This is the time of year when I get the paper-flower question. Living in California, but born in Britain, I am one of a tiny number of people here who wear a poppy in the week before Remembrance Day. Hence the question: “Hey, Niall, what’s with the red paper flower?” I don’t mind explaining. I wear it in memory of my grandfathers, John Ferguson and Tom Hamilton.
The former fought the Germans on the western front for most of the First World War. The latter fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. Both survived — otherwise, there would be no me — but each had his life shortened by the damage war did to his lungs. And I wear the poppy to commemorate the tens of millions of people — not only the British servicemen — whose lives were cut much shorter.
Sometimes I also point out that this is not some British eccentricity. It was an American woman, Moina Michael — a professor at Georgia University — who originally suggested wearing a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. She in turn was inspired by a Canadian, John McCrae, whose 1915 poem In Flanders Fields still resonates. Beginning in 1919, a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, sold artificial poppies in America to raise money for orphans in the war-torn regions of France. The tradition may have died out in America, but it is alive and well in Australia and New Zealand too.
If my interlocutor has not fled by now, I add that I would not have become a historian without such symbols of the past. For poppies, like the stone war memorials that were so numerous in the Scotland of my youth, prompted the earliest historical question in my mind: why did that happen? Why did my grandfathers, when they were still such young men — a mere teenager, in the case of John Ferguson — end up in mortal peril so far from home? It’s a version of Tolstoy’s more profound question at the end of War and Peace: “What is the power that moves nations?” It is the question I have spent my adult life trying to answer.
Remembrance, in short, has never been enough for me. We also need to learn from history. Here is one of the lessons that is too seldom learnt. Scraps of paper matter, and I don’t mean paper flowers.
What became the Great War — only later renamed the First World War after the Second had begun — might simply have been the Second Franco-German War if Britain and its empire had not joined it on August 4, 1914. Why did that happen?
Formally, Britain went to war because the German attack on Belgium violated the 1839 Treaty of London, which — under article VII of the annexe to the treaty — bound all five of the great powers of Europe to uphold Belgian neutrality. There were other reasons for intervening, naturally: the geopolitical calculation that a German victory over France, unlike in 1871, would pose a strategic threat to Britain, and the domestic political calculation that if the Liberals did not go to war, their government would fall and the Conservatives would go to war anyway. But Belgium mattered.
On August 6, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, explained to the House of Commons “what we are fighting for”. His speech focused on Britain’s “solemn international obligation” to uphold Belgian neutrality in the name of both law and honour, and “to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed”. The evidence suggests that this casus belli did indeed resonate with the British public.
The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, lamented that “England should fall upon them for the sake of the neutrality of Belgium” — for “un chiffon de papier”. But scraps of paper count, even if the 1839 treaty was only (as one cabinet minister observed) a convenient “plea . . . for intervention on behalf of France”.
How many Britons in 1914 knew the terms of that treaty? Not 16-year-old John Ferguson, I’ll be bound. And yet the commitment to Belgium, along with a sustained emphasis on German atrocities towards Belgian civilians, became central to British war propaganda.
Are there any similar commitments today, forgotten by the general public and yet capable of plunging the world into war? I can think of two. In each case, they exist on paper. In each case, they have lost or are losing credibility, so that potential foes might be forgiven for dismissing them as mere scraps of paper.
The first is article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, which binds each signatory to consider “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America . . . an attack against them all”, and, in that case, to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.
The second is the Taiwan Relations Act of April 10, 1979, which states that America will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that America “will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.
With respect to Nato, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last week gave a damning interview. “To my mind,” he told The Economist, “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato.”
The Economist: Do you now believe that article 5 doesn’t work either; is that what you suspect?
Macron: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Donald Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”
With respect to Taiwan, a similar question could easily be asked. Would Donald Trump feel bound by the 1979 act if China sought to end Taiwan’s autonomy and force it to submit to rule from Beijing? That is no remote scenario. Last Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned that China might resort to military aggression towards Taiwan as a means of deflecting internal political pressure as the mainland economy slows down.
So, go ahead, ask me why I am wearing a poppy. Commemoration is about more than showing respect to past generations. It is also about being alert to future dangers: red flags, as well as red flowers.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Thirty years ago, I was in love — with Berlin. As an impoverished British graduate student paid in weedy pounds not mighty deutschmarks, I could live there more cheaply than in Hamburg or Munich, and so I spent the summer of 1989 in a friend’s apartment in the Kurfürstenstrasse, dividing my time between the archives and journalism. West Berlin was not only inexpensive, it was fun. But the real attraction was the parallel world of “real existing socialism” next door, on the other side of the wall.
In those days, under the four-power agreement between the victors of the Second World War, a British citizen could travel pretty freely from the west of the city to the east and back, though you had to pay for the privilege. But when you boarded the S-Bahn train at Friedrichstrasse on the eastern side of the city to head back to West Berlin, you’d be the only person on the train. It was an eerie journey, riding in solitude past the bullet-riddled Reichstag building. I’d read enough John le Carré to get a cheap thrill every time I made that trip.
And then, in the summer of 1989, things changed. Suddenly I was no longer the only person on the train. In fact I was surrounded by Hungarians and Poles because their governments had, for the first time, given their people freedom to travel to the West. I got so excited about this that I wrote a story for one of the British papers, suggesting the headline: “The Berlin Wall is crumbling.”
If they’d published it, I’d have been one of the tiny number of commentators who correctly prophesied the collapse of communism. (The real Nostradamus was the American journalist James P O’Donnell, who published an article in the German magazine Das Beste in January 1979, correctly foreseeing the destruction of the wall 10 years later and even the sale of pieces of it as souvenirs.) But the deputy editor back in London said I’d listened to “one too many Ronald Reagan speeches”. My prophecy was spiked.
Worse, when the wall did crumble, on November 9, 1989, I was back in Britain, listening in agony as my old friend Matt Frei covered the story for BBC radio, live from the streets of Berlin. History had been made, and I’d not only missed predicting it. I’d missed witnessing it.
The sole consolation was that my side — the side of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II — had won, and the joy of victory after victory as the dominoes fell soon overcame the fear of missing out.
In the words of Francis Fukuyama, who succeeded in publishing a prescient essay in the summer of 1989, “What is important . . . is that political liberalism has been following economic liberalism, more slowly than many had hoped but with seeming inevitability.” In backing Thatcher and Reagan as an undergraduate, I had found myself part of a minority of punk Tories and young fogeys (among them one Boris Johnson).
We had argued that free markets and free citizens went hand in hand. We had cheered in 1987 when Reagan told his Russian counterpart, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And, just two years after that speech, we had been vindicated.
There’s an argument to be made now, of course, that we got 1989 childishly wrong. While we blithely celebrated the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe, we wholly underestimated the significance of its survival in China. In our Eurocentric way, we paid more attention to events in Timisoara than to those in Tiananmen Square, where communism had shown its true, repressive face that June.
Now, 30 years on, the enlargement of the EU and Nato — even the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — seem much less significant historically than China’s spectacular rise after 1989. Reminder: in 1989 China’s gross domestic product was 8.2% the size of America’s. Today, according to the IMF, it is two-thirds: 66.6%. Adjusted for the difference in purchasing power, China’s economy is actually larger than that of America and has been since 2014. The Soviet Union never achieved anything close to that. At its Cold War peak, in the mid-1970s, its economy was just 44% the size of America’s.
For years we told ourselves that China would eventually succumb to the West’s embrace. The internet, we dreamed, would do the trick. If China tried to regulate it, the effort would be like “nailing Jello to a wall”, in Bill Clinton’s famous phrase. That has proved very wrong.
We were wrong, too, if we thought that the liberated nations of central Europe would gratefully morph into West Europeans, dismissing from their memories the searing experiences of 40 years under communism, and becoming just like us. That hasn’t happened — not in Poland, despite its economic success in the past 30 years, and not in Hungary, which under Viktor Orban has become the populist bad boy of the European Union.
Friends with whom I once jubilantly celebrated the events of 1989 now express bitter disillusionment with developments in Warsaw and Budapest. Others ask me what has really been achieved when the most popular political parties in the former East German state of Thuringia, based on last weekend’s election, are the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Yet there is a need for some perspective. Central Europe is a vastly freer, richer and happier place than it was under the iron heels of the Russians and their puppets. It is also far less prone to political fragmentation and polarisation than it was in its last period of democratic government between the world wars.
More importantly, I simply disbelieve those who tell us today that China is in the process of reviving totalitarianism, not to mention the planned economy, with the help of big data, facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence. This surely is to misunderstand the seven key lessons of 1989.
1 The Soviet empire was unassailable as long as it was capable of growing. When stagnation set in — when productivity growth turned negative in the 1970s — the system began to rot. Between 1973 and 1990, per capita growth was negative. When China slows, as demographic and financial headwinds dictate that it must, there will also be popular disillusionment, just as there was in the old Eastern bloc.
2 Growth tends to create a middle class, and the middle class expects more than hollow slogans, even if it does not expect democracy. With a few proletarian exceptions — Lech Wałesa is the most obvious — the dissidents who led what Timothy Garton Ash called “the Refolution”, a mix of reform and revolution, were bourgeois intellectuals: Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, for example, or Bronislaw Geremek in Poland. Such people exist in China today — think of the artist Ai Weiwei — and their deep dissatisfaction with the one-party state is essentially the same as their central European precursors.
3 Corruption, inefficiency and environmental degradation are inherent features of a one-party state without the rule of law. In a fundamentally corrupt system without true accountability, even an anti-corruption campaign becomes corrupt. What the Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer called the “grabbing hand” will always grab. If the party is above the law, it will tend towards lawlessness.
4 No amount of surveillance will preserve a state that loses legitimacy. The Stasi didn’t need AI to know pretty much everything that was going on in the German Democratic Republic: they just relied on a vast network of part-time spies and snoopers known, with truly Orwellian euphemism, as “unofficial co-workers”. But knowing what people said in the supposed privacy of their own homes didn’t save that system. On the contrary.
5 In a surveillance state, everyone gets used to lying. But when everyone lies, you get disasters like Chernobyl, on April 26, 1986 — the death knell of the Soviet system — or the public relations fiasco that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall itself: a bungled press conference by the politburo member Günter Schabowski, who intimated semi-intelligibly that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen”, starting “right away, immediately”.
A key point made in Mary Elise Sarotte’s brilliant book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall is that lack of trust within the party elite and the security apparatus prevented an effective retraction of this fateful order and led a key Stasi officer, Harald Jäger, to throw open the crucial checkpoint rather than fire on the crowd that had formed as the news of Schabowski’s statement spread.
6 Soviet power fragmented on the periphery first. That is why Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan are the key areas to watch today, not Beijing. The Berlin Wall fell as part of a chain reaction that began in Poland in the summer of 1988 and spread to Hungary and on to Leipzig (the crucial location, which might have been the German Tiananmen Square) before it reached Berlin. And after Berlin it spread ever further: Sofia, Prague, Timisoara, Bucharest — then to Vilnius, where Lithuania’s independence was declared in March 1990, and finally to Moscow in 1991.
Some similar process, in the end, will bring down the Great Firewall of China.
7 But there is a final point to be made. Academic opinion (never much enamoured of Ronald Reagan) now holds that the Berlin Wall fell because of internal rather than external pressures. In the words of the East German dissident Marianne Birthler, “First we fought for our freedom and then, because of that, the wall fell.”
Such testimony has given rise to the view that Reagan’s 1987 speech was somehow irrelevant. I even got into an argument with an American editor about this recently. I had referred in a draft to “the American victory over the Soviet Union”. Editor: “This is a contentious point, as the implication is that America did win the Cold War. We should at least acknowledge that the notion of an American ‘victory’ is contested by historians and why.”
But this is revisionism ad absurdum. It implies that somehow the dissidents could have thrown off the Soviet yoke even if America had applied no pressure at all — even if Nato had done nothing in response to the deployment of SS-20 missiles in the late 1970s — even if Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech had included the line, “Mr Gorbachev, leave this wall intact.”
The reality, however, is that during the Cold War, America and its allies did a succession of things that fundamentally helped the dissidents, as well as offering encouragement to those who lacked the courage actively to resist the communist regimes, but nevertheless despised them. These included: broadcasting through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, beginning in the 1940s; getting the Soviets to subscribe to a list of human rights they flagrantly did not respect in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975; and offering Warsaw Pact citizens as many glimpses as possible of the better life that was on offer on the other side of the Iron Curtain. As Garton Ash has shown, by 1986 244,000 East Germans were visiting West Germany every year. They soon saw the difference between a Trabant and BMW.
In my book Civilization (2011), I made the argument that 1989 was about consumerism more than it was about conservatism, echoing Sir Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play Rock’n’Roll. Four years before the wall fell, the French leftist philosopher and former comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, Régis Debray, remarked: “There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army.”
He was right. When I had crossed from West Berlin to East Berlin before what Germans called die Wende — the “turning point” — the most striking difference had not been the lack of liberty (that took a little time to discern). It had been the lack of rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites. When ordinary East Berliners first came through Checkpoint Charlie or crossed the Glienicke Bridge in 1989, they did not ask for copies of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. They asked for Coca-Cola.
For the dissidents, this was the triumph of freedom. For their fellow East Germans, it was the triumph of free money, achieved when their savings were converted from East German Monopoly marks into West German deutschmarks on a one-for-one basis — not a trivial windfall. That the second- order effect would be to render the entire East German economy uncompetitive became clear only later, by which time the smarter “Ossis” had moved west.
We should not be surprised that, 30 years on, the death of central European communism has given rise to a few disappointments. It is much more surprising how few disasters there have been. Only one of the former workers’ paradises — Yugoslavia — descended into war and ethnic cleansing. No former members of the Warsaw Pact have ended up at war with each other. Though it has become fashionable to scoff at Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, in fact he has been more right than wrong. Today, truly unfree societies account for just 35% of the world’s population and 22% of global GDP. But of those proportions, most (respectively, 19% and 16%) is China.
Will the men in Beijing prove Fukuyama wrong in the end? The lesson of 1989 is surely not to bet on a regime that, at its core, is still based on Lenin’s and Stalin’s one-party state. True, 70 years after its foundation, the people’s republic is undoubtedly in better shape than the Soviet Union was 70 years after the Bolshevik revolution. Moreover, its leaders are firmly resolved not to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union; so there will be no glasnost, no political transparency, in China — not even in Hong Kong, and implicitly not in Taiwan either before too long.
Nevertheless, let me conclude with another prophecy (one that I hope will make it into print). These days I spend more time in Beijing than in Berlin and this is what I foresee. The social credit system, with its technology of 24/7 surveillance, will not prevent China from succumbing, over the next 10 or 20 years, to the combination of a slowing economy, a rising and expectant middle class, a chronically corrupt political system, a corrosive culture of dissembling, and a fragmentation that has already begun on the periphery.
The Great Firewall of China is crumbling. And, as with the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, pressure from outside is going to accelerate the process.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
“Baby Shark, do do, do-do, do-do, Baby Shark, do do, do-do, do-do...” I am not sure how reassuring I would find that song if I were 15 months old and sitting in a car surrounded by a crowd of political protesters. However, credit to them for doing their best to soothe the Lebanese lad whose mother made the mistake of driving into their demonstration last weekend.
As revolutionary anthems go, Baby Shark is unusual. The bloodthirsty Marseillaise it ain’t, nor the once stirring, now threadbare Internationale. When the late-1960s hipster radicals took to the streets, their soundtrack was classic rock’n’roll: the Beatles’ Revolution or the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. And yet Baby Shark — vacuous, repetitive, inane, infantile — is in many ways an apt anthem for our times.
The great revolutionary waves of the past had common objectives. Liberty, equality and fraternity in 1789; the nationalist springtime of the peoples in 1848 (and 1989); peace, land and bread in 1917; make love, not war in 1968. You will look in vain for such a uniting theme in the multiple protests that have occurred around the world this year.
In Hong Kong, the trigger was an extradition bill that threatened to subordinate the semi-autonomous region’s common law legal system to the Communist Party, which rules the mainland with scant regard for individual rights.
In Barcelona, by contrast, protesters took to the streets after harsh sentences were handed down to the separatist leaders responsible for 2017’s illegal referendum on Catalan independence. Beirut’s protests are said to have been triggered by a plan to tax WhatsApp. In Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, it was austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund. In Santiago, Chile, it’s all about bus and metro fares. In Cairo, it was corruption.
Meanwhile, central London suffers intermittent traffic chaos because of a millenarian sect calling itself Extinction Rebellion, which believes that the end of the world is nigh, as well as opponents of Brexit who still haven’t got over their defeat in the 2016 referendum.
There have been some valiant attempts to find a unifying thread to all this. According to the BBC, everyone is protesting against inequality and climate change, as well as corruption and repression. The American economist Tyler Cowen dismissed the importance of inequality (it’s been falling in Chile), pointing instead to the role of higher consumer prices. Bloomberg’s John Authers took a similar line.
Yet none of this convinces. “We are not here over the WhatsApp,” a Lebanese protester told the BBC. “We are here over everything.” That seems about right. What the protests of 2019 have in common is their form, not their content.
Superficially, mass protest is one of history’s hardy perennials. Thousands (you need at least quadruple digits) of mostly young people take to the streets of a big city, usually but not necessarily the capital. They carry placards with pithy slogans. They chant or sing. If they (or the authorities) are belligerent, they end up clashing with police, lobbing bricks and erecting barricades. Very occasionally, they succeed in overthrowing the government. More often than not, the protests are crushed or peter out. Isn’t that the pattern throughout recorded history?
Well, not quite.
For one thing, the protests of 2019 are the first to be organised via smartphone, which is fast becoming a truly universal gadget. Smartphones enable today’s protests to function with minimal leadership. Yes, there are individuals whom the media elevate in importance to give the crowd a face and a voice. But the reality is these movements are acephalous — leaderless — networks. They are collectively improvised, rather than conducted. They are jazz, not classical.
In Hong Kong this summer, for example, the protesters used a Reddit-like forum, LIHKG, where ideas could be “upvoted”. They crowdsourced supplies of umbrellas and rides to and from Central, the focal point of the protests. The organising principle of this adaptive mode of operation was martial arts icon Bruce Lee’s phrase “Be water”.
Second, acephalous networks are inherently hard to defeat, as Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has discovered to her cost. When the messaging service Telegram suffered a cyber-attack by Beijing, protesters switched to Apple’s AirDrop feature and sent messages over Bluetooth. They even used Tinder and Pokémon Go.
At the same time, the internet has made it easier than it has ever been for protest tactics to be disseminated. Every wannabe revolutionary understands that disrupting the airport is like taking the urban economy hostage. In one key respect, however, the form of today’s protests is familiar.
When I taught history at Oxford 20 years ago, one of my favourite articles about the 1848 revolutions was “The Problem of an Excess of Educated Men in Western Europe, 1800-1850” by Lenore O’Boyle. O’Boyle’s argument was that European cities had been swept by revolution in 1848 because “too many men were educated for a small number of important and prestigious jobs, so that some men had to be content either with underemployment or with positions they considered below their capacities”.
Something similar happened in the 1960s, as the late lamented historian Norman Stone described in his magnificently mordant book The Atlantic and Its Enemies. “In all countries, new universities . . . were crammed with students; taught by men and women appointed all of a sudden in great numbers, without regard for quality. The expansion with relatively new subjects, such as economics, sociology and psychology, meant that there were young men and women aplenty who imagined that they had the answer to everything. It was a terrible cocktail.”
Guess what? We’ve done it again, but now on an unprecedented scale. In every country where large-scale protests have been reported in the past year, higher education is at an all-time high.
Compare the World Bank’s 2016 figures for gross enrolment in tertiary education (as a percentage of the total population of the relevant five-year age group) with those for the late 1980s. In Chile, the share has risen from 18% to 90%. In Ecuador, it’s up from 25% to 46%. Egypt: 15% to 34%. France: 34% to 64%. Hong Kong: 13% to 72%. Lebanon: 32% to 38% (the smallest increase). Top of the class is Turkey: 12% to 104% ( it must have a lot of mature students).
These, then, are the baby sharks: the excess of educated young people currently taking to the streets in cities around the world. It does not help that so many professors fill their students’ heads with incoherent notions of “social justice”. But I suspect the real issue is the mismatch between the unparalleled glut of graduates and the demand for them.
At some point it will sink in that creating economic mayhem is the opposite of creating jobs. Until then, expect more traffic chaos. At least you now know what to sing when the baby sharks surround you.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
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