Ours is a time of paradoxes. For example, even as information technology has empowered enormous and open-access social networks, politics in Britain continues to be run by the tiny and exclusive old-boy network. The contest for the Conservative Party leadership will decide who is Britain’s next prime minister. Seven of the original candidates were Oxford men. The two remaining candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, are respectively the former president of the Oxford Union and the former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Johnson went to Eton; Hunt was head boy at Charterhouse.
Of Britain’s 54 prime ministers since Sir Robert Walpole, 27 were educated at Oxford and 19 at Eton. If Hunt defies the bookies by winning, he will be the second Old Carthusian to occupy No 10. (The first was Lord Liverpool.)
Johnson is believed by some to be the British Donald Trump. Aside from big hair and body mass, however, they have nothing in common. Although born into a wealthy family, Trump was and remains a social outsider, sneered at by Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When he announced his bid for the presidency four years ago, Arianna Huffington said she would cover his campaign in her Huffington Post website’s entertainment section. Johnson was already a member of Britain’s social and political elite before he even got to Oxford.
Trump was early to see the huge political potential of social media, joining Twitter in 2009. He has 61.5m followers. Johnson was late to the game, joining in 2015. He has 614,000-plus followers, 1% of Trump’s total — and fewer than a third as many as the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Trump notoriously communicates at the level of a 10-year-old. Johnson speaks the archaic jolly-good-egg English of PG Wodehouse. Last week, apropos of the Irish backstop, he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “We were the authors of our own incarceration.” Trump would simply have said: “We locked ourselves up.”
“People are yearning . . . for this great incubus to be pitchforked off the back of British politics,” Johnson declared. If MPs failed to deliver Brexit, they would face “mortal retribution”. Boris isn’t Trump. He’s Wodehouse’s spoof demagogue, Roderick Spode, the 7th Earl of Sidcup.
Moreover, this quintessential product of the old elite is three weeks away from being anointed prime minister by another old elite. At the last general election, 46.8m people were registered to vote, of whom 69% turned out. But Britain’s next leader will be chosen by one-third of 1% of the electorate: the 160,000 people who pay the £25 annual subscription that is required to become a member of the Conservative Party.
For most of the 20th century, mass-membership political parties were the organisations that ran democracies. In 1953, the Conservatives could claim to have nearly 3m members. The number of individual members of the Labour Party peaked in 1952 at 1,015,000; there were more than 5m corporate (mainly trade union) members.
Today, as in most European countries, the parties have withered away so that Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike resemble enthusiasts for an anachronistic hobby such as stamp collecting.
The Tory party looks like a classic case of an obsolescent hierarchy: 97% white, 86% middle class (ABC1), 71% male, 54% from southern England and 44% over 65. Fully 84% oppose a second referendum on EU membership and two-thirds of Tory members favour a no-deal Brexit. Why not just ask the Oxford Union to choose the new prime minister?
Here is a further paradox: the British political landscape, under the strain of Brexit, increasingly resembles a continental European system. The age of two-party dominance, despite a fleeting resurgence in 2017, looks to be over. According to the Britain Elects poll aggregator, four parties now have the support of more than 15% of the electorate. YouGov places the Brexit Party — registered by the true British Trump, Nigel Farage, less than six months ago — level with the Tories on 22%. There are similar stories of fragmentation in most EU countries. Ironically, as Britons seek to leave the EU, they are becoming more politically European than they have ever been.
The final paradox has to do with the logic of Brexit itself. Since the 1980s, British Euroscepticism has rested on the belief that the European Economic Community that we joined in 1973 was inexorably morphing into a federal superstate. Here was Margaret Thatcher in her seminal Bruges speech from September 1988: “Working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy . . . We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
For a time, especially as the continental leaders forced through their ill-conceived monetary union, this seemed a legitimate fear. Tory journalists, not least the young Johnson, covered every step in the direction of Bundesrepublik Europa with febrile excitement. True, some of the quotes were made up, but the central thrust of Euroscepticism was correct: with its distinctive history, Britain could not possibly tolerate the loss of sovereignty inherent in the federalist project.
The rise of the internet dooms the European federalist project as surely as it does the old political parties. A hierarchical structure of recognisably 1950s provenance, the EU has proved unequal to the challenges of three network-propelled crises: the US-originated bank panic, the Arab revolutions and the trans-Mediterranean migration surge. The political backlash against these failures, of which Brexit is just a part, has been a death sentence for the project of “ever-closer union”.
A new generation of right-wing populists — of whom the most talented is Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League party — has worked out that it’s easier to remain inside the European tent but constantly to bitch about it, than to exit. Soon there will be enough populist governments to erect a permanent barrier to further integration inside the council of ministers. In any case, almost no north European leader takes seriously the proposals for European reform of Emmanuel Macron, the French president. He is the last federalist standing.
So an Old Etonian is about to become prime minister because he looks “to the manner born” in the eyes of a tiny, self-selected electorate and is willing to promise them the magical Brexit they still believe in. In reality, Brexit is an impossibly expensive and complicated divorce from a spouse who is terminally ill. It’s like seceding from the Holy Roman Empire.
One day we shall realise what a colossal waste of time and energy all this has been. Speaking of modern networks, we would be vastly better off if we had spent the past three years mining bitcoin.
The revised and updated second edition of Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money will be published by Penguin on Thursday