In the first of his widely unanticipated speeches on foreign affairs, delivered at Chatham House in London on 2 December 2016, British foreign secretary and court jester Boris Johnson devoted almost twice as much space to the (admittedly worrying) prospects for the African elephant as to the implications for Europe policy of Brexit. This was bad enough. But among the mere 109 words he employed on the latter subject was a statement on security with Britain’s European friends which said – employing an architectural metaphor of which he is fond – that ‘our role is to be a flying buttress, supportive of the EU project, but outside the main body of the church.’ Even by Johnson’s standards, this was a preposterous thing to say. First, to be of any use, a building’s flying buttress needs to be strong but – as the great majority of respected economists maintain – Britain’s economy will be seriously weakened by departure from the single market, and its ability to maintain an already diminished military establishment will itself be weakened further, along with it. Second, Britain’s abandonment of the EU will in any case be destructive rather than supportive of the ‘EU project’, for the simple reason that it will encourage other anti-EU forces across the continent to bring it tumbling down. A more appropriate metaphor from the building trade for the policy of Brexit relative to the ‘European project’, particularly one shaped by a court jester, would be ‘flying wrecking ball’. In the middle of the nineteenth century, so appalled was he by the number of mad ministers who had found their way to the Foreign Office (yes, there are precedents) that the consul-general and brilliant satirist Grenville-Murray urged Parliament to make provision for dealing with them via passage of a ‘Mad Ministers Act’ (A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era, pp. 89-90). Such legislation might have spared us Mr B. Johnson – and saved the world, for that matter, if it had been emulated across the Atlantic.
I can add nothing to what A. C. Grayling has written so trenchantly on this subject. (To dwell on it too much provokes the same reaction as inadvertently catching sight of the Daily Liar – sorry – Mail: it makes me feel sick.) See also The New European, in which A. C. Grayling also writes and which I warmly support.
There is sometimes a silver lining to the darkest of clouds, and a case in point in connection with Donald Trump’s election victory might well be the injection of a virus into that sometimes useful but now out-of-control mode of diplomacy, summitry. Unless deluded or required to do so by fear, what decent leader would want to spend any time in his company? In particular, female world leaders, of which 22 were listed here last year, would be bound to shudder at the prospect. Certainly, they could not risk an encounter with Mr Trump of the kind employed in the early 1960s by British prime minister Harold Macmillan and French president Charles de Gaulle – a ‘walk in the woods’. Politely avoiding summitry with the United States, they might realise that they can cut back on it in other relationships as well; in fact, that would be useful for their relations with Washington, because they could say: ‘It’s not just you we’re avoiding, Mr Trump.’ And the idea might catch on elsewhere! Thank you, Donald. Thank you, thank you.
The right-wing press in the UK, led by the Daily Mail – the newspaper that supported the Nazis in the early 1930s – is foaming at the mouth. Like the evil fictional character Dr Fu Manchu, the beer-swilling populist Nigel Farage warned that the world would hear from him again – and it has. The usual sophistry of swivel-eyed Tory members of parliament like John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg has gone into high gear (the less said about Ian Duncan Smith the better). All of this means that Gina Miller, who stimulated the London High Court ruling that the executive branch of the British government cannot formally start BREXIT without Parliament’s explicit approval, must have got it right. Well done, Gina! Britain is not a ‘democracy’, mindlessly acting on the so-called ‘will of the people’ (aka the ‘will of the people with the resources to manipulate public opinion’) as expressed in slender simple majorities on matters of the gravest importance. Rather, like other mature democracies, it is a ‘liberal-democracy’; that is, a polity with a constitution that guards against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and also wisely gives greater weight to the opinions of the … er … wise. Now, as Polly Toynbee says, it’s time for the custodians of Britain’s representative (not direct) democracy to stand up and be counted. If they remain confused on the point, let them re-read Burke’s famous address to the electors of Bristol in 1774.
There have been many media assessments of the significance of the appointment of Mr B. Johnson as Britain’s new foreign secretary but this, I believe, is the best. In the coming weeks I shall be re-thinking a few parts of the chapter on foreign ministries in my textbook.