John Stevens is a former member of the European Parliament.
Boris Johnson is right.
This statement is not a rhetorical olive branch to mollify the doubtless clear majority of ConservativeHome readers for whom my re-appearance on this site, with a full article, and thus of course the Editor’s kindness in extending me the privilege, requires excuse. I firmly believe it to be true.
In his piece in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, the Foreign Secretary has correctly exposed the betrayal were Britain, having left the European Union, to continue to participate in and thus abide by the rules, and contribute to the costs of, the Single Market, the Customs Union, and the host of other ancillary arrangements currently contained within the framework of our membership. This would be the polar opposite of the promises of “taking back control” which won last year’s referendum.
He has also correctly identified a key reason why Remain lost: its campaign felt unable to admit the fundamental political rationale of the EU, which is to create a superpower out of nations and peoples that, on their own, can no longer aspire to such a status. Finally, he has correctly elevated to the centre of the debate the quintessentially conservative principle that performance is determined by belief – so our future depends not primarily upon the terms of our trade, but upon the passion of our patriotism.
However, Johnson’s argument, though ranging far beyond his ministerial brief, has some serious omissions. For example, he does not reveal whether, were we somehow to end up de facto remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union, surrendering only our seat at the table and voting rights – our de jure membership – he, or any significant body of Leavers, might feel impelled to reconsider the wisdom of their referendum choice.
Nor does he reveal whether his rejection of Britain’s participation in the creation of a European superpower precludes any other such neo-imperial enterprise. Would he be happy in a single market and customs union with Canada or Australia, were it on offer? And what of Liam Fox’s love that dare not speak its name for our becoming de facto, or even de jure, the 51st state of the United States? Or does he rather believe that we, on our own, can still occupy a place in world political economic and cultural affairs sufficient to render credible the intense patriotism he seeks to rekindle in British hearts?
This is the critical question, on account of his greatest omission, from a Conservative point of view: that the real danger of Brexit lies in its revival of class politics. The referendum result was at least as much a vote against London as it was against Brussels – against those whose wealth and expert arrogance made them seem to many to be foreigners here, as much as against actual foreigners, either here or over there. This is why the most probable outcome of our current course is Jeremy Corbyn in government, armed with Henry VIII powers and unconstrained by EU laws. The Foreign Secretary dreams he can lead us towards being a super Singapore, whereas it is Venezuela without the sunshine that beckons.
Patriotism, the shared identity which transcends mere economic interests, was Conservatism’s great weapon against class politics. But is British, or more precisely English (excluding London) patriotism now strong enough, on its own, to withstand the storm now being raised by a globalisation and a technological transformation far greater than those which gave birth to Marxism? Will it not need to expand to embrace a much more ample and grandiose sense of belonging to prevail?
The most profound and poignant part of Johnson’s piece is when he recognises a European patriotism is indeed growing in Britain: “I look at so many young people with the 12 stars lip-sticked on their faces and I am troubled with the thought that people are beginning to have split allegiances.” He should reflect more deeply on the new nature of, and need for, patriotism in the modern world, where multinational economics is driving multinational politics. And on the fact that there are no young people here ready to lip-stick the stars and stripes to their faces.