On September 20th, 1988, nine Irish students at the College of Europe took their places in Bruges town hall. We were waiting for Margaret Thatcher to give the opening address for our coming academic year.
What West Point is to the US military, the College of Europe is to the EU institutions. It is the academic entry point for the European Commission, European Court of Justice, European Central Bank and the various other orbital institutions that make up the European project. Security was tight. The IRA were active on the continent. In August, the IRA had killed three British soldiers in the Netherlands. A few months previously we had the Gibraltar killings. Tensions were high. As was normal at the time, the Irish students, all of us only 21, were singled out for special but not particularly invasive checks.
As Mrs Thatcher got up to speak, dressed – not accidentally – in the bright blue of the European flag, few people expected that she would use this opportunity to so completely set out the British position with respect to relations with the European Union. That afternoon, the flame for Brexit was lit. That speech signalled the beginning of a 30-year civil war within the Conservative Party over Europe, an internecine struggle that ironically took as its first major casualty the head of Mrs Thatcher herself less than four years later. How Roman.
Listening to the speech again, it is surprising how moderate it actually was. Thatcher outlined that national differences, culture, language and varying stages of economic development rendered moves towards a United States of Europe little more than a federalist dream. This still seems sensible. She spoke of common values, economic and financial ties, shared history and all the good stuff that gelled the EU together and to Britain. There was no mention of the UK ever leaving the EU, Brexit or any real collision between London and Brussels. She simply made the point that hyperintegration was not on the cards and not in the UK’s or the EU’s interest.
When listened to from the vantage point of today it all seems pretty mild stuff. But the speech did one thing: it signalled that the UK prime minister was listening to the anti-EU faction of the Tory party. As a result, it gave permission for the English nationalist wing of the Tory party to become more brazen and vituperative. Having lived in the UK in the 1990s, I saw this strain engulf John Major and enmesh the Tories in schism after schism as the broad Conservative church splintered into competing anti-EU sects, each with its own fundamentalist catechism. In the end the jihadis won, and the question now is whether Brexit jihadism will deliver their nihilistic caliphate under Boris Johnson’s rallying banner of “F**k business”?
This what a hard Brexit means. It means “F**k business”.
“F**k business” had a nice ring to it, don’t you think? It’s definitive like “MAGA”. To come out of the mouth of a senior Conservative, not an ageing Corbynista with an adolescent Che Guevara complex, is quite something. It reveals what the Tory civil war has delivered: a narrow-gauge, sovereignty-obsessed cabal that is prepared to do anything, to sacrifice any business and any manufacturing plant on the altar of ideological purity.
And this madness is Ireland’s opportunity.
Ireland’s economic pitch
What else was going on when the Tories were driving Britain towards a cliff edge? In the 30 years since the Bruges speech, as Britain was becoming more intolerant, obsessive and relatively poorer, Ireland was becoming more tolerant, flexible and relatively much richer. The Irish economy grew at multiples of the UK economy, leaving it miles behind us on almost every economic and social metric. We are open to economics, trade, commerce and talent and have become a thoroughly modern place to live and do business.
In 1988, we were unambiguously among the poorest places in the EU; today six of the EU’s poorest regions are in the UK, while most of Ireland has powered up to the top 10 of the EU’s wealthiest regions.
If Britain chooses the “F**k business” route, guided either by the jihadi right or the Guevara left, so be it. The commercial opportunity presented to a mercantile Ireland by an atavistic England is incalculable in terms of capital, talent and prosperity. Both “F**k business” and Corbyn’s “nationalise-the-nice-bits” objectives are acts of reckless aggression against commerce.
In either outcome, Ireland looks like a beacon of common sense for capital and talent. Capital is like water: it flows via the path of least resistance. In a globalised world, the UK and Ireland are seen as substitutes not compliments. If the British decide on acts of aggression against international capital, all we have to do is wait. Don’t panic and allow them to hang themselves. Ultimately, as it’s a foreign jurisdiction anyway, there’s nothing we can do. We can only sit back and watch the capital flow in – and that is what is likely to happen.
We need to sort out our own housing mess, but it is in our gift to do so. However, the gift of Brexit could be one that just keeps giving. It is unfashionable to say so, but economically Brexit will be a huge positive for us both in terms of the long-term innovative structure of the economy and as regards Ireland as a global brand. In a world of capitalism with less hard capital, brand is more important than brawn. My hunch is that ultimately a deal will be cobbled together between the EU and the UK, but the long term damage to British commerce will be unquantifiable as the sensible middle ground is constantly harangued by the reckless right and the reckless left.
On that September afternoon, Mrs Thatcher opened her speech by thanking the local Bruges emergency services for saving hundreds of British citizens from the tragic sinking of the British ferry in Zeebrugge the year before. The name of that ship was the Herald of Free Enterprise.
Economically, the real story is how the UK went from the herald of free enterprise to “F**k business” in one generation.