Ridiculed and even despised by many British and other political commentators, Boris Johnson has struck two decisive blows for democracy.
In the first place, his election victory last month reinforces the Brexit referendum result of 2016 which so many members of the British establishment sought to undermine or reverse. Secondly, quitting the European Union (EU) will result in the repatriation of powers from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels to accountable politicians in Westminster.
Among those who would have been delighted at this outcome is Winston Churchill, one of the first politicians to use the term ‘European Union’. He wrote in 1951 that he supported a European union or federation that would eventually include countries then still ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, but that the United Kingdom (UK) should not be part of it.
Although Mr Johnson is no small-state Thatcherite, Margaret Thatcher would also have been delighted. Mrs (later Lady) Thatcher’s hostility to ever-closer European integration was the single most important cause of her downfall in November 1990 after eleven and a half years as prime minister. Her famous ‘no, no, no’ to further European integration outraged key Europhile cabinet colleagues. But now, some 30 years later, the UK under Mr Johnson’s premiership has said a fourth and final ‘no’ to the EU nearly 47 years after joining it in an earlier incarnation in 1973.
For some, ‘taking back control’ from Brussels to Westminster referred mainly to immigration (and welfare entitlements). But there has always been much more at stake. As Mrs Thatcher said in a speech in Bruges in 1988, ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels’.
She also found it ironic that just as the Soviet Union was learning that political success depended on dispersing power away from the centre, Europe wanted to move in the opposite direction.
David Heathcoat-Amory, a one-time British minister for Europe who turned from an enthusiast to a sceptic, wrote that the ‘philosophical roots of the EU could be found in the continental theory of the state as an idealised entity from which freedom and rights then flow’. British history, on the other hand, could be seen ‘as a struggle to bring arbitrary power under popular control’.
‘Nation states,’ he warned, were ‘indispensable’ for democracy because they gave ‘legitimacy to the making of laws’.
Although there are advantages in British membership of the EU, the UK was always fighting a losing battle against the overriding and often stealthy thrust of ever-tightening union and the natural tendency of European institutions to increase their own supranational legislative, executive, and judicial powers at the expense of British institutions.
Even Mrs Thatcher sometimes found it difficult to be a lone voice against a powerful consensus among more than two dozen other governments. Some of her senior ministers shared her reluctance to yield more and more powers to European institutions. But they were unwilling to be the odd ones out when they got together for meetings with their counterparts from other European countries.
The British are now definitely and finally the odd ones out. Mr Johnson, whose scornful reporting from Brussels in his journalistic days helped to fuel antagonism to the EU, has obtained a solid parliamentary mandate to give effect to the results of the 2016 referendum. That is not how it always works in the EU. Referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005 saw a proposed new European constitution decisively rejected, only for it to be imposed two years later by the Lisbon treaty. Irish voters rejected that treaty in 2008, only to be cajoled into accepting it the following year.
In its reaction to unfavourable referendum results, the EU provided a useful role model for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last year ordered a rerun of a mayoral election in Istanbul, which was won by one of his opponents, Ekrem Imamoglu. When the rerun was held, Mr Imamoglu won by an even greater margin. Mr Johnson, part of whose ancestry is Turkish, has now pulled off a similar feat.
One of the more delightful aspects of Boris Johnson’s election victory is the discomfiture of The Economist, an over-opinionated British news outfit. It denounced the 2016 referendum as ‘the most powerful tool in the populist toolbox’. The subsequent debate had ‘pitted Britain’s entire ruling class, from the leaders of the three main political parties to the heads of multinational companies, against a ragbag army of rebels, troublemakers, and mavericks’. Under Mr Johnson’s generalship, that ragbag army has now won a general election as well as a referendum.
The Economist epitomises the fundamental flaw at the heart of the EU project: the disdain of the ruling class for the ‘populists’ who have now trounced them twice at the polls, in the UK at least.
[Picture: Christoph Scholz, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77691506]
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