England Cannot Be Trusted

Boris Johnson: The scale of venality in his government, indecency and corruption, to list it all seems redundant. Photo: Stefan Rousseau

The Northern Irish politician, Matthew O’Toole, a member of the Social and Democratic Labour Party, takes a jaundiced look at British morality and ethics as it prepares to meddle with the ‘Good Friday Agreement,’ and upset both the European Union and the USA. He is not impressed. “Britain cannot be trusted and this has deep implications for Irish Unity.”

Born in Belfast, O’Toole grew up in Downpatrick and read for an MA in International Relations and English at the University of St Andrews. Prior to serving as an MLA, O’Toole worked as a journalist, and as a civil servant at HM Treasury and in 10 Downing Street. At Downing Street, O’Toole worked on the 2016 EU referendum and its aftermath. On leaving the civil service, O’Toole wrote widely on Brexit, its impact on Northern Ireland, and British-Irish relations.


By Matthew O’Toole

I don’t know much metaphysics, but I know plenty of 1980s television. One of the more memorable sequences in Only Fools and Horses relates to the broom used by the slow-witted but likable street cleaner Trigger. He boasts to the Trotter brothers that he has used the same broom for 20 years, which just happens to have had over that time 17 new heads and 14 new handles. Trigger thus poses a philosophical question: how much does an object have to change before it can no longer be considered to be the same object?

This abstraction is relevant to the constitutional questions facing these islands. To what extent is the UK state which agreed to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, with all its attendant commitments and understandings, still in existence? And not just the Belfast Agreement. At around about the same time, devolution was secured for both Scotland and Wales and the core provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights were placed into domestic law via the Human Rights Act. Would the current British government agree to these things now? The unavoidable answer is no.

When considering new constitutional arrangements in Ireland, or in Scotland, the focus is usually on the desirability of change against an assumed UK status quo. What status quo? The UK constitution has changed at a bewildering speed, it is changing at bewildering speed. The changes have happened in spite of the concerns of those people in Northern Ireland and Scotland who will decide its future.

Before 2016, some in Northern Ireland who did not define themselves as either British or unionist had developed an acceptance, perhaps even ease, inside the UK. Despite the profoundly difficult history between Britain and Ireland, and dislike for partition itself, the UK state’s apparent willingness to embrace multilateralism and international legal obligations meant that fears of crude and unjust application of power from London lessened. Moderate nationalists and the constitutionally ambivalent might never have waved union flags on the Mall, but they were invited to trust that the state now understood and affirmed their rights.

Law breakers

This same group will ask searching questions about what a new Irish State will look like, including on health service provision and pensions. But they are also entitled to ask what further erosions of rights and norms they are expected to tolerate in the state in which they currently live.

In recent weeks, the British government has published a Bill with the explicit intention of breaking international law in relation to the protocol. And not just breaking it in “limited and specific” ways, as a previous Bill claimed to, but giving any “minister of the crown” the ability to unilaterally override international legal obligations. They have also published a Bill to repeal the aforementioned Human Rights Act, diluting the ECHR in UK domestic law – the original commitment to enshrine it having been provided for in the Belfast Agreement.

Leave aside the Irish dimension. These are radical changes to the UK constitution, specifically the citizen’s ability to secure basic rights via courts. With an uncodified constitution and political power boiling down to whatever commands a majority in parliament, such changes should be profoundly concerning to anyone resident in the UK, not just those in Northern Ireland with historic reasons to be sceptical about state power.

But the truth is that many are too exhausted by the sheer scale of venality in Boris Johnson’s government to properly register each new outrage. So vast is the indecency and corruption that to list it all seems redundant. It isn’t just the cruelty of the plan to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, or the blatant clientelism in the letting of Covid contracts, or the willingness of Tory MPs to demean themselves excusing Johnson’s charlatanry. All of these things are, in theory, political outrages that should be punishable and reversible. Perhaps they will be. But the last six years has proven the limits of UK political and constitutional protections, even against brazen corruption and law-breaking.

Last week’s byelection results offer a glimmer of hope that enough English voters are turning against Johnson and his enablers, but even a change of government will not change the new structural political incentives in favour of aggressive populism and norm-shattering that the Brexit age has ushered in.

Much previously rested on what the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy affably called the “good chap” theory of government. The idea that gauzy, unwritten codes of honour, implicitly linked to class expectations, guarantee standards among British elites was always a delusion. But even its proponents are now acknowledging that such “protections” are fragile to the point of invisibility.

Political disinhibition

The Brexit legacy in British politics isn’t simply the destabilisation of British-Irish relations, or the huge structural weakening of the UK economy, which is next year projected to grow the slowest out of all major economies except Russia. It is political disinhibition on a frightening scale. Crude populist statements are par for the course, but so too are provable lies, as when the witless Brexiteer attorney general Suella Braverman recently declared on TV that the Northern Ireland economy was “lagging behind the UK”. The precise opposite is true, but it didn’t matter to Braverman and she faced no consequence for her lying.

If she was a junior MP on the make it would be one thing; she is the senior law officer to the UK government. The senior UK minister responsible for the settlement in Northern Ireland is Brandon Lewis, a politician who will forever hold the ignominious record of standing up in parliament and admitting his government was preparing to break the law. This is the UK state in 2022.

Constitutional conversations have to involve hard questions for those of us who want change on this island. But no one can now assume a stable, trusty status quo underwritten by a UK government committed to basic norms.

I will advocate for a reconciled new Ireland, yet I once worked inside the UK state – and genuinely care about what happens there. But I am not the only one asking a question that could have been paraphrased from one that Loyd Grossman asked in another 1980s TV show: who’d live in a state like this?

NOTE: Matthew O’Toole is SDLP member of the Legislative Assembly, Belfast South constituency serving since 2020. This articles is republished with thanks to the Irish Times


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