Britain has led again. In June 2016, the Brexit referendum was a leading indicator for the victory not only of Donald Trump but also of other right-wing populists, from Matteo Salvini in Italy to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. I spent much of last week in a sleep-deprived state of anxiety, fearing that Britain might lead again in precisely the opposite direction.
My nagging, neurotic nightmare was of another hung parliament and a political (not to mention financial) crisis that would end up producing an unholy Labour-Scottish National Party-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the odious Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. This would then have given a kind of legitimacy to the “woke” left all over the world, including America. You may recall my manic dive into social media data, all of which seemed to portend a strong Labour showing.
I was not alone in worrying. I spent Thursday night in a London restaurant jam-packed with staunch Conservatives. Wild rumours circulated. Boris Johnson was going to lose his seat, necessitating a hasty elevation to the House of Lords. Another 10 minutes of suspense and I am sure I’d have heard that the Queen had fled the country. As 10pm approached we held our collective breath. And . . . phew! No, not just phew, but hallelujah!
Yes, Britain has led again — but not in the wrong direction that I had feared. Far from a swing from populist right to Marxist left, there has been a fundamental transformation of conservatism itself. I have never been so relieved to be wrong. Dominic Cummings knew better: the social media data I was obsessing about was irrelevant.
In Britain, this is going to be seen as a win for Johnson’s version of One Nation Toryism, a rather overused phrase that dates back to Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil. With his pledges to spend, spend, spend on everything from the NHS to northern infrastructure to minimum wages, Johnson will now be seen, I would guess, as rather more Disraeli than Winston Churchill.
That’s true in the sense that austerity (which Churchill certainly practised in his time as chancellor) is a dead parrot: not pining for the fjords but dead, no more, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker.
However, more than a victory for One Nation, this was the triumph of something new: the national conservatism featured earlier this year at an important conference in Washington.
The key name here is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar and political theorist, whose 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism puts last week’s election into world-historical perspective.
“Nationalism,” writes Hazony, “is not some unfathomable political illness that periodically takes over countries for no good reason and to no good end, as many in America and Britain seem to think these days.
“[It] is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.”
Now there is a certain type of indignant Indian intellectual — step forward Pankaj Mishra and Priyamvada Gopal — who insists ad nauseam that Brexit is an expression of nostalgia for the British Empire, if not a repressed desire to re-establish it. Nothing could be more wrong, as Hazony explains, and as anyone knows who has spent even an hour in a pub with Brexit supporters like my good friends in the Prince of Wales near Bridgend (another Labour citadel that fell last week).
True, not all national conservatives are as socially liberal as Johnson. However, my old friend Andrew Sullivan, in his penetrating portrait of Boris in New York magazine, got to the heart of the issue.
Johnson, he argued, “has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: he has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervour has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social centre under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this.
“What Boris is offering as an alternative is a Tory social democracy rooted in national pride and delivered with a spoonful of humour and entertainment. In some ways, his personality is part of the formula. His plummy voice and silly hair and constant jokes are deeply, even reassuringly, British even as demographic change has made Britishness seem fragile. And if you still believe in the nation state, in liberal democracy, and have qualms about the unintended consequences of neoliberal economics, it’s about as decent a conservative political blend as is on offer in the West.”
I think this is very right.
Now for a mea culpa or two. Yes, it’s true: I was against Brexit, as I thought the trouble of getting divorced from a moribund European Union would be more than it was worth. I was content with the David Cameron-George Osborne government, dreaded Theresa May and didn’t trust Boris.
However, when the referendum result came in, I took the old-fashioned approach that I had been taught at school. We lost, so clap the winning team off the pitch and come to terms with defeat. I had no time for, or patience with, the diehard remoaners, any more than with their American counterparts, the “never-Trumpers”.
I was right about May. I was wrong about Boris. As Sullivan says, the effortless superiority and unbearable lightness of BoJo — which we Scots find so difficult to appreciate — is that he takes the ingredients of populism and turns them into a much more palatable dish than his counterparts on the Continent will ever serve up.
The rise of national conservatism and the proof that it can work here in Britain sound the death knell for woke socialism all over the world. Just as Brexit begat Trump, so Boris’s victory more or less guarantees that the Democrats will be decimated next November if they nominate either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
It also implies the ultimate victory of national conservatives on the Continent, beginning with Salvini in Italy, whose departure from power earlier this year will be only temporary. Eventually, even in France, they will run out of ways to keep the Le Pen family out.
National conservatism on the Continent has its nasty side, no doubt. But the best thing about Boris’s win was the part played in it by the revelations of anti-semitism within the Labour Party.
For the past four years the left has tried to represent the populism that produced Brexit as racist. Yet the true racists turned out to be Corbyn and co. And working-class voters saw that. Deo gratias!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford