Dear Europe: This is what you need to know about Boris Johnson

This blog is my attempt to dissect the current dramas in British politics for a pan-European audience. It updates a commentary I wrote last week for Carnegie Europe.

Insults, however unfair, are apt to stick. In the early 1790s, as the French Revolution descended into terror, the sympathy it had enjoyed in Britain drained away. Augustin Louis de Ximenes, a French writer who defended Robespierre’s excesses, reacted with a poem in which he declared: “Attaquons dans ses eaux la perfide Albion”: Let us attack perfidious Albion in her waters.

The insult has seldom been more appropriate than it is today. In its dealings with the European Union, Albion has indeed been perfidious. However, before we dissect what has happened in recent days, let me reassure readers in Europe and beyond: unlike many members of his party, Boris Johnson does not have any particular animus towards foreigners. He has betrayed pretty well everyone in his various lives as philanderer, journalist and politician: wives, mistresses, editors, readers, party colleagues, Parliament and the wider public. EU negotiators are merely his latest victims.

Nor should his latest initiative come as a great surprise. Parliament has started to debate a bill that government ministers accept will breach international law. It will allow Britain to ignore key provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement that it agreed with the European Union less than a year ago.

This is not the first time the Prime Minister has tried to wriggle out of commitments he made last winter. In April ministers told the EU they wanted to water down Britain’s commitment to “geographical indictors” (GIs) – rules that protect the names and regional origins of products ranging from champagne to Parma ham. In the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK agreed to continue to observe all 3,000 GIs. Now it wants to reopen an issue that the EU believed was settled.

Moreover, Johnson has never wanted to uphold the principle, contained in the Political Declaration, that British businesses should observe the EU’s “level playing field” rules. His lead negotiator, David Frost, has made clear that Britain wanted to decide its own rules, especially on state aid. Technically, the UK would be within its rights: the Political declaration is not a formal treaty and so has no legal force. But Johnson was certainly guilty of acting in bad faith.

Johnsons’ latest move, then, fits a pattern. Whether viewed in terms of his personal behaviour over four decades or, more recently his cavalier attitudes to the formal undertakings he has given to the EU, his record shouts out: do not trust this man.

This is not all. What we are witnessing are not just the defects of a man with no principles, but a huge shift in the nature of right-of-centre politics in Britain. The governing party is called “Conservative” for a reason. Historically it sought to protect the legacy of the past from the desire for change. It has always acknowledged what various Conservatives down the years have called “the authority of tradition”.

On the other side of British politics have been the reformers who want to get rid of old, and often deep, injustices. For the past hundred years this has been the central purpose of the Labour Party; before that the torch was held by the Liberals. The never-ending contest between tradition and reform has provided the central tension at the heart of British politics for two centuries.

The lines have blurred a little since the 1980s. Labour has increasingly seeking to conserve the gains it secured in the decades after the Second World War, while the Tories, especially under Margaret Thatcher, have promoted radical economic policies. But even Thatcher was careful to work within Britain’s traditional constitutional rules, both formal and informal. She had no time for devolution to Scotland or Wales. She tweaked Britain’s relationship with the EU but never thought of leaving it. She was careful not to offend, let alone overhaul, the judiciary. She respected Parliament. She was also a firm traditionalist on social issues, such as gay rights and gender equality. The basic divide between tradition and reform remained.

No longer. Not only does Johnson lack respect for almost everyone who enters his life; he lacks respect for the traditions which, until now, have his party has upheld. Instead, he is a revolutionary insurgent, far closer in his political style to Lenin than to Churchill.

Naturally, he does not put it that way himself, but Dominic Cummings, his senior adviser and architect of his political strategy, does. Earlier this year, a long analysis of Cummings’s career by a respected BBC journalist reported the influence of Lenin, and in particular, Lenin’s view that “you cannot make a revolution in white gloves”.  

To take just one example, Cummings explicitly wants to convert the civil service from a repository of wisdom and experience into a battering ram for radical change. In July he told officials that a “hard rain is coming” for Britain’s mandarin class. Already six Permanent Secretaries (the top rank of civil servants) have been sacked or forced to resign, essentially for political reasons. Johnson has defied the basic deal that officials should be politically neutral and that, in return, their independence and neutrality should be expected.

In recent times Johnson and Cummings have also targeted the BBC, the judiciary and virtually anyone who opposes Brexit. As a target for Johnson’s hostility, The EU is in eminent company. Moreover, his latest plans to fight the Covid pandemic, by stopping people from mingling on pain of being fined up to £10,000, have provoked accusations of authoritarian high-handedness from within his party.

True Conservatives fear that this will all end in tears. In the past fortnight Johnson has fallen out with three former party leaders: Theresa May, Michael Howard and John Major. Johnson has also been fiercely criticised by normal supportive journalists in The Times, Daily Mail and Spectator. And just as the insult “perfidious Albion” can be traced back to the age of Robespierre, so can the warnings of defying tradition. Edmund Burke is widely regarded as the father of British Conservatism. In Reflections on the French Revolution, he wrote:

Plausible schemes with pleasing commencements often have shameful and lamentable conclusions…. A man should be infinitely cautious about pulling down an edifice that has for ages satisfied the common purposes of society to some tolerable degree… When it [respect for tradition] is extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation. Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.

Twenty-first century Britain is not eighteenth-century France; Johnson is no Robespierre. But democrats have reason to be concerned, even without the specific terror of the guillotine. If Johnson gets his way, and he has a big majority in the House of Commons, Britain is in the first stages of a profound and potentially dangerous upheaval, of which the current spat with the EU is just one element. You – we – have been warned.