Britain faced two encroachments on two of its historic territories last week. One of those territories is still very much with us, part of our United Kingdom in fact, though often you wouldn’t know it. Northern Irish Unionists faced the betrayal they have feared most since the Brexit result, the prospect of an effective customs border between their part of the UK and the rest.
The other is a part of the Empire on which the sun now sets, yet one we are legally and morally committed to speaking up for. The Sino-British Joint Declaration over Hong Kong outlines that the UK has the right to act if the Chinese side of the agreement is not upheld. If Beijing tore up the agreement in principle in 2017, they did so in fact on Friday with the announcement of an unprecedented ‘security law’ planned for the city.
If the provinces in question are wildly different, so are the powers impinging on them. In the former case, it’s the EU, inefficient, divided where once assumed united and still adjusting to a newly recalcitrant British government, but nonetheless determined to wrench concessions. In the latter, the People’s Republic of China, perhaps humbled a tad by the global health and economic crisis of their making, but ascendant, massive, and with any internal divisions quashed by iron fists. And of course, it is just such iron fists that will be harshly enforcing this latest, greatest assault on Hongkongers’ liberty. Conversely, the offence to Ulstermen is largely a symbolic one, albeit stoking legitimate concerns that it will cause friction in crucial NI-GB trade links.
Sadly, the only common factor in the two cases seems to be a lack of British will to defend them. A letter and a junior minister sent to Stormont both confirmed that physical customs posts will be in place at three key ports (probably Belfast, Warrenpoint and Larne) and a Cabinet spokesman told the Express that “We have always been clear that there will be requirements for live animals and agri-food.” This contradicted bluff claims from Boris directly to Northern Irish exporters in November that there would be no checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that weren’t destined for the Republic.
Boris’ choice of Foreign Secretary has been a general disappointment where China is concerned, declining to take up the surprisingly fervid flame carried by Jeremy Hunt, nor living up to humanitarian hopes vested in the fact of his Jewish refugee ancestry. The response to the CCP’s proposed outrage — a joint “deeply concerned” in wise conjunction with his Canadian and Australian counterparts (where’s NZ?) — is an improvement but clearly nowhere near sufficient.
One might fairly argue that what would be sufficient is simply not possible, considering the might of China. And considering the forest of Gordian knots that Alexander the Pfeffel has already chopped through, compromise on the Northern Irish border question was inevitable. And they’d be right.
What’s more sobering is how little of these matters cut through to the average Briton. Despite a good two decades placed between now and the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is still viewed as the enfant terrible of the British quartet. “I forget they’re part of this country”, I remember my mother saying of the Province, as the DUP emerged into mainstream British politics in 2017, being treated like visitors from 1617. And after another election in 2019, in the room provided for the Conservative and Unionist Party at Ealing Council, I witnessed the mood shift from purring satisfaction over England, to muted consternation over Scotland to chattering indifference over Northern Ireland. This year YouGov spelled out the grim reality at large: 53% of Conservative voters claimed not to care whether Northern Ireland left the Union, and 54% of the population at large.
Regarding Hong Kong the picture seems to be more of a “spirit willing, flesh weak” picture. Statistical evidence is harder to come by, but going by the wholly unscientific data offered by social media responses, there is broad sympathy for the Hongkongers’ plight as well as a general sense we are letting them down.
To again take right-leaning opinion as an analogue, the (heavily salted) rumour that №10 is considering doing the one thing it can do for the Hongkongers — upgrading the BN(O) passport to full citizenship — garnered 68 likes, 43 loves and just 11 angery reacts on the conservative/populist Facebook group ‘The Patriot’s Lounge’. It’s reasonable to extrapolate from that that in wider British public opinion, the historic ties to Hong Kong and a humanitarian (and likely economic) opportunity for the UK would trump nativist concerns about identity and borders.
But the past weekend has been another instructive lesson in how swiftly local conflicts eclipse apparently distant ones. If British opinion has any relevance left at all in the battle for Hong Kong, the news that a special advisor to the government drove from London to Durham at the end of March could not have emerged at a worse time.
In 2007, Nick Cohen wrote of “the parochialism of small minds who can’t get beyond their hatred of injustice at home”; it’s a human default to prioritise hatred for opponents we are exposed to all the time, rather than those committing evils in a faraway country of which we know nothing. And so chances to overcome relatively minor differences and unite in the face of what truly appals us all are regularly missed.
And I’m not saying I’m innocent. Though I spent Saturday in frustration and dismay that Cummingsgate was thrashing Hong Kong in the battle for tweets and airtime, on Sunday I began retweeting, and by 16:00 on Bank Holiday Monday I was waiting slaveringly by the TV for the climax of Monty Cummings’ Driving Circus to begin.
The question is how to build — or rebuild — that sense of commonality as a nation, across left and right, Leave and Remain, and the four countries of our Union? A start might be to invite people to appreciate what we have, and how they might feel should we lose it. If more were aware that the third cross in our world-beating flag represents Ireland, or about the four beautiful mosaics in the Palace of Westminster depicting Sts Patrick, George, Andrew and David, they might pause to think of what we are in danger of throwing away. I’ve seen it in real time: those fellow Tories I mentioned ignoring Northern Ireland in the small hours of 13th December? I wasn’t entirely fair: the revelation that hitherto Unionist stronghold North Belfast had opted for Sinn Fein’s Urinator-General made them sit up and listen alright. If Mr Finucane can piss on the streets of his city and get away with it, conjure the image of him pissing on what’s left of our Union flag and see if that focuses a few minds.
As for Hong Kong, if Capitol Hill, despite America’s severer polarisation and lack of shared history with the region, can unite as it did over the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, it can easily unite the House of Commons together, and perhaps the country. But we will need to believe it. Self-fulfilling prophecy is ever at play here.
Anyone who doubts the will exists might be surprised to learn there is an international parliamentary statement of condemnation, led by Lord Patten and the Westminster bubble’s very own Hong Kong Watch. If your MP hasn’t signed, I urge you to ask them to do so, whatever their party or views on the EU. It’s time to recall that there are bigger matters at stake, and act like it.