With a half mumbled, half blurted “my god!” the most charismatic politician in England walked towards a group of journalists and cameras. Boris Johnson, who is most likely to succeed David Cameron in case of ‘Brexit’, came across uncharacteristically nervous and even slightly confused. Stumbling and stuttering, his back in a Quasimodo-like curve and one hand in his dishevelled, milk-white bowl-cut, he struck a disconcerting resemblance to a cudgelled polar bear in an ill-fitting suit.
What a remarkable way to be for what will always be remembered as the most important moment of his political career. On the pavement outside of his Mayoral residence, Boris finally revealed his position in the coming ‘in/out’ EU referendum.
Even on what many thought the most politically tense day in London since the outbreak of the Falkland war, Boris succeeded in focusing all the attention on himself. All of Europe held its breath: on which side would the “big beast” land? The answer, though perhaps not so surprising to many Boris-watchers, came as a painful blow. Boris will, against the wishes of his friend David Cameron, campaign to forge a permanent British break with Europe. The mist of frolicsome Boris-branding was unable to disguise the awkward body language of a Machiavellian fratricide. Shakespeare on the stoop.
Boris immediately became the totemic figurehead of the ‘out’ campaign. A credible alternative of flesh and blood for an independent United Kingdom—or whatever is left of it after the Europhile Scots will try once again to secede. His support brings an irresistible energy for the out campaign which makes it more likely than ever that a majority of Britons will join Boris in voting to leave the European Union. That is a gut-wrenching realisation for anyone who feels at home in a strong, secure and prosperous Europe.
On Monday morning Boris added insult to injury with his elaborate campaign manifesto to leave the European Union published in The Daily Telegraph. Every sentence, every word was written towards a conclusion in which Boris invokes the spirit of Winston Churchill as the ultimate historical justification of his position. ‘Whatever happens,’ he wrote, ‘Britain needs to be supportive of its friends and allies — but on the lines originally proposed by Winston Churchill: interested, associated, but not absorbed; with Europe — but not comprised.’
Finally we can see his scheme in all its malevolent glory. With his bestselling biography The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History Boris deliberately appropriated the mantle of the man who saved Western civilization from collapse in 1940. Churchill’s John Bull hat replaced with a grey ‘underground’ beanie, the cigar with a “Boris bike,” the three-piece Harris Tweed suit with trouser clips. Every aspect of BoJo’s studied get-up is meant to scream at us: he is the indefatigable leader for our time. He is the man to make history. He is the British bulldog.
There is just one problem. How to claim Churchill as support for the ‘out’ campaign beyond the grave? What would Churchill have done? How can Boris use his hero to force ‘Brexit’ and therewith permanently damage the European project? The only way, evidently, is to paint a barbarically simplified and ill-informed picture of what Churchill stood for.
After the Second World War Churchill became the greatest pioneer of the European ideal. ‘If I were 10 years younger,’ he told his wife shortly after the war, ‘I might be the first President of the United States of Europe.’ In September 1946 in Zurich Churchill called upon France and Germany to enter into a partnership as the first step in building ‘a kind of United States of Europe.’ The speech went down in history, like Churchill foresaw and intended, as a turning point—a Magna Carta of European unity.
In Churchill’s vision for a United Europe Britain played an integral part: ‘I do not agree that the solution to our problem is to create a Europe excluding Britain,’ he wrote to a sceptical friend in December 1949. He went on: ‘British participation is essential to the success of a European Union. It is impossible to say at the moment what form this union will ultimately take, but I am sure that the next immediate step is to develop and strengthen by every means in our power the new Council of Europe.’
The Council of Europe, the first European political institution, was created in 1949 under intense pressure from Churchill and his European Movement, an influential international pressure group to create a European Union. In his brief chapter on Churchill’s Europe, Boris never even mentions the Council of Europe. He completely misses the key point that for Churchill the only way to achieve complete political and economic union and, perhaps ultimately, federation was to let the Council of Europe organically grow into something much more than the platform of European opinion it was in 1949. Democratically. Step by step. Little by little. Ever-closer union.
The unity in Europe, now in the form of the imperfect European Union, is to a great extent the evolved and still organically developing legacy of Winston Churchill. That is the inheritance which Boris is asking the British people to turn their backs to.
It is an inconvenient history for Boris and his campaign. And indeed: one man can make history. That is the Churchill Factor. But to alter history as you see fit is wholly unacceptable. Boris or not.