Monday, July 29, 2019

The Boris Johnson Perplex

You can’t say it isn’t interesting. No, I do not mean President Trump’s latest Twitter storm. I am talking about the reams of commentary about the ascent of the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

For those who despise him and everything he represents Johnson is Trump redux. And yet, cheap analogies are the product of small minds, so we should take them all with an awful lot of salt.

To be obvious, Johnson is highly literate and highly educated. He has a solid command of the language and can speak articulately while in the midst of parliamentary debate. Few people would consider that Trump has anything like a mastery of communication… which is certainly forgivable… or would be if he knew that he had not really mastered the skill.

Anyway, for your delectation, here are a few prophecies about the Boris Johnson future. You will note that some people, those of lesser talent, seem to believe that they know exactly what the future will bring. They would do better to practice humility and stop forecasting an uncertain future.

Begin with Jonah Shepp, writing in New York Magazine. In a somewhat regrettable screed Shepp highlights a central gender issue. What with the abject failure of Theresa May, any potential Johnsonian success will make it appear that May was not up to the job… because she was a woman. If such is your political predilection, then you will have a stake in Johnson’s failing. If he, of a more boisterously manly character, cannot do the job of removing Great Britain from the European Union, Theresa May’s stock will rise. If he can do the job she couldn’t do, the cause of women’s empowerment will suffer a setback. 

Keep in mind that Western Europe has of late been led by the weak sisters, all of whose names began with M-- Merkel, May and Macron. Topping it off is the EU head of foreign affairs, one Federika Mogherini, an Italian socialist whose policy goal seems to be to submit to Iran. 

One might consider Boris Johnson to be the reassertion of manliness… even in slightly caricatured form… as a counterpoint to the Western European tendency toward kindness and gentleness. 

Herewith, Shepp’s analysis of the May-Johnson disparity. Note the contemptuous neologism: mansplaining:

Brexit, or the failure to deliver it, was May’s downfall. Like every other prominent Tory (and Trump), Johnson has spent much of the past year mansplaining to her how to manage Brexit, boasting that if he were in charge, he’d have those hated Brussels bureaucrats bending to Britain’s will in no time through groundbreaking tactics like yelling, making threats, and being completely unreasonable. May’s dismal tenure as prime minister was a great time for critics within her party, as it gave them a foil against which to compare their hypothetical leadership, without the actual challenge of governing. Johnson being the loudest of these critics, the most charismatic, and the most willing to pander to the basest instincts of his base, it’s no wonder he got the job.

As of now, we do not know whether or not Brussels bureaucrats will bend to Johnson’s will. Apparently, Johnson is willing to tell them to stuff it… so we shall await developments.

Then, Ian Buruma writes a peculiar piece in the New York Times saying that Winston Churchill would have hated Boris Johnson. One appreciates the level of perspicacity required to ascertain Churchill’s views. And one appreciates the superhuman powers required to converse with Churchill today.

Given that times have changed and that political alliances have been realigned we do not know what Churchill would have thought of Theresa May… or of Boris Johnson.

And yet, given that Johnson will have a far better relationship with Trump than Obama had with the Brexiteers-- who he refused to support-- one does not understand what Buruma is getting at here:

The idea of Britain’s special relationship with the United States was also very much Churchill’s. His mother was American, so there were sentimental reasons. And Churchill was a great believer in the greatness of the “English-speaking peoples.” But the relationship was born out of dire necessity. Churchill knew that Britain would not be able to defeat Nazi Germany without active help from the United States.

Roosevelt, who was no friend of British imperialism, was well aware of the danger posed to the United States by a Europe dominated by the Third Reich. But in 1940, most Americans were not at all keen to go to war to help Britain. The most fervent opposition came from right-wing isolationists, and some of them, such as the aviator Charles Lindbergh, had more than a sneaking sympathy for the Nazis. Their slogan, revived by the Trump campaign in 2016, was “America First.”

In truth, a man with a better command of political history would not have chosen to resurrect the slogan: America First. And yet, the Roosevelt administration must bear responsibility for refusing to engage with Europe or to allow European Jews living under Hitler to enter America. The America Firsters allowed FDR to escape all responsibility for America’s lateness at engaging with Europe. Winston Churchill had to camp out in the White House to persuade FDR to enter the conflict.

For his part Buruma must count as an internationalist. Thus, he holds nationalists in contempt. If Britain leaves the EU it will be weak and pathetic, unable to hold its own. He forgets that once upon a time Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany, at a time when the rest of Europe had surrendered to it. We might also notice that Britain has relationships with nations like Australia and Canada, to say nothing of the United States. While France is imposing tariffs on American tech companies, Boris Johnson has begun negotiating a trade deal with the Trump administration

Buruma offers:

Mr. Johnson has pushed all these buttons. But the main thing most Brexiteers have in common is an obsession with national sovereignty, “taking back control” and keeping foreigners out — a yearning for that old British idea: splendid isolation.

Hence the fetish of the Dunkirk spirit, used to great effect in the Brexit campaign. Hence, too, Mr. Johnson’s rhetoric revolving around the fantasy of wartime derring-do.

When he promises that Britain will leave the European Union by Halloween, “do or die,” he is mimicking Churchill’s bulldog defiance of the Nazi foe. Like Trump, he has an exaggerated belief in national power and in his own country first, unfettered by international institutions or cooperative arrangements, even though many of those were set up by the American and British governments in the wake of World War II.

Trade deals are cooperative arrangements. Surely, Trump has worked long and hard to get better deals for America. As for the Iran nuclear deal, it was a sellout to the mullahs and deserved to be scuppered.

Despite  Buruma America still has serious national power. It does not need to bow down to the bureaucrats in Turtle Bay. But, Buruma sees a weakened Britain:

The idea that Britain, acting alone, can exact favorable terms from much larger powers such as China, Europe or, indeed, the United States, is a delusion. If it leaves the European Union, Britain will become a middling provincial country, whose fortunes will be subject to the whims of others. Trump probably won’t care. Churchill would have been horrified.

We will note that Great Britain is the epicenter of Anglo-Saxon civilization, the civilization that has had the greatest success over the past quarter millennium. Why does Buruma believe that without the EU it will shrink into irrelevance, or that it will not be able to make a trade deal with Donald Trump.

And then there is Andrew Sullivan, who offers a sane and cogent analysis of the Johnson ascent. In a refreshing burst of humility he declares that we do not know what is going to happen in Great Britain and that we should give Johnson a chance. Fancy that.

Sullivan describes Johnson:

He’s a very sharp man, deeply ambitious, and deserves a chance to prove himself. And in the two days since he went to the queen and became Britain’s leader, he has seized the initiative with familiar élan. His stance is clear: The British people voted to leave the European Union in 2016, and the Parliament has a democratic responsibility to enact their will. That means that Britain will leave on Halloween of this year, deal or no deal. The alternative is to turn British democracy into a joke.

The last is worth emphasizing. If the government does not respect the referendum results, it will be trampling on the will of the people.

Sullivan, like your humble blogger, was impressed by Johnson’s performance in Parliament last week:

Deploying all his rhetorical skills, he laid waste to a somewhat bewildered opposition, wrapped himself in Churchillian patriotism, predicted a new golden age for the United Kingdom, and declared himself supremely optimistic, casting the opposition as negative naysayers. He also delighted in exposing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s latest shift of position in favor of voting for Remain in a second referendum. 

Sullivan quotes Johnson’s put down of Labour leader Corbyn:

“I have to say that a most extraordinary thing has just happened today. Did anybody notice? Did anybody notice the terrible metamorphosis that took place, like the final scene of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers? At last, [Jeremy Corbyn], this longstanding Eurosceptic, the right honourable gentleman, has been captured. He has been jugulated, he has been reprogrammed by his honourable friends. He has been turned now into a remainer! Of all the flip-flops that he has performed in his tergiversating career, that is the one for which I think he will pay the highest price. It is this party now, this government, who are clearly on the side of democracy in this country."

Sensibly, Sullivan sets out some possible scenarios:

Here’s one scenario: Johnson calls an early election, portraying Labour as traitors to democracy, way too left, too persnickety, too negative, and far too pessimistic. He wins, and uses his majority to try and strike a new deal with the E.U. Here’s another: Johnson pulls off a no-deal Brexit, the economic impact is not as dire as most have feared, and he becomes a national hero, if only for putting an end to the endless nerve-racking limbo. And another: Johnson is stymied by Parliament, the E.U., and the Irish government, loses a vote of no confidence, loses the election and, with the Tory party in ruins, the U.K. remains in the E.U., led by the most left-wing government in Britain’s history.

My bet is on the first two. We’ll see soon enough. But this was a very strong debut. It was Churchill minus the brutal realism that Winston brought to the House in 1940. Which may be exactly what the British public wants, after years of indecision and deadlock and depression. It’s clear leadership of a kind we haven’t seen in a very long time. And the thing about leadership is that it can make things that previously seemed impossible reachable after all.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Theresa May, the distrusting control-freak, had everything prepared for the first months after a possible no-deal Brexit. Boris Johnson is standing on her shoulders here. If he succeeds, and I think he will, he owes her big. And so does everyone in the Kingdom who depends on, say, insulin imported from the EU.