It’s entirely coincidental that as the United Kingdom is finally leaving the European Union, I’m reading Boris Johnson’s “Friends, Voters, Countrymen: Jottings on the stump”, his retelling of a (successful) tilt at becoming the Member for the Henley-on-Thames constituency in Oxfordshire at the 1991 general election. I managed to get a copy for $1 on the last day of Brisbane’s legendary, twice-yearly Lifeline Bookfest. I wasn’t looking for it, and truth be told I forgot that Johnson even wrote it, but the book’s spine jumped at me from among weighty reference tomes and I couldn’t resist its siren call. BJ for a dollar is a steal.
Johnson remained a member for Henley for two terms, leaving in 2008 when elected as the Lord Mayor of London, again for two terms. As an MP, BoJo replaced the long-serving Michael Heseltine, one of the major Tory political figures of the 80s and the 90s, a former Thatcher minister and an arch-Europhile. Nineteen years is not just a long time in politics, it’s an eternity, so it’s interesting to compare Boris ’01 with Boris ’20 on, among others things, Europe. But first, we should acknowledge the man’s unexpected durability. Considering his mercurial and idiosyncratic character and the public persona, only a brave few at the start of the millennium would have predicted that Johnson would still be in politics two decades on, never mind at the very pinnacle of his career. “I have always thought I would be an MP,” writes Johnson early on in his book, but ambition is not enough. One could almost see a hand of some providential – or infernal, depending on your point of view – power that kept nudging Boris on through all the ups and downs of his political career, including through the lowest of the lows of his first unsuccessful challenge against Theresa May, followed soon after by the Prime Ministership, the landslide election victory, and delivering on the Brexit promise.
One who joked about it rather than predicted it was Hesletine himself who at a campaign event in October 2000 told the gathered, “I hope to live to a great old age, when I will be able to watch Boris, as Prime Minister, take Britain into to single European currency.”
The joke’s on (Lord) Heseltine, who is still alive (at 87) and who strenuously (as much as the age allowed) campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU. In January 2020, just over 19 years later, Britain not only has no Euro, it has no European Union either.
The original joke was on Johnson, who ran in 2001 with a reputation as a moderate Eurosceptic, having spent five years in Brussels, as “The Daily Telegraph”‘s EU correspondent, “sinking from a position of moderate idealism to one of fairly vinegarish scepticism”. But not too sceptical:
Of course we are part of Europe. That is an irrevocable geographical fact. The only way we could cease to be part of Europe would be tow the British Isles a thousand miles to the west and sink them in the Atlantic. And what is more, I go on to say, we are honoured, paid-up and fully participating members of the European Union. No one could conceivably expel us, nor would it be in the interests of our partners to do so. As for our own interests, these are still on balance served by maintaining our membership. This has brought palpable benefits to Britain in free trade and in bestowing on British citizens the rights of free movement and free establishment in the EU; and withdrawal would mean a potentially worrying loss of influence.
“But,” Johnson added in 2001, “there is a difference between reluctantly accepting the hard necessity of a minimal membership, and submitting to the final goal of the Euro-federalists.” Thus, even then, Boris opposed ditching the British pound in favour of the Euro, or expanding the anti-democratic powers of the Council of Ministers. This might have been a heresy to Europhiles but it also wasn’t nearly enough for the hardcore Eurosceptics; Johnson had to contend with a UKIP candidate standing against him.
So what changed in these intervening 18 years? One answer is “nothing”; Johnson has always had a reputation as a political opportunist, and if taking Britain out of the EU was going to provide him with a flag under which to rally the troops around him so be it, so the story goes.
Another, more charitable, answer is again “nothing”, but this time in a sense of the steady and seemingly unstoppable progression of the EU towards a leftie technocrat’s wet dream: an administrative superstate responsible for more and more things but accountable to fewer and fewer people, an increasingly woke and increasingly anti-American superpower-wannabe.
I remain ambivalent about the European Union – and Brexit – seeing both the noble ideals and the imperial overreach behind the project. Coincidentally, in Poland, the EU is now the most trusted public institution, a fraction ahead of the army, the police and NATO, but leaving the Catholic church, public media and the government in the dust. As Johnson noted, free trade and free movement of people have been perhaps the greatest achievements of the Union (or the earlier Community to be more exact), and if the EU were to exist as merely a free trade area it would be one of the great accomplishments in the 20th century political history. But to its creators and subsequent cheerleaders the European project was always about much more than that. As Johnson wrote in his book,
Michael Heseltine recently told the Spectator that Britain would one day be so seamlessly woven into the single European polity that the very name would be forgotten. Britain, he prophesised, would become as ossified a concept as Mercia or Wessex. In so far as Michael Hesltine believes this, his views are plainly barmy. It is hard to psychoanalyse this kind of Europhilia, but it has always struck me as having something to do with an irrational hostility to America. Sometimes – though I do not suggest this is Heseltine’s case – it is also linked to a cynical impatience with one’s own country.
If this is indeed a binary choice between a sovereign nation-state and a trans-national soup where people who hate their own countries and societies can float around on inflatable unicorns and flamingos of their newly invented, very enlightened identities, proud to be “Europeans” but actually ashamed of Europe’s contribution to the world, then yes, I’m with BoJo now. I don’t have time for the elites playing a real-life game of “Civilisation”, devising more and more sophisticated and remote political and administrative structures to transcend history, state and their own people. Europe is now Plato’s utopia of philosopher-kings who are in reality second-rate politicians and third-rate human beings. It could have been so much more by being so much less. That it is not is a loss, for everyone, whether they know it or not. And so Great Britain again charts its own way in uncertain waters, with the former member for Henley at the helm. It’s a melancholy time to be alive.