Early in 2016 Boris Johnson wrote two reasoned articles on Brexit, one for and the other against, but only offered up the one for publication. He wrote the two articles to determine which campaign would give him the best chance of getting into Number 10. One has to give him credit for taking a reasoned approach, albeit one steeped in self-interest.
Within minutes of telling David Cameron they would wipe the floor with the Vote Leave campaign, Johnson came out publicly in support of it. It is classic Johnson that, having narrowly won the day for Leave, he then quit the field.
Back in 2013 Boris Johnson wrote in Churchillian style that “If we left the EU … we would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by ‘Bwussels’, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”
These fundamental flaws in our society and economy are more than a century old, indeed back in the 1900s concern was being expressed about businessmen spending too much time on the golf course and not enough time at their desks.
Having ‘got Brexit done’ you might think that Johnson would turn his attention to those flaws he identified in 2013.
You might think that someone who could give master classes in sloth, and who is addicted to easy gratification, would at least appreciate how many millions in the UK are employed in the leisure and tourism industry. You might think that; you would be wrong.
The Leave campaign never expected to win, so had no plan as to what to do next. We have been paying the price for that lack of foresight ever since and look to be doing so for the foreseeable future.
I recently finished reading Robert Kee’s book, ‘1939: The World We Left Behind’. He intentionally wrote the book in the context of the year with little or no reference to the events of succeeding years. This passage stands out:
“The quality of bright morning, in which anything, even something rather hopeful, might develop, disappeared from the face of the year (The London Evening Standard had run an optimistic leader as late as 10 March headed ‘Bright Morning’). Those who believed in a policy of appeasement, to be backed almost as an afterthought by preparation for its failure, now confronted the awkward reality that the afterthought was likely to be the most important part of their policy.
“Those who had so confidently attacked appeasement, maintaining that it could only lead to a disastrous outmanœuvering of the democracies, now found themselves faced by the disaster of their own prediction; and suddenly in this situation it was less comforting to have been proved right than it had been to maintain that they would be.”
History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes …
“Up to the Ides of March and Hitler’s occupation of Prague it had seemed that British public opinion was very marginally in favour of ‘appeasement’ as Chamberlain had then been pursuing it. Not only did the opinion polls show him consistently commanding about 50 per cent of the British public’s support as Prime Minister, but a British Institute of Public Opinion poll, published on the very day Hitler occupied Prague, showed those who were actively opposed to appeasement as a distinct minority. Only 24 per cent thought that it was ‘bringing war near, by whetting the appetites of the dictators’. But the poll also revealed some blurring of concept as to what appeasement actually was. It was positively approved of by twenty-eight per cent as ‘a policy which would ultimately lead to enduring peace’; but 46 per cent thought it would ‘keep us out of war until we had time to re-arm’.”
Compare this with the signs of a growing wish in 2021 to narrow the divide in practical terms between the UK and the EU – and even the desire to re-join the EU, albeit a minority one.
“In spite of the campaigns of a few thousand left-wingers, it is fairly certain that the bulk of the English people were behind Chamberlain’s foreign policy. More, it is fairly certain that the same struggle was going on in Chamberlain’s mind as in the minds of ordinary people. His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights.
“It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him. Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another. It was behind him when he went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia, when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he prosecuted the war half-heartedly.
“Only when the results of his policy became apparent did it (public opinion) turn against him; which is to say that it turned against its own lethargy of the past seven years. Thereupon the people picked a leader nearer to their mood, Churchill, who was at any rate able to grasp that wars are not won without fighting.”
Thus wrote George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of Appeasement in the late 1930s, it was way more popular than Leave was, even on the day of the referendum in 2016. I cannot recall anyone who was on the electoral roll in 1939, and was subsequently interviewed, outing themselves not just as an ardent Appeaser, but also an unrepentant one.
I suspect we will never come close to that with regards to Brexit, but there are growing signs of more people saying that Johnson’s self-serving Brexit is not the one for which he urged them to vote.
(Based on an article that originally appeared on my blog)