Boris, the Churchill of Brexit, has Corbyn on the ropes
Sunday Times, July 28, 2019
But PM’s road out of the EU is paved with rocks and hard places
‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” wrote Karl Marx in a justly famous passage from his essay The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Marx had in mind the immense discrepancy between Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III. A latter-day Marx might make precisely the same point about Sir Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson, except that Johnson pre-emptively published his own biography of Churchill, insisting on a parallel that could only be unflattering to himself.
So here I sit, unable to shake off the sinking feeling that we are about to witness the Monty Python remake of the film Darkest Hour.
Yet it would be a mistake prematurely to write off Johnson’s premiership. Boris has needed a lot of luck as well as charisma to get to the top of the greasy pole. In the course of his career he has survived a dozen scandals and fiascos, any one of which would have destroyed a common-or-garden political hack. He has that unlearnable magical power that elicits affection and limitless forgiveness from a substantial proportion of voters.
Moreover, despite his reputation for disorganisation, he opened strongly last week. The purge of Theresa May’s cabinet was impressive. The return of Dominic Cummings — the mastermind of the campaign to leave the EU and now the capo dei capi special adviser at
No 10 — was clever, as was the decision to put Michael Gove in charge of the Cabinet Office. And the appointment of Sajid Javid as chancellor of the exchequer, with a strong team of junior ministers, was the right way to reassure financial markets.
Almost as important, on Thursday Johnson delivered a barnstorming performance in the House of Commons, reassuring his own party that he has what it takes at the dispatch box.
We have all seen too much of Boris the bluffer and bungler, not least in his recent wretched stint as foreign secretary. It was easy to forget that, when he is conductor as opposed to second fiddle, he knows how to assemble a strong team and inspire its members to give their best. Those who worked with him when he edited The Spectator and served as mayor of London testify to this.
This is not May 1940. France is not collapsing as the Wehrmacht sweeps westwards. We don’t need to rescue our army from the beaches or brace ourselves for invasion or blitz. Nevertheless, the new prime minister finds himself between more rocks and hard places than a lost hiker in the Cuillin hills of Skye.
The stated game plan is to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement laboriously if unskilfully negotiated by May. What are the chances that the European negotiators will agree to scrap the dreaded backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland under single market regulations and the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU until an alternative arrangement can be found that avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? I’d say pretty much nil, even if Johnson persuades the Europeans that he is in earnest about a no-deal Brexit, with all the attendant damage to the Irish economy.
Why would they give Boris (whom they all despise) the break they denied May? Why would they give up the united front they have maintained for more than three years? I therefore expect a summer of phoney talks with Brussels, Berlin and Dublin. I’d guess the most he can hope for is a reworded political declaration, and that will not satisfy the true Brexit believers.
If there are rocks overseas, there are hard places at home. Parliament is now in its summer recess, but when it returns on September 3 the Johnson government will swiftly feel the weakness of its position. All those ministers dismissed from the government will form a buzzing hive of resentment — and opposition to a no-deal exit — on the back benches. With his majority (including the Democratic Unionists) probably down to one, Johnson may be forced into an election soon after parliament reconvenes, through a vote of no confidence.
Johnson knows this, which is why his government already has the look of a campaign machine. But the road to an election victory — before or after October 31 — looks pretty rocky, too. Yes, I get it: Johnson is candyfloss the way May was cough medicine. He looks like an election winner. And a bounce in the polls is guaranteed.
But let’s look a bit more closely at the British electoral map. The Tories are not the only party with a new leader. Even before the Liberal Democrats picked Jo Swinson, their revival was cutting into Conservative support across centrist, professional Britain.
Moreover, another leader has a new party. Nothing short of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party will prevent the Tories from losing seats to — or because of — Nigel Farage and co.
Speaking of the Isle of Skye, I would say the whole of Scotland looks hard and rocky for Boris, who is uncordially loathed by the dour folk who dwell north of the border. The Tories will struggle to hold the 12 seats they gained there in 2017, especially if the central issue of the campaign is do-or-die Brexit. Remember, Scotland voted remain by 62%.
If Johnson can win a majority, he can free himself from the Democratic Unionists and tack towards the EU’s opening offer of a trade deal for Great Britain and a special status for Northern Ireland within the single market. But that’s an “if” the size of Boris’s ego. The Tories need to win more than 50 pro-leave Labour seats while fending off the Lib Dem resurgence.
And I haven’t even mentioned the crisis precipitated by Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero, or the mounting evidence that the UK economy is slowing (factory orders down, industrial output down, investment intentions down).
The one crucial piece of luck Johnson has going for him is the parlous state of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its history. Two years ago Corbyn enjoyed a strange bout of popularity that scuppered May’s bid for an increased majority. Today, irreparably damaged by charges of anti-semitism and rumours of ill health, Corbyn is the perfect opponent for the rambunctious Johnson.
Also in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote one his most famous observations: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.”
It is not too much to say that Johnson is about to put the Marxist theory of history to the test. I wish him luck — because if he loses, a Marxist wins.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. An updated edition of his book The Ascent of Money has just been published by Penguin
Regular readers of this column will not have been surprised by the outbreak of the Second Cold War. Ever since Donald Trump imposed the first tariffs on Chinese imports last year, I have argued that the trade war between the United States and China would last longer than most people expected and that it would escalate into other forms of warfare.
The tech war — exemplified by last week’s US measures against the Chinese telecoms company Huawei — is now in full swing. The passage of the destroyer USS Preble through the Taiwan Strait was a reminder that shows of military force are also part and parcel of a cold war. And the propaganda war is now well under way, too, with Chinese state television digging out old Korean War films in which the Americans are the bad guys.
If you still think peace will break out when Trump meets Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka next month, you’re in for a disappointment. Zhang Yansheng, chief researcher at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges in Beijing, predicted last week that the friction could continue at this level until 2025.
Historical analogies are powerful. More than any formal model from the social sciences, they help us make sense of contemporary events. As the former US defence secretary Ash Carter said at the recent applied-history conference at Harvard, in the corridors of power “real people talk history, not economics, political science or IR [international relations]”. The first question they ask is: what is this like? And, yes, this sudden escalation of Sino-American antagonism is a lot like the early phase of the Cold War.
But the next question the applied historian asks is: what are the differences? Before the idea of the Second Cold War gets so well established that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s time to take a step back and acknowledge that 2019 isn’t 1949, not least because of the profound economic, social and cultural entanglement of America and China, which is quite unlike the almost total separation of the United States from the Soviet Union 70 years ago.
The networked world forged by decades of commercial aviation, globally integrated markets for commodities, manufactures, labour and capital and — above all — the internet is radically different from the segmented and half-ruined world that Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin carved up between them. In the late 1940s it was possible for Soviet Russia to bring down Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain because the limited channels of communication between eastern and western Europe were so easy to shut down. Although the phrase “digital Iron Curtain” is doing the rounds, I am frankly doubtful that such a severance of ties is possible today.
Because the internet and the smartphone have enlarged, accelerated and empowered social networks in the same way as the printing press did in the 16th and 17th centuries, today’s strategic rivalry is being played out in a near-borderless world, altogether different from the world of early John le Carré.
The 17th century had it all: climate change (the Little Ice Age that often froze the Thames), refugee crises (as Protestant zealots crossed the Atlantic), extreme views (as Catholics and Protestants sought to smear one another) and fake news (as witch-finders condemned thousands of innocent people to death). But its most familiar feature to our eyes is the erosion of state sovereignty.
Catholics and Lutherans had been given a certain amount of clarity by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which left it to each individual prince to decide the denomination of his realm without fear of outside interference. But that principle seemed under threat by the early 1600s. In any case, it had created an incentive for the proponents of the Counter-Reformation to replace Protestant rulers with Catholic ones. The war of religion had no respect for borders: Jesuits infiltrated Protestant England just as Russian trolls now meddle in western democracies.
The Thirty Years’ War was as much about power as it was about religion, however. Unlike the Cold War, which was waged by two superpowers, it was a multiplayer game. The Holy Roman Emperor sought to reimpose Catholicism on Bohemia. Spain wanted to bring the rebellious Dutch back under Habsburg rule. Despite being Catholic, France sought to challenge the power of both Spain and Austria. Sweden seized the moment to thrust boldly southwards. Although also Lutheran, Denmark ended up as Sweden’s foe. Although also Catholic, Portugal threw off Spanish rule.
In the same way, today’s world is not bipolar. America may tell others to boycott Huawei, but not all Europeans will comply. China is the biggest economy in Asia, but it does not control India.
The Cold War created vast tank armies and nuclear arsenals, pointed at each other but never used. The Thirty Years’ War was a time of terrorism and gruesome violence, with no clear distinction between soldiers and civilians. (Think Syria today.) Then, as now, the worst-affected areas suffered death and depopulation. There was no deterrence then, just as there is none now in cyber-warfare. Indeed, states tended to underestimate the costs of getting involved in the conflict. Both Britain and France did so — only to slide into civil war.
The implications of this analogy are not cheering. The sole consolation I can offer is that, thanks to technology, most things nowadays happen roughly 10 times faster than they did 400 years ago. So we may be heading for a Three Years’ War, rather than a Thirty Years’ War. Either way, we need to learn how to end such a conflict.
The end of the Thirty Years’ War was not brought about by one treaty, but by several, of which the most important were signed at Münster and Osnabrück in October 1648. It is these treaties that historians refer to as the Peace of Westphalia. Contrary to legend, they did not make peace, as France and Spain kept fighting for 11 more years. And they certainly did not establish a world order based on modern states.
What the Westphalian settlement did was to establish power-sharing arrangements between the emperor and the German princes, as well as between the rival religious groups, on the basis of limited and conditional rights. The peace as a whole was underpinned by mutual guarantees, as opposed to the third-party guarantees that had been the norm before.
The Cold War ended when one side folded. That will not happen in our time. The democratic and authoritarian powers can fight for three or 30 years; neither side will win a definitive victory. Sooner or later there will have to be a compromise — in particular, a self-restraining commitment not to take full advantage of modern technology to hollow out each other’s sovereignty.
Our destination is 1648, not 1989 — a Cyber-Westphalia, not the fall of the Great Firewall of China. If we have the option to get there in three years, rather than in 30, we should take it.
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Seventy years ago this month Nato was established to protect western Europe and the freedoms of its inhabitants from the threat of Soviet communism. It has become clear to me that we now need a similar organisation to protect western intellectuals from a growing threat to academic freedom.
The North Atlantic Treaty, signed by 12 governments in Washington on April 4, 1949, was a treaty of mutual defence “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”. Article 5 of the treaty states that “an armed attack against one or more of [the signatories] . . . shall be considered an attack against them all”.
It would be an oversimplification to say that this alone deterred the Soviet Union from attempting to extend its power any further west than the River Elbe. Nevertheless, the commitment of successive American presidents to Nato, along with the presence of US troops and missiles in western Europe, may be said to have worked. During the Cold War, Moscow sought to expand its influence in Latin America, the Middle East, east Asia and Africa. It left western Europe alone.
In those days a small but courageous group of western academics did what they could to expose the wickedness of communism and to support political and religious dissidents in the Soviet sphere of influence. A member of that group was Roger Scruton. During the 1980s he travelled to communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to assist an underground education network run by the Czech dissident Julius Tomin. In 1985, during a trip to Brno, Scruton was arrested and expelled.
A philosopher of international renown, a prolific author, a composer and a polymath, Scruton has one of the most powerful minds I have encountered. But he is one of those rare thinkers who seek to change the world as well as to understand and explain it. There was a time when those qualities were venerated. In 1998 he was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit by its then president Vaclav Havel, himself a former dissident. A knighthood came in 2016. And last year he was appointed chairman of the government’s commission on buildings.
Almost immediately after that, however, the attacks from the left began. The campaign against him culminated last week in the publication of a cynical hit-piece in the New Statesman, which misrepresented his views on a number of issues — the influence of George Soros, China’s policies of social control and the origins of the term “Islamophobia” — in order to portray him as a racist. The government took the bait. James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for housing, immediately sacked him. A spokeswoman for the prime minister described his comments as “deeply offensive and completely unacceptable”.
In reality, Scruton had been framed. The author of the New Statesman hatchet job, George Eaton, had edited quotations and inserted his own commentary with the clear intention of getting him sacked. He further massaged the “gotcha” quotes (“outrageous remarks”) on social media. Having achieved his objective, Eaton jubilantly published a photograph — later deleted — of himself drinking champagne from a bottle with the tagline: “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.”
A month rarely passes without some such tale of a conservative academic being “taken down”. In March it was the turn of the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who was informed by Cambridge that the visiting fellowship he had been offered by the faculty of divinity was being cancelled. The reason? At a book signing he had been photographed standing next to a man with a T-shirt bearing the (obviously facetious) slogan “I’m a proud Islamophobe”.
Before that it was the US political scientist Samuel Abrams, who now faces a “tenure review” at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His thoughtcrime? An article pointing out that academic administrators are even more left-leaning than professors.
January’s cause célèbre was that of Peter Boghossian, a philosopher at Portland State University, who is being investigated by his own institution. Why? Because he was one of the perpetrators of the brilliant “grievance studies” hoax, which exposed the ease with which supposedly scholarly journals could be duped into publishing bogus articles.
Then there’s Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who has been suspended for more than a year because of highly questionable allegations of sexual harassment. I have a hunch those allegations might never have been made if Fryer, an African-American, had not published a paper concluding that the police did not, after all, use lethal violence more readily against black suspects than white.
And let’s not forget Professors Nigel Biggar and Bruce Gilley, both denounced last year for daring to point out that not every aspect of the history of the British Empire was a crime against humanity. I could go on, but you get the picture.
In every case the pattern is the same. An academic deemed to be conservative gets “called out” by a leftist group or rag. The Twitter mob piles in. Mindless mainstream media outlets amplify the story. The relevant authorities capitulate.
The most striking common feature is the near-complete isolation of the target. Did Abrams’s colleagues step up to defend his (and their own) academic freedom? On the contrary: 40 of his fellow professors endorsed the student leftists’ demand that his tenure be reviewed. Did Fryer’s fellow Harvard economists question the way their only black colleague was being treated? Not one has publicly defended him.
My message to all professional thinkers — academics, public intellectuals, writers of any stripe — is this: we either hang together or we hang separately. Even being an avowed progressive won’t help you if you fail just one wokeness test, as Bret Weinstein did when he objected to the idea of a “day of absence” for all white students and faculty at Evergreen State College in Washington state.
A direct descendant of the illiberal, egalitarian ideology that once suppressed free speech in eastern Europe is now shutting down debate in the West. For those, like Scruton, who once helped Czech dissidents to get degrees in theology from Cambridge, the irony is bitter indeed.
The lesson of the Cold War is clear. From now on an attack on one of us must be considered an attack on all of us. I therefore invite all who believe in the fundamental human freedoms to sign a new Non-conformist Academic Treaty.
The present danger to free thought and speech is not Red Army tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap in Germany; it is the red army of mediocrities waging war on dissent within academia and the media. It is time to confront these people with the one thing that will deter them, as it once deterred the Soviets: massive retaliation.
Divided we shall fall. But united we can ensure that the reputation destroyed last week was not Sir Roger Scruton’s but the New Statesman’s.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
To be in Tokyo during the cherry blossom season is to be reminded of three things. First, the transience of all natural beauty. Second, the possibility that a modern city can be truly lovely. Third, the achievability of political stability in the 21st century. To a visitor from London it is the third of these that is the most enviable.
After all, the UK capital has pretty good blossom at this time of year. And parts of it — I think of Highgate, jewel of the city’s lofty north — are still strikingly beautiful. But political stability? The unhappy Briton can only gaze in admiration at the serene condition of Japan today.
Bear in mind that despite the bitter war they fought in the 1940s, Britain and Japan have much in common. Both are densely populated island nations off the vast Eurasian landmass. Both were once mighty empires. Both are still quite rich. Both are constitutional monarchies.
Much that one sees in Japan today has its origins in the Meiji era, when the nation’s leaders modernised their country by copying as much as they could of what they saw in the industrial West. Britain was one of their principal role models. It is no accident that the Japanese word for a suit — sebiro — derives from “Savile Row”. And a striking proportion of Japanese politicians look as if they still get their suits tailor-made.
Yet while Britain today is in a state of acute political crisis, Japan seems a model of political stability. Is this a matter of personalities — the sad fact that Theresa May is a talentless leader, and Shinzo Abe a gifted one? Partly. But there is more to it than that.
The Japanese, crushed in 1945, conceded only a superficial Americanisation of their culture and institutions. To a remarkable extent, Japan did not change. It merely jettisoned the hysterical nationalism that had come to the fore in the 1930s and reverted to the Meiji era. Not only did the emperor survive, but so did the country’s social elite. It accepted land reform, but retained political power. The same applied to corporate Japan.
The continuities of Japanese history are exemplified by the political pedigree of the prime minister. Mr Abe’s great-great-grandfather was a general in the imperial army. His maternal grandfather was a member of Hideki Tojo’s cabinet during the Second World War and prime minister in the late 1950s. His other grandfather served in the country’s House of Representatives (and was an opponent of Tojo). His father was Japan’s foreign minister in the 1980s.
The continuities also manifest themselves in the complex system of manners that governs Japanese social life. Nowhere else will you encounter such politeness. After two days, my back hurt from bowing, and I had said “Arigatou gozaimasu” (“Thank you very much”) at least a thousand times.
The contrast with Britain’s postwar history is striking. Victorious in war, we jettisoned as much as we could of our Victorian and Edwardian heritage. A new class entered politics from state schools and redbrick universities, greatly diluting the hereditary element. Today a bespoke suit of the sort favoured by Jacob Rees-Mogg looks quaint in the Commons, as if he had wandered in from the set of Darkest Hour.
As for our manners, which were once famously strait-laced, there has been a precipitous decline into vulgarity, so that Americans now seem polite by comparison. Last week, according to Newsnight’s political editor, Nicholas Watt, a cabinet minister responded with, “F*** knows,” when asked why Theresa May was holding yet another Brexit vote. Earlier this month Boris Johnson declared that money spent on investigating historic cases of paedophilia was being “spaffed up a wall” — a term new to me. Even members of the elite now talk like louts.
In many ways, you might think, Japan has much bigger problems than Britain. According to the World Bank, the old-age dependency ratio in Japan — the ratio of people over 65 to those of working age — is 46%, the highest in the world. The UK ranks 17th in the senescence league table.
Japan’s gross public debt is now 238% of GDP, again the world’s highest proportion. Britain’s is 87%, according to the International Monetary Fund, putting us in 29th place. We lead Japan in terms of innovation, economic and political freedom, ease of doing business and even happiness.
And yet consider the political states of the two countries. In Japan the main question is whether Abe — who has been prime minister since 2012 and has led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to three successive election victories — should stay on beyond 2021, when his term as LDP leader is supposed to end. The other big question (to be resolved tomorrow morning) is what the name of the new imperial era will be when Emperor Akihito abdicates to make way for his son Naruhito.
Meanwhile, in London, a political crisis of 17th-century magnitude continues to unfold. Three years ago I warned in these pages that it would be much harder for Britain to leave the EU than the proponents of Brexit were claiming. I underestimated the degree of difficulty. I did not imagine the Brexiteers would end up voting against Brexit, as many did for the third time on Friday.
So badly has May bungled Britain’s great divorce that she could not even get her withdrawal agreement passed by promising to resign if MPs voted for it. The result is that Britain’s political fate now depends on . . . the EU, which gets to decide whether to grant Britain a longer extension than the 12 days currently remaining before we leave the EU without a deal and enter an economic crisis of unknown scale and duration.
There was something touching and at the same time terrifying about last week’s exchange between Rees-Mogg and Sir Oliver Letwin, when the former asserted the prerogatives of the Queen’s ministers and the latter insisted on the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons.
This Tudors-and-Stuarts argument would not have been out of place in an Oxford history tutorial, but in the Commons it seemed at once frivolous and reckless. If such fundamental questions now divide Conservatives, the party seems destined for defeat at the next general election, especially if that is to happen sooner rather than later.
Why are Japan and Britain in such different political states? The superficial answer is there was never an Asian Economic Community that Japan chose to join in the 1970s. Across the water is just the vast authoritarian superpower that is China.
A more profound answer is that while Britain has embraced immigration, Japan has resisted it. True, there has been a quiet increase in the number of foreigners residing in Japan since 2014. There are now almost 1.3m foreign workers in the country, most from other Asian countries. But the foreign-born share of the population is just 2%, according to the World Bank. The figure for the UK is 13%.
Future historians will wonder why the Tories decided to commit seppuku over Brexit. But perhaps conservatism itself is just incompatible with immigration on this scale and the Brexit breakdown is merely a symptom. The Japanese probably think that — but they are too polite to say it.
Niall Ferguson is the Millbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford