When Brexit Secretary David Davis sat down with EU negotiator Michel Barnier last month for a round of talks he was criticised by some in the media for having a completely empty desk while his opposite number came prepared with piles of documents.
Perhaps Davis is modelling his draft Brexit agreement on some of the concise conventions and treaties from Britain’s imperial past.
Take for example the Kowloon Extension Agreement of 1898 in which Britain obtained possession of Hong Kong’s New Territories for a period of 99 years.
This masterpiece of brevity filled just one side of A4 paper and was probably knocked up by MacDonald (the British signatory) and his private secretary one evening over a couple of gins in the Hong Kong Club.
Of course it helped that it was prepared at a time when Britain was strong and the Chinese side was in a weak negotiating position, leading the Communists to later describe it as an ‘unequal treaty’ when they took over China in 1949. But the amazing thing is that this treaty remained in force and was honoured by both sides for 99 years exactly, until Hong Kong was handed back to China on 1st July 1997.* This despite major wars and changes of regime in China.
It is doubtful that any agreement Messrs Davis and Barnier draw up will last for 99 years. It certainly won’t fit on one side of A4.
* Although the treaty was honoured, its ambiguous wording did lead to some problems in implementation, particularly with regard to Kowloon Walled City. You can read a fascinating account of Kowloon Walled City here.