Over the 40-plus years the British spent in the European Union, our European neighbours thought they’d come to understand us fairly well. Like everyone else, we were prisoners of our own history – which, in our case, had left us with a tiresome sense of our own exceptionalism and general superiority. We were often awkward partners. But, on the more positive side, we were also pragmatic and wary of extremes, reliable – or, at least, predictable – and, as a state, behaved ourselves in a reasonably principled and competent fashion.
Then came Brexit – a completely un-British triumph of ideology over pragmatism, accomplished by a campaign of calculated mendacity. And now, perhaps even more shockingly, the British government is unapologetically legislating to renege on the Brexit withdrawal agreement – an international treaty signed and celebrated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and ratified by the British Parliament, less than a year ago. As the European Commission president has recalled, it was Margaret Thatcher, the patron saint of British Conservatives, who laid it down that “Britain does not break treaties”. A handful of Conservative legislators have been brave enough to object – but most, it seems, will do what they are told. So, what on earth is happening?
The short answer is that Britain has been undergoing its own sub-Trumpian revolution. The process begins with the embrace of populism, the abandonment of truth and fact in public debate, and the stoking of identity politics – all with the aim of gaining power through a public vote. It then progresses to the assault on all those democratic institutions that might check or balance the exercise of that power. Where US President Donald Trump has been brazen, Johnson has been rather more insidious; he could even claim a democratic mandate for much of what he is doing, having slipped a little foretaste into his manifesto for last December’s election campaign.
Britain has been undergoing its own sub-Trumpian revolution. The process begins with the embrace of populism, the abandonment of truth and fact in public debate, and the stoking of identity politics.
But the manoeuvres are the same: the selection of a cabinet on the basis of loyalty, not competence; the purging and cowing of his own party; the empowerment of unelected aides and placemen; the undermining and sacking of key officials judged insufficiently committed; the vilification of impartial media; the efforts to circumvent judicial restraint; the centralisation of decision-making; and the casual marginalisation of geographically devolved powers.
Johnson’s actions may have been less blatant than Trump’s, and accompanied with a breezy smile and a Latin tag – but the absence of a codified British constitution, and his big majority in Parliament, arguably afford him greater scope. Never mind the Brexit legend about restoring sovereignty to Britain’s Parliament: since he attained the premiership, Johnson has made plain his reluctance to let the legislature hold him to account – suspending it illegally last autumn, and now ramming through not just treaty-breaking legislation but also post-Brexit rules that will deny Parliament any say on future trade deals. And Britain’s media landscape is more vulnerable than America’s, with the predominance of the right-wing press and the government’s campaign of intimidation against the BBC, whose funding it collects from the public.
So, that is what is happening – but to what end (other, of course, than “getting Brexit done”)? The big Johnson promise, beyond Brexit, was to “level Britain up” – the economic revival of the northern parts of the country. But, like Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, this is no evident guide to action. Johnson’s ambition to become prime minister was palpable – his ambition as prime minister remains wholly obscure. It is doubtful, indeed, whether he has one, other than staying in power (it is commonly observed that his government behaves more like a campaign than an administration).
So, we are left reading the runes of a personality perhaps most remarkable for its chronic irresponsibility – and the implications of two key operating styles. First are the habits of the Oxford “essay crisis”, reinforced by a career in journalism: Johnson works to a 48-hour horizon. The second, displayed as mayor of London, is his preference to play “chairman of the board” – that is, to do the PR and take the plaudits, while others sweat the detail.
These two traits explain why the other two members of his Vote Leave triumvirate – his Savonarola, Dominic Cummings, and his Machiavelli, Michael Gove – remain so vital to him in government. Cummings fills the hole where a strategy should be with his dual obsessions: his convert’s fixation on science, technology, and data analytics; and his love of “moving fast and breaking things” (the opposition, institutions, democratic restraints, legacy economies – anything, really). Cummings is a man on a mission. It is only because of him that Johnson knows what to do when he gets up in the morning.
Gove supplies more sinuous skills at the heart of government, plus energy and competence. Excepting the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the rest of the cabinet has now been exposed as pedestrian, at best, and often risibly inept. So, Gove is crucial to keeping the show on the road; no wonder he is now moving into a decisive role in the Brexit endgame.
Which leaves the final question: does Britain – or the triumvirate – actually want a deal? One can only guess. Gove probably does, being smart (and conventional) enough to realise that another 5 per cent blow to GDP on top of the pandemic – with a plausible worst-case scenario of 7,000 trucks stranded on the Channel approaches next January and the reinforcement of a majority for Scottish independence, along with the destabilisation of Northern Ireland and the resulting backlash from the US congress – will hardly boost a tottering government, no matter how ferociously it blames the Europeans. Cummings, by contrast, will probably be relaxed about the prospect of yet more “creative destruction”, and is certainly determined to remove any restraint on state aid that might prevent him from rebuilding on the earth he scorches.
And Johnson? Johnson, right now, will neither know nor care: the man who decided his position on Brexit at past the eleventh hour – by writing two contrasting op-eds and deciding which one would play better – will be waiting for events to crystallise and time to run out.
One thing that will certainly distress him, though, is confronting a trade deal that is clearly in the national interest but requires him to drop his ideas about unilaterally altering arrangements on the Irish border. A trade deal with the EU, plus a rejection of Johnson’s law-breaking, would be a double boost for an embattled Britain. Sadly, the national interest may not get much of a look-in as the triumvirate make their final calculations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.