within the United Kingdom would be assured and protected. For the first time in many decades, Unionists held the balance of power at Westminster and felt like the new Prime Minister understood their concerns. Yet, after one meeting with the Irish Taoiseach, some argue Boris folded and choose political expediency over the well-being of the Union.  

So, how do we fix it? Rebuilding trust is an arduous process, but it is essential if we are to overcome both the external and internal threats to the Union which are gathering momentum. Unionists need to feel their Government in London is on their side and don’t just view them as a drain on resources or a concession that can be handed to Brussels for the benefit of England. 

The creation of a Council for the Union, made up of unionist politicians, civic and community leaders across the Kingdom would be a positive first step. Such a forum, meeting regularly in every nation and region of the UK, would allow Unionists to identify shared concerns and specific problems in each of the four nations. The Minister for the Union could chair the forum. The establishment of an Office for the Union would give it the necessary support structures to operate effectively. 

If the Conservative party is serious about the Union they will act now to remove the barriers which they have erected between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and begin a programme of outreach to rebuild relationships before it’s too late. The clock is ticking. 

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Singapore-on-Thames: why is this a bad idea?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

Shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, I visited Singapore to meet-up with clients and colleagues in my role as Brexit policy manager for a large US-headquartered global financial services firm. I offered to deliver a briefing for the local team and was greeted with a response that was to become remarkably familiar as I visited other office locations in Indo-Pacific and the Americas. Incredulity is the best word to describe their viewpoint, which was driven by two factors: very slanted local media reporting and a lack of understanding about what the EU is (and wants to be).

I’m a typical Tory – meaning I’m a long-term Eurosceptic. We joined an economic community but were being increasingly drawn into a political superstate. I’m a free marketeer who wants global trade to flourish. A rising tide really does lift all boats! Where I’m less typical, I suppose, is that while I’m no fan of the Customs Union I am very much in favour of the Single Market.  

My experience of dealing with Brussels over many years of working on financial services regulation led me to believe the UK would be better off out the EU. When you see how the sausages are made you can’t help but think about becoming a vegetarian … Despite this, I was surprised by the result and very apprehensive about how the exit process would work. (It turned out to be worse than I thought, however that’s for another day.) 

Back to Singapore. Anticipating their puzzlement about why the UK had gone mad, I did some homework on the astonishing success of its economy. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 it was a very undeveloped country. Its population was estimated to be 50% illiterate, malaria was rife and its GDP per capita was only US$516. It has almost no natural resources – it must import water and sand from its near neighbours. So, going it alone was a very brave move indeed.  

However, by 2018 Singapore’s GDP per capita had reached US$87k – higher than the US. For comparison, Ghana – another former British colony – took its GDP per-head from US$974 in 1970 to a meagre US$2,200 in 2018. This is despite being richly endowed in natural resources: its colonial name was The Gold Coast! The decision by the UK to leave the EU was, by comparison, a more modest change. 

So, why do many people seem to think that using Singapore as a model is a bad idea? The concept appears to be that Singapore is a low-regulation country. This is a misconception. My experience, based on dealing with financial regulators, is that Singaporean regulators and policy-makers do not fit any sort of stereotype. They do not have any hesitation to do what is appropriate for their market and they have a very business-orientated approach.

A key part of any policy is that it should enable growth. Conversations with regulators very often revolve around what you are not allowed to do. In Singapore, it’s all about encouraging you to do more – and to do it in Singapore. This isn’t de-regulation. Singapore now has many advantages: low taxes, stable politics, a robust legal system and zero tolerance of corruption. And alongside these: a strong regulatory system is also a cornerstone; it attracts business. 

The phrase ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ appears to have been coined by the media with its origins in the fears and prejudices of politicians in the EU. The UK won’t become another Singapore, however that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from its success. I hope we do. 

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