As Theresa May went from crushing defeat on Tuesday to narrow victory on Wednesday, I’m sure I was not the only one reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Despite having had both his arms chopped off by King Arthur (Graham Chapman), the Black Knight (John Cleese) refuses to yield:
Arthur: Look, you stupid bastard. You’ve got no arms left.
Black Knight: Just a flesh wound!
The Pythons were never very good at ending their sketches, and so it is with Brexit. What was supposed to be a “meaningful vote” last week turned out to be entirely meaningless. The prime minister’s withdrawal agreement was thrown out by 432 votes to 202. Yet, little more than 24 hours later, there she was, having survived a vote of no confidence by 19 votes. Just a flesh wound. The danger exists that Brexit is not after all an attainable end state, but an interminable Monty Python sketch.
For many of those who opposed Brexit, the easy option is to blame this mess on Mrs May’s predecessor. “David Cameron gambled the future of the country on a simple referendum,” grumbled The Economist in an article entitled “The elite that failed” (written, no doubt, by one of Cameron’s Oxford contemporaries). But the real sin Cameron committed was not the referendum, a legitimate political expedient with numerous precedents; it was agreeing to the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (FTPA).
This was one of the few things the Liberal Democrats were able to secure by going into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 election. “By setting the date that parliament will dissolve,” the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, explained, “our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election.”
Actually, no. What the FTPA did was to end the custom whereby the monarch nearly always dissolved a parliament — in modern times on the advice of the prime minister — before its time was up. True, this was a power that some prime ministers sought to use to their own advantage by picking the moment most likely to give their party victory, but — as Theresa May proved in 2017 — the FTPA did not end that practice.
What the act really did, it turns out, was to destroy one of the old unwritten rules of British parliamentary life: that when a government suffered a heavy defeat, the prime minister resigned.
Under the old rules a prime minister could be forced to resign or call an election through a no-confidence vote or the defeat of a supply (public spending) bill. In practice, losing a vote on a key piece of legislation was considered sufficient reason to give up the seals of office.
Having split his party over the Corn Laws in 1846, Sir Robert Peel resigned after his Irish Coercion Bill was defeated in the Commons. Six years later Lord John Russell was brought down when his arch-rival Lord Palmerston got a majority of MPs to vote in favour of an amendment to a militia bill. Fast-forward to 1858 and Palmerston himself felt obliged to resign after his Conspiracy to Murder Bill was defeated on its second reading.
Like Peel before him, Gladstone was forced to resign in June 1885 after a defeat on an Irish issue. He was back as prime minister the following February, only to seek a dissolution when his Irish home rule bill was defeated on its second reading.
We think of the typical modern prime minister as leaving office only when defeated in a general election. But there are numerous exceptions. No fewer than four — Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson — stepped down on grounds of ill health (or illness gave them a way out of political difficulties). Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown, despite being fit as a fiddle, because his poll numbers were crumbling over the Iraq War.
Four premiers resigned like Victorians, however. Indeed, two quit even after winning key votes because their margins of victory made them seem moral defeats. Neville Chamberlain resigned in May 1940, despite having won the division on the disastrous Norway Campaign.
During her 11 years as leader, Margaret Thatcher suffered only four defeats in the House of Commons, all minor. Her downfall came in 1990 despite her victory over Michael Heseltine in the first round of a Tory leadership contest. Ramsay MacDonald went in 1924 after a huge Commons defeat over a Communist newspaper. Finally, Cameron felt obliged to resign after losing the Brexit referendum.
Compare and contrast with Theresa May, who has suffered no fewer than 27 Commons defeats, 10 of them in connection with Brexit, her raison d’être as prime minister. In no previous era of British politics could a prime minister have survived a defeat as large as last Tuesday’s. The proximate reasons she is still in office are, first, that the hard Brexiteers lacked the votes to oust her as Tory leader and, second, that they and their Democratic Unionist Party partners dread seeing Jeremy Corbyn in No 10. But the root cause is that the FTPA has created a seductive presupposition that the next election should not be until 2022.
Kicking the can down the road is the default setting of modern politics, and the FTPA encourages it. But any time you buy for yourself is equally available to your opponents.
Consider two scenarios. In the “Victorian” scenario Mrs May would have resigned last week. Unable to win a confidence vote, Jeremy Corbyn would now be trying to cobble together a minority government. This would immediately reveal that Labour is as divided over Brexit as the Tories are. Any government he formed would be even weaker than May’s. If he somehow secured an election, he might win it, but only narrowly.
Now here’s the post-FTPA scenario. May continues as the Black Knight — in office, but not in possession of her limbs. Remainer MPs now aim to soften her withdrawal agreement, perhaps inserting full UK membership of the European customs union, perhaps punting Brexit back to the electorate for another referendum. Either way, the split within the Conservative Party grows wider. In the case of a second referendum won by “remain”, a substantial proportion of voters would defect to Ukip.
Eventually, 2022 would come around. But by now Labour would be up against a divided right and would have its best chance of winning an outright majority since 2005.
This is Black Knight politics. And it risks turning Brexit into a true holy grail. Just remember (as is revealed to Monty Python’s King Arthur), the grail is only to be found in “the Castle of Auuggggggh”. If that’s the sound Tories want to make in 2022, they should stick with Theresa May. But they should prepare for much, much more than a flesh wound.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
As so often, South Park saw it coming. In “The Last of the Meheecans”— which first aired in October 2011 — the obnoxious Cartman joins the US Border Patrol, only to find himself facing the wrong way as hordes of disillusioned Mexican workers seek to flee the economically depressed United States back to Mexico.
Undaunted, Cartman makes it his business to stop them leaving. After all, without Mexican labour the American economy would grind to a halt.
Very often the Trump presidency feels as if it’s being written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the comic geniuses who created South Park more than 20 years ago. In this week’s real-life episode, Trump/Cartman shuts down the federal government in retaliation for the refusal by the Democratic Party’s leaders to approve the border wall he campaigned for in 2016.
In a preposterously solemn TV address from the Oval Office, Trumpman refers to the situation on the southern border as “a humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul”. Hilarity ensues as Kyle (Chuck Schumer) and Butters (Nancy Pelosi) deliver their response crammed together behind a single lectern, in an unintended homage to Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic.
The result is that the government employees responsible for controlling the vastly larger flow of people into America through airports don’t get paid. Desperate to end the shutdown, for which he is being blamed, Trumpman declares a national emergency under laws that allow redirection of Department of Defence construction funds, provided it’s for military defence.
Trumpman’s attempt to use DoD money to build his wall is challenged and defeated in the courts, but he goes ahead anyway, only to run into a shortage of construction workers. The episode ends with the arrival of the “caravan” of Central American asylum-seekers (last seen in the November mid-terms episode), who gratefully accept jobs to build Trumpman’s wall.
Few if any commentators have had positive things to say about this episode of South Lawn (yes, that’s the area behind the White House where Marine One, the presidential helicopter, takes off and lands).
Writing in New York magazine, my old friend Andrew Sullivan went full Weimar Republic. If Trump does declare a national emergency, he warned, the president will have “gone over the line in erasing democratic and constitutional restraints on his personal power”.
Steven Rattner (best known for his work as President Obama’s “car czar” during the financial crisis) offered a few killer facts. First, as per South Park, the number of Mexicans seeking to cross the border illegally has plunged 92% since 2000. The majority of people now apprehended at the border are from dysfunctional Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and most are families or unaccompanied children.
Sure. But does that make Nancy Pelosi right to call extending the existing barriers along the US–Mexican border an “immorality”? Should we agree with the newly elected congresswoman and social media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “systematically violated human rights” on the border, whereas people trying to cross the border are “acting more in an American tradition than this president is right now”?
Implicitly — and at times explicitly — the American left is arguing for open borders. You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to regard this as folly. The historian Charles S Maier, a former colleague of mine at Harvard, is the personification of the old, decent, cerebral liberalism of the northeastern seaboard. But, as he argues in his outstanding book Once within Borders, “Borders are more than just barriers; for some they guarantee community and belonging.
“All our customary homelands,” he writes, “seem assailed by global trends that transgress once reassuring borders and spatial stability — by threats of terrorist attacks, uprooted refugees, tidal flows of international capital, the scary spread of new diseases, and the threat of climate change oblivious to frontiers. Peoples who have long enjoyed territorial security no longer feel sheltered.” In such a world, there is much to be said for the view of the poet Robert Frost’s farmer next door that “good fences make good neighbours”.
As Maier shows, since ancient times walls have principally served to keep citizens or subjects safe by excluding all kinds of invader. The Great Wall of China was a Ming dynasty reconstruction of a crumbling barrier erected 2,000 years earlier; the difficulty of protecting the Middle Kingdom from nomadic raiders was perennial.
Go to Jerusalem and you see the walls erected around the Old City by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan. But they stood atop defences built by King Solomon about 2,500 years earlier. The zenith of the fortified wall came in the 17th century, when Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban served as Louis XIV’s master wall-builder.
Jail walls aside, walls to keep people in, rather than out, have been less common. They came to the fore in the Cold War, when totalitarian regimes from Berlin to Pyongyang were forced to fence in their populations to prevent them from voting with their feet. Those sections of the Iron Curtain were what gave walls such a bad name in our time. It was not only Ronald Reagan who condemned them. Western leaders from Churchill to the present Pope have repeatedly inveighed against political barriers. And let’s not forget Pink Floyd.
Yet the notion of a world sans frontières was always hopelessly naive. It was easy to be against walls when they were imprisoning East Germans and North Koreans. It is a lot harder when the world’s most objectionable regimes make almost no effort to contain their citizens behind borders.
All over the world, people are on the move from messed-up countries — and there is remarkably little to stop them. According to a Gallup survey in 2017, more than 700m adults around the world would like to move permanently to another country. Of that vast number, more than a fifth (21%) say their first choice would be to move to the US. The proportion who name an EU country as their dream destination is higher: 23%.
Yet recent polling by the Pew Research Centre points to an equal and opposite resistance to mass migration by the people in potential destination countries. Across 27 states, 45% of those surveyed said fewer or no immigrants should be allowed in, while 36% said they wanted about the same number of immigrants. Only 14% said their countries should take in more. In America the proportion wanting more was 24% — only Spaniards are more welcoming — but that’s still less than a quarter. For the UK, the proportion wanting more immigrants is just 16%; for Germany 10%; for Italy 5%.
Cartman rarely has the last laugh in South Park. But the denouement may be different in South Lawn. If the choice is between open borders and defensive walls, history suggests walls — and those who build them — will win.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
One highlight of 2018 was the story of the Dutchman who wanted an age change. Born on March 11, 1949, Emile Ratelband was perfectly content with that day and month. It was just the year he proposed to alter — from 1949 to 1969. “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender,” Ratelband argued. “Why can’t I decide my own age?” He was even willing to give up his pension if the Dutch courts would recognise his desire to identify as a middle-aged man, rather than an old one. Of course, being Dutch, the judge said no.
If only Ratelband had been born in the United States, he would surely have had more luck. For most of her academic career, Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed to be of Native American origin. Had she not made the mistake of taking a DNA test, she might one day have been hailed as the first Cherokee president.
From December 1987 until August 2013, Bradley Manning was a male American. The day after Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage, however, his lawyer announced that his client was in fact female. My mentioning that for 25 years Manning was a bloke called Brad will doubtless lead transgender activists to accuse me of “deadnaming”.
Last week it was reported that Brighton and Hove city council had issued new guidance to teachers advising that “menstruation must be inclusive of all genders” because “trans boys and men and non-binary people may have periods”. If we are to believe that menstruation is now a matter of personal choice, then why not age, too?
It is only as I reflect on this and other absurdities that I realise what is really going on. It is not just Emile Ratelband who wishes to turn the clock back. The whole world appears to want to go back in time.
The year 2018 will be remembered for our collective attempt to make believe that it is, in fact, 1973. In the United States the administration of Donald J Trump took several significant steps towards re-enacting the Watergate scandal. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, has so far indicted or secured guilty pleas from more than 30 people, including four of the president’s advisers and his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
By losing control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party opened the path to the president’s impeachment, although the Democrats will start the ball rolling with congressional investigations. The resignation of the defence secretary, Jim Mattis, last week was just the latest flashback. In the course of 1973 Nixon got through four defence secretaries.
Meanwhile, the government of Theresa May approached the conclusion of its near three-year mission to return the United Kingdom to 1973 — the year Britain lapsed from its historic greatness by joining the European Economic Community. By rejecting the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May, proponents of a “no-deal” Brexit hope to restore per capita income to its level in that year.
In China, President Xi Jinping continued his effort to return the government of the people’s republic to its pristine state of 45 years ago, when Chairman Mao Zedong ruled as a red emperor unconstrained by term limits, the rule of law or economic rationality.
His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, faces a bigger challenge, as the Communist Party to which he once belonged was dissolved in 1991. Nevertheless, by recklessly violating the sovereignty of neighbouring Ukraine and by brazenly interfering in the presidential election in the United States, President Putin has managed to get such severe sanctions imposed on his country that he may yet return Russian living standards to their 1973 level. The recent slump in the price of oil will help.
All over the world, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Saudi Arabia, political leaders are engaged in time travel. It is like a global race to see who can be as odiously corrupt as the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, generally recognised as the worst kleptocrat of the 1970s, or as barbarically cruel as Idi Amin of Uganda.
Of course, not everything in the Great Rewind is as easy as this. The 1970s were a time of rapidly rising inflation. The past 10 years have seen the developed world teeter on the brink of deflation. Even with the unemployment rate at its lowest level for 45 years, US consumer price inflation is still a meagre 2.2%. But Venezuela’s repulsive Chavista regime — for so long the toast of champagne socialists from Mayfair to Malibu— has pulled it off: according to the International Monetary Fund, inflation there will exceed 1,000,000% this year.
The biggest challenge, however, has been cultural. Just a year or two ago it would have seemed impossible to return mankind to the customs of the early 1970s. Over 45 years, real social progress had been made in so many ways. Women had been liberated. Men had realised how absurd they looked with long hair and beards. Disco music had largely been obliterated. Smoking had ceased to be tolerated. And the internet — no more than a twinkle in the eyes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1973 — had transformed the world by giving a majority of humanity access to all knowledge ever.
Yet our genius as a species was equal to the challenge. By 2018 the internet had become a toxic wasteland dominated by a handful of monopoly companies indiscriminately selling advertising and a horde of purveyors of clickbait. Smoking had been successfully reinvented as vaping. Music even worse than disco had been devised. (It’s true. I have listened to God’s Plan by Drake, the year’s bestselling track and a wholly mind-numbing dirge.)
My friends, it’s 1973. Manchester United have sacked their manager. Liverpool are going to win the Premier League. Their star striker, Mohamed Salah, has hair that Kevin Keegan must wish he still had.
Yet the greatest accolade goes to the #MeToo movement, which has successfully made working with women so dangerous for male executives that — according to Bloomberg — the new Wall Street rule is: “Avoid women at all cost . . . No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.” According to one wealth adviser, hiring a woman is “an unknown risk”. Now that’s what I call turning back the clock.
It’s true that I don’t feel as if I’m nine years old, any more than Emile Ratelband would have felt 20 years younger if the Dutch courts had upheld his age change. But I don’t care. It’s 1973 again, in my mind if not my body. And so I’m leaving it to Noddy Holder of Slade to say — as he did for the first time in that happy old year — Merry Xmas Everybody.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
You really know your political career is in trouble when people start comparing you to Gollum. Poor Theresa May was on the wrong end of some Tolkien-inspired satire last week, when the actor Andy Serkis released a spoof video with the title “LEAKED: Footage from Inside No 10 Downing Street!” Serkis, who played Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, had the inspired idea of combining the characters of the prime minister and Tolkien’s cadaverous, covetous, conflicted villain.
“Our precious, our agreement, our deal,” hisses Mayllum to herself. “Yes, yes, we takes back control, borders, laws, blue passportses . . .”
Just as in The Hobbit, the novel that introduced Gollum to the world, Mayllum has a split personality. Part of her craves the draft withdrawal agreement as obsessively as Gollum craves the magical golden ring. But part of her — the remnant of the person who 2½ years ago half-heartedly campaigned to keep Britain in the EU — resists.
“No!” she moans. “It hurts the people, makes them poorer . . .” Yet the allure of the agreement is as irresistible as the allure of the ring. “But I finds it,” she hisses back at herself. “I negotiates it, we wants it, we has to do it.”
Serkis’s spoof struck a chord in our household not because we are diehard remainers (as all actors appear to be). Brexit has divided our family in unexpected ways. My wife is a committed leaver; a majority of the children are, like most of their generation, remainers.
Having campaigned against Brexit and lost, I came to terms with the referendum result, but I confess to having my own Gollum-like moments of inner struggle, which is probably why the Serkis video didn’t make me laugh.
The funny thing is that our family is equally divided over Tolkien. As a boy, I read and re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My daughter is just as addicted to the films. My third son is a fellow hobbit. At the tender age of two, he responded with complete fascination when I first read him The Hobbit. Now six, he is immersed (as am I) in the spellbinding audio version recorded in the 1990s by the Australian-born actor Rob Inglis.
The scientists in the family remain baffled by our Tolkien mania. My mother and my sister — both physicists — have long regarded any book containing either elves or dwarfs as unfit for consumption by rational beings. They have been mocking me on this subject for close to half a century.
They and their ilk, however, are losing the argument. Leaving aside the great monotheistic scriptures, the Bible and the Koran, The Lord of the Rings is the most popular book in the history of publishing, having sold more than 150m copies since its publication in 1954.
Its influence is ubiquitous from Oxford, where JRR Tolkien spent most of his life, to Silicon Valley, which is full of Tolkien enthusiasts. The tech investor Peter Thiel named one of his funds after mithril, a fictional metal dreamt up by Tolkien. A palantir is a kind of crystal ball in The Lord of the Rings; it’s also the name of Alex Karp’s pioneering big data company, which hands out “Save the Shire” T-shirts to visitors. I could go on.
There is, nevertheless, a puzzle that has only just struck me. Why, if his books are so immensely popular, has Tolkien’s deep-rooted conservatism had such a tiny influence? For nearly all Tolkien’s millions of readers seem somehow to have missed the fact that the great edifice of his fiction stands on a foundation of profoundly Tory philosophy.
A devout Roman Catholic who preferred the mass in Latin and looked down on his friend CS Lewis’s Protestantism, a tweed-clad Oxford don who despised central heating and abhorred the advance of the automobile, a pipe-smoking reactionary who refused to touch French cuisine or visit the United States, Tolkien was a little Englander to the point of self-parody. In prosperous old age, he crossed a cheque to the Inland Revenue with the words “Not a penny for Concorde”. Even the Norman Conquest struck him as a contamination of his country’s Anglo-Saxon essence.
Though Tolkien himself dismissed all attempts to find contemporary meaning in The Lord of the Rings (“I dislike allegory wherever I smell it,” he once said), it is hardly accidental that his diminutive heroes inhabit an idyllic Shire, while “the enemy” is based in industrial-totalitarian Mordor, located in the east of Middle-earth.
Tolkien hit on the title The Lord of the Rings in 1938, about the time of the Munich agreement. He was contemptuous of Hitler — “that ruddy little ignoramus” — but much more suspicious of Stalin. As war drew near, Tolkien reflected that he had “a loathing of being on any side that includes Russia” and believed that Stalin was “probably ultimately far more responsible for the present crisis and choice of moment than Hitler”.
“People in this land,” he wrote in 1941, “seem not even yet to realise that in the Germans we have enemies whose virtues (and they are virtues) of obedience and patriotism are greater than ours in the mass. I have in this War a burning private grudge against . . . Hitler for ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist and philologist of exceptional ability. But the spirit that infused his work was so conservative that, if he were still alive today, he would be no-platformed on every campus in the land. “I am not a ‘democrat’,” he once wrote, “if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise and formalise them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.”
A veteran of the Great War who modelled the character of Sam Gamgee on his batman, Tolkien even defended deference. “Touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire,” he once remarked, “but it’s damn good for you.” The central storyline of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is of a pilgrimage, full of trials, tribulations and temptation, not to mention self-sacrifice. The books are only multiracial in the sense that there are hobbits, elves and dwarfs as well as men. Yes, men. In Middle-earth women are occasionally seen, rarely heard.
We are left with a profound paradox. The most popular author of modern times filled our imaginations with unforgettable characters such as Gollum — and yet failed completely to instil in us an iota of his Tory principles. The bitter irony that remainers now use Gollum to mock Brexit would not have been lost on Tolkien. Never in the field of English literature was so much misunderstood by so many.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford