Douglas Alexander on the Future of the United Kingdom

Douglas Alexander on the Future of the United Kingdom

On January 29th, the British Parliament voted on a series of proposed amendments to change the course of Brexit negotiations. Most were voted down, but Members of Parliament (MPs) supported calls to reject the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, as well as the so-called Brady Amendment requesting ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Northern Ireland backstop. On January 30th, GJIA spoke with Douglas Alexander about the implications of these votes and the prospects for Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, as well as the consequences of Brexit on the United Kingdom, the Labour Party, and the UK’s relationship with the United States.

GJIA: Upon news of the Brady Amendment passing, Ian Blackford (leader of the SNP in Westminster) accused the government of ripping up the Good Friday Agreement. What do you think the consequences of the latest amendment votes are? Were they meaningful or do they leave the situation unchanged? 

DA: What we’ve seen at this stage is an attempt to unify the Conservative Party within Parliament at the expense of the agreement that was already reached by the UK government and the European Commission. Over the next couple of weeks, it will emerge as to whether members of the European Commission are open to altering the terms of the withdrawal agreement – which personally at this stage I doubt – or alternatively whether the fragile consensus that emerged amongst Conservative MPs in January can withstand a rejection from the European Commission. So, while there is agreement within the Conservative Party, what really matters, and this will be decided over the next couple of weeks, is whether there is agreement between the British Parliament and the European authority on a way forward. In the wake of a critical vote this question remains unanswered.

Ireland’s European Minister Helen McEntee has pointed to a need for ‘realism’ in the UK’s approach to Brexit negotiations, suggesting that British hopes of renegotiating the terms of the withdrawal agreement are faced with a brick wall of EU intransigence. How likely is it that the EU will renegotiate the terms of the agreement considering there is already a deal on the table that they are happy with?

I think the European Union has been clear and categoric in recent weeks that they do not regard the withdrawal agreement as up for renegotiation, and of course the backstop forms part of that withdrawal agreement. I think that in terms of the conversation the Prime Minister is due to have with the European Commission and the European Council in the coming days, it will be more focused on whether there are additional undertakings, instruments, or guarantees that can be given by the European Commission to match the concerns that were expressed by Conservative and DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) MPs during the votes and the answer to that question remains unknown. One possible way forward may be what came to be known as an ‘interpretive instrument’ that was developed when the Canadian Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement was ratified not simply by national parliaments but by regional parliaments in Belgium, where the European Commission devised a legal document that was judged to have persuasive effect before the European Court of Justice. Maybe in the coming days we will see the re-emergence of an interpretive instrument as being the chosen means by which the European Commission tries to answer the questions that the British Parliament asked of them in late January.

A lot of the disagreement going on is coming from a place of fear that Brexit must go ahead but will irreparably damage the [British] Union in some way. We’ve seen that most noticeably with the Irish border, but there has also been talk of how Brexit might affect Scotland, given a majority of the Scottish population voted to Remain. Do you think Brexit will have any effect on the Union?

Well of course both in Northern Ireland and here in Scotland there was majority support for Remaining in a poll which across the UK resulted in 52% voting to Leave the European Union. I think it’s important to recognize the very distinctive position of Northern Ireland and the very distinctive history of Northern Ireland when discussing the impact of Brexit more generally. All of us in the United Kingdom should be mindful of how hard won is the peace embodied in the Good Friday Agreement. I think most people even with a passing familiarity of the politics of Scotland and Northern Ireland recognize that Northern Ireland is a very distinctive case. In that sense, of course it is important that nothing is agreed in the coming weeks – and I don’t believe it will be – that would call into question or imperil the commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, which has been the cornerstone of peace and growing prosperity in Northern Ireland over the last couple of decades.

In relation to Scotland, the expectation in the minds of the SNP (Scottish National Party) was that support for Britain leaving the EU would be the catalyst that would spark support for independence above 50%. And yet there hasn’t been a single opinion poll since the referendum in 2014, or indeed since the European Referendum in 2016, which has shown that a majority of Scots support leaving the UK. Indeed, when Nicola Sturgeon (the nationalist First Minister of Scotland) mooted a Second Referendum on independence in the months following the Brexit vote in June 2016, she lost a third of her seats in the House of Commons. So, if you like, the case of independence has been the dog that hasn’t barked in the Brexit debate in Scotland today. 

Why do I believe that is the case? Because I think for many of us as Scots the answer to division, grievance, and new borders is not more division, more grievance, and more new borders. People have looked at the difficulties and the complexities of the UK trying to leave a 40-year old Union and contemplated quite the challenges that would be involved in Scotland trying to leave a 300-year old union. The difficulty that the nationalists in Scotland have is trying to simultaneously argue that it is a disaster for Scotland to leave the European single market but that it is somehow sensible to leave the British single market. Those two markets matter to Scotland, but Scotland sells three times as many goods and services to the British single market as we export to the European single market. So, whether it is the political complexity or the economic underpinnings, the case for independence has not convinced the majority of Scots even in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016.

You were a front-bench Labour Party politician for a long time. What do you think Brexit has done for the credibility of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party at large?

In the general election that followed the Brexit Referendum, Labour made significant advances against the Conservative Party, and it’s worth recollecting that Labour started that general election 20 points behind in the opinion polls and ended up just 2 points behind the Conservatives on polling day in 2017. Jeremy Corbyn feels confident that the Conservative Party is on their way down and that Labour is on its way up. That being said, there are many who have in the past supported Labour who would be keen for Labour to have been more forthright in its defense of and support for Britain’s membership of the European Union. That’s why these coming days are going to be important not just, and most fundamentally, for Britain’s relationship with Europe and the USA but also for how British politics shakes out in the aftermath of the decisions that are reached in the days ahead. 

You now work part-time in the US. Do you think Brexit heralds any exciting future for the special relationship?

I think that there were a number of Brexit supporters who believed that Britain outside the EU would stand taller in Washington or in Moscow or indeed in Beijing if Britain left the European Union. To my mind, that is a post-imperial fantasy. Actually, for more than 50years, American foreign policy has defined America’s national interests as including a strong, whole, and democratic Europe working effectively as part of an international architecture including the United States. In that sense, on my visits to the United States I’m often struck by how incredulous American commentators and observers are by the choice the United Kingdom has made. At a time at which America itself under the current President seems to be stepping back from the multilateral system, I personally think it is a matter of great regret that the United Kingdom appears to be doing the same in relation to its relationship with Europe. I ultimately believe the 21stcentury is a time in which our fates, fortunes, and futures are bound together and that we need to find effective international mechanisms by which countries can cooperate on shared challenges and indeed even on shared opportunities.

There have been rumours of you considering a return to frontline politics. Is that the case or are you enjoying what you’re doing right now?

I’m really enjoying what I’m doing at the moment. I suppose the honest answer is never say never, but right now I’m very focused on the work that I’m doing, whether that’s with my colleagues at the Belfer Center in the Kennedy School at Harvard, whether that’s chairing UNICEF here in the United Kingdom, or the other work that I’m taking forward. But I’ve always valued and continue to value public service and have a great admiration for people who are not willing just to commentate but are actually willing to step into the arena.

 This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas Alexander served at the highest levels of British politics for many years as a Scottish Labour Party politician. He was acting Shadow Foreign Secretary from 2011-2015. Prior to that he held a number of roles in Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Cabinets, including Secretary of State for International Development, Secretary of State for Scotland, and Minister for Europe. He also served as the UK’s governor to the World Bank. Currently, he is the UK chair of UNICEF, a Senior Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London. Douglas Alexander holds an MA Hons in History and Politics, LLB and DipLP from the University of Edinburgh.