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Britain Doesn’t Have the Clout to Suffer a Fool Like Boris Johnson
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Self-absorption is the dominant theme of contemporary British and American politics. In Britain, the focus is exclusively on Brexit and other developments are marginalised or ignored. In the US, political battles revolve around Donald Trump who gets wall-to-wall coverage in the US media – ferociously hostile though much of it is towards him – which previous US presidents could only dream of.

Self-absorption by any country leads it to take a skewed and unrealistically optimistic view of its place in the world. The current populist nationalist wave is a worldwide phenomenon, but Britain is more damaged than the US by the excessive expectations it generates because it is already a far weaker power than the US and more likely to pay a high price for political miscalculations.

British commentators – the BBC is particularly prone to this – tend to adopt a patronising and derisive approach to Trump’s demagoguery about “making America great again”. But he can get away with the most bizarre antics because the US is a political, economic and military superpower regardless of Trump, even if it does not have the primacy it had after the Second World War or, once again, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its status is not changed by Trump’s words and actions, though these are usually more carefully calculated and rooted in the real world than his critics give him credit for.

His crude realism is underestimated by a contemptuous media, dismissive of everything he does. They portray him as an ill-informed crackpot who makes up his policy on the spur of the moment, but this is often much saner than it looks: despite all his jingoism, he has yet to start a war; his belligerent threats towards countries like North Korea and Iran appear to be designed primarily as negotiating positions in pursuit of a deal; he respects power and will talk to those who possess it, like Vladimir Putin, enraging other parts of the US government which are trying to isolate Russia as a pariah state.

The pro-Brexit vote in the referendum in 2016 is said by Trump to have given vital extra momentum to the populist-nationalist surge that elected him president later that year. But the danger of looking at everything through an isolationist and nationalist lens is far greater in Britain than it is in the US simply because it leads to the British systematically overplaying their hand. The price of so doing is illustrated by every stumbling step Britain takes out of the EU, contradicting the Brexiteer mantra that Britain has political and economic potential which will make it better off outside the EU.

If the other EU states really were exploiting the UK and getting more out of the relationship than the British, then we could leave tomorrow. But, since the opposite is true, the UK is doomed to be always making concessions that are denounced by the Brexiteers as the outcome of an inexplicable weakness of will on the part of Theresa May and her government.

Boris Johnson is in many respects more dangerous to Britain than Trump is to the US because the former British foreign minister fuels the wishful thinking of many English people about their country, a vision more fantastical than anything peddled by Trump. They enjoy Johnson’s defiant blasts on the patriotic trumpet and ignore his ineffective record as foreign secretary. His numerous critics glibly blame his incompetence for this, but the real reason may be that if any former British foreign minister, be they Palmerston or Grey, were resurrected today and given back their old job they would find their influence curtailed because the prospect of Brexit has already made Britain a feebler power.

Johnson’s failings are obvious but have not prevented him becoming the favoured choice of nearly a third of Conservative Party members to replace Theresa May, whom 45 per cent of the membership want to resign immediately. Given Conservative MPs fear of a general election because Labour under Jeremy Corbyn might win, Johnson is not badly placed to be the next prime minister.

It is not just the sub-Churchillian bombast at work here. Johnson is the sort of Falstaffian figure – a likeable rogue, full of fun and bombast, speaking out when others are hypocritically silent – who always appeals to the English. Of course, Shakespeare’s Henry V was more determined and successful in keeping the fictional Falstaff away from the levers of power than Theresa May is in coping with the real live version.

Johnson has the advantage over Falstaff of combining joviality and popular appeal with Old Etonian self-confidence at a time when opinion polls show English self-confidence to be in short supply. People who fear that their national boat is about to capsize commonly like to hear siren voices saying that no such thing will happen and everything will be all right on the night.

Self-confidence can be self-fulfilling, but only if it does not depart too radically from what is achievable and skirts suspected pitfalls. Trump gets away with projecting relentless self-confidence about America’s future because, contrary to his own mendacious claims, Obama left the US in a strong position. Self-assurance detached from reality carries greater risks in Britain, as witness the performance of smoothly confident David Cameron who led the nation over the cliff edge in Libya, the Brexit referendum, and self-destructive austerity.

Of course, Eton did not invent the idea of Britain pretending to be stronger than it really is. The Foreign Office used to trot out the cliché that whatever policy it was advocating at the time would enable Britain “to punch above its weight”, though a moment’s reflection tells one that anybody who makes a habit of this is going to end up flat on the canvas.


During the parliamentary debates about British participation in bombing Isis in Syria, I was struck by how many MPs failed to take on board the British incapacity to do anything militarily effective. The necessary planes, missiles and intelligence on the ground did not exist. But this did not prevent Hillary Benn making a much-applauded speech supporting British intervention in Syria and comparing it with “the socialists, trade unionists and others who joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini.” Significantly, neither Benn nor the supportive MPs showed much interest in the negligible number of missions the RAF was subsequently able to carry out against Isis in Syria.

The economic effects of Brexit are probably survivable, but a greater danger is the degree of division that leaving the EU and the emergence of Falstaffian figures like Johnson, ambitious to rule, will inflict on the country.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Brexit, Britain 
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  1. Gracebear says:

    Cockburn and many like him are afraid of Boris Johnson, who could be a wonderful re-invigorator of British confidence and strength, like Trump in America, and could also make sure that Brexit really happens.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  2. 22pp22 says:

    My vote to leave was inspired by Merkel’s decision to invite in the entire Third World.

    You speak about Britain’s influence in the world or lack thereof.

    But if something doesn’t change and soon there won’t be a Britain or a Germany or a France.

    I can’t see the point in worry about a future we very probably don’t have.

  3. Anonymous [AKA "John Mann"] says: • Website

    I read this article in the hope of finding out what Patrick Cockburn considered to be the shortcomings of Boris Johnson. By the end, I was none the wise. His criticisms seemed to be aimed at Johnson’s style, rather than his opinions and views. While I personally don’t care for Johnson’s style, and frequently disagree with things that Johnson says, I can’t say that Johnson seems to be any more delusional than Theresa May – or any other member of the present government in London. Nor, for that matter, does he seem to be any more delusional than most members of the US Congress.

  4. Anon[185] • Disclaimer says:

    Observing Britain today is like watching a tragic/comedic/farce. The strident BREXITEERs seem to have no appreciation of the fragility of English society or of the English economy. I say English because the UK will break up as soon as Scotland realizes that the subsidies are running out, and will scramble back to the EU. There is serious talk in Ireland of re-union by Christmas 2018.
    The facts are stark, and terrifying: England is the most densely populated large nation in Europe; it has a food deficit, a fuel deficit, a manufactured goods deficit, a technology deficit, a trade skills deficit and a work ethic deficit.
    Add to this a current account deficit, a trade deficit and a total debt load (public, corporate and private) equal to about 500% of GDP. In the context of a declining national currency and increasing interest rates, this scenario can only be described as a nightmare.
    What is not understood either is the extent to which the significant manufacturing enterprises are foreign owned, and therefore controlled. Many located in Britain because Britain is the only large English speaking nation in the EU, these enterprises will relocate out of Britain over a decade or so.
    There is confident talk of Britain becoming a global trading power. Students of history will note that Britain failed to do that in the 1880’s when Whitehall controlled a large portion of the Globe.
    In the EU Britain was a member of a union of 550 million of the world’s wealthiest consumers, and yet they could not manage to run a goods or service surplus. It is true that the City of London will, due to it’s peculiar legal status, continue as the world’s leading money laundering and center of financial manipulation, good luck running the nation on that.

    • Replies: @Gordo
    , @anon
    , @Anonymous
  5. Johnson on the way down is very vulnerable to his clown act but he has his fans for similar reasons to Trump. His comments about Burkas are in tune with his core support. Every taxi driver in London was already behind him anyway.

    Brexit will not be an overnight catastrophe but my grandchildren will wonder why a country that once equalled France or Germany is now less than Spain, never mind the new power, Poland. As Jacob Rees-Mogg has said, it will take 50 years for the full benefits of Brexit to work through.

    Running a surplus on trade is depriving your citizens of their wealth. Exports send your production to others. Exports are the price you pay for imports (other people’s production). If you can get them to use your currency (the GB Pound is the world’s #3 trade currency – relative to the size of the UK economy about as useful as the USD ) or you can invest in their economies and repatriate the profits, you can pay for more imports than your exports can buy. Oil helped for a while too. The UK does fine. At the highest end of high tech the UK outperforms Germany and France. Germany’s strength is complex systems for specialist applications using mid tech components. The UK is world leading in prime movers, many pharmaceuticals and other high end chemicals (for example a lot of core patents for LCD screens). Cambridge is to mobile phones and tablets what Palo Alto is to computers, although Cambridge never went through the manufacturing phase, at least not much. ARM licenced their cores to the Far East and Nokia assembled a lot of the base stations using UK tech.

    • Replies: @JamesC
  6. JamesC says:
    @Philip Owen

    What planet are you on? The UK’s economic performance is hopeless compared to that of Germany.

  7. Sean says:

    Quite a realistic view of the world here by Cockburn. Of course Brexit is like Dunkirk: a withdrawal from taking on the heavyweights of the Continent in the aftermath of a historic defeat in a fair fight. British industry was successful right into the 70′s. According to Edgerton, the decline and fall started when Britain entered the European Economic Community and the trade barriers that had protected British industry came down. Under Thatcher lack of exports did not matter because Britain had the oil, and had become self sufficient in food for the first time.

    The EU was going to regulate the City, and Johnson is really a London finance ( nd immigration friendly) type, not a national politician at all. The main military asset of Britain is the Channel. The less free trade the better.

    • Replies: @El Dato
    , @Philip Owen
  8. El Dato says:

    “the socialists, trade unionists and others who joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Musolini.”

    Those were the guys looking for aggro abroad and for communist revolutions at home, already or soon aligned with Stalin. OMG.

    And the UK went against Mussolini because he had seized some Somalian desert. Big mistake. Should have gone with Mussolini against Hitler that would have been too much Realpolitik.

  9. El Dato says:

    Interesting book tip, thanks.

    The impact of WWI and its enormous influence on wealth, population, industrial base and social structure, and the subsequent pretension that the British Empire would still be a thing going forward seems to be underemphasized, but that’s maybe just the review. Not to mention the demographic shifts of Blighty.

    Put into the Shopping Basket. Only hardcover? Ah well…

  10. @Sean

    The decline and fall started with oil production. It coincides with the EU but competiton from the EU was not responsible. I was there working for the UK equivalent of Siemens at the time, GEC. It was finally destroyed by its own management and The City as were many other firms. Ultimately foreign exchange can only be spent on foreign goods or invested abroad. Thatcher spent oil money on tax cuts which immediately went to imported consumer goods and overseas investment by The City. Firms with only middle levels of added value were destroyed. It could have been spent on infrastructure but the concern was that inflation would have been boosted. Competition from the EU was a trivial factor.

  11. Johnson on the back benches has huge freedom to plot. There has been much talk of him running against May in October. He can be punished for this trivial offence by having the Conservative whip withdrawn. Sounds wonderful, he enhances his reputation as a rebel with his own mind. However, during this presumably temporary punishment he is not a member of the Conservative Party. So, he will be unable to stand against May for the leadership in time to make a difference. This is why his relatively trivial remark has been so highly publicised.

  12. Anonymous [AKA "Elias Simpson"] says:

    Once Britain has left the EU they will naturally gravitate towards North America which is what they should’ve done 50 years ago. The benefits of a common language, common legal system and similar culture. With a free trade agreement between only Britain, the US and Canada (no third world nations like Mexico) all three would benefit.

    • Replies: @Gordo
    , @Miro23
  13. Gordo says:

    There is serious talk in Ireland of re-union by Christmas 2018.

    Methinks you are a troll.

    • Replies: @Anon
  14. Gordo says:

    Once Britain has left the EU they will naturally gravitate towards North America which is what they should’ve done 50 years ago. The benefits of a common language, common legal system and similar culture. With a free trade agreement between only Britain, the US and Canada (no third world nations like Mexico) all three would benefit.

    Yes indeed, however we really want an alliance of all White countries.

  15. Miro23 says:

    Once Britain has left the EU they will naturally gravitate towards North America which is what they should’ve done 50 years ago. The benefits of a common language, common legal system and similar culture.

    Americans are in fact saying that they want their own Brexit – call it Wexit (white exit) from their own out of control elite dictatorship. They voted for it with Trump, but they’re having the same problems as the British people in disentangling themselves from the supra-national Deep State.

  16. Anon[185] • Disclaimer says:

    There is always talk in Dublin of unification. What makes this time particularly interesting to those who want and strive for unification, is the obvious split between Whitehall and Belfast. PM May is held in power by the DUP, a more cynical bunch of political shysters would be hard to envisage. Belfast has declared unequivocally that there will be no hard border in Ireland, and Whitehall has caved. Belfast has also demanded massive increases in subsidies, and again Whitehall caved.
    What needs to be understood about 2018 Ireland, both North and South, is the quite extraordinary demographic changes that have taken place over the last 40 years or so.
    While there are many in the North who are not particularly interested in Irish unity, there is a clear majority in favor of European unity.
    It is a fair question; why does Whitehall cave so easily? The answer to that is that the Permanent Seat on the UNSC is held by “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. No UK, no Seat.
    This also explains the panicked reaction of Whitehall/Westminster when the Scottish independence referendum looked as if independence would win.
    That position on the UNSC is the last and only claim that the English elite can make to any sort of global significance, it is that which allows them to “Punch above their weight” in diplomatic circles.
    Without that Seat England would take it’s place in the UN General Assembly next to Ecuador, and be regarded as a third ranked European power along with countries such as Portugal.
    Whitehall shudders at that prospect.

    • Replies: @(((They))) Live
  17. anon[146] • Disclaimer says:

    “Serious talk in Ireland of a re-union by Christmas 2018″…

    Can you provide one single source to back that claim?

    • Replies: @(((They))) Live
  18. Anonymous [AKA "Mr Ecks"] says:

    Absolutely false and deceitful remainiac twaddle.

    Britain was trapped in a tinpot tyrannical, entirely unaccountable bureaucracy sliding farther down into economic failure every year. That suits the middle class left nicely and so to Hell with everybody else of course.

    Get used to it Remainiac–the good guys won.

    In ten years Britain will have prospered and nobody–apart from the weeping left–will give a damn about the EU.

    • Replies: @Anon
  19. Anon[185] • Disclaimer says:

    “Britain was trapped in a tinpot tyrannical, entirely unaccountable bureaucracy sliding farther down into economic failure every year”.
    That would accurately describe Britain before the EU, and I should know, I was there. Britain was a complete shambles, riven with class antagonism, almost ungovernable. Entry into the EU was the last gasp, a final clutch at potential prosperity before the inexorable slide into 3rd world level failure.
    Your delusional belief in future prosperity is based on nothing but fantasy.
    I notice you don’t bother to counter any of my factual assessments of Britain’s current status, but then to face them means facing reality, which seems impossible for you Brexiteers.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  20. @anon

    Nobody in Ireland is talking about re-union in 2018, but Brexit has brought it closer

    • Replies: @Anon
  21. @Anon

    Even without Scotland and Northern Ireland, England is still a Nuclear power, I would expect them to keep their seat on the UNSC, the Russians kept theirs after the collapse of the USSR

    As it is the English subsidise Scotland and Northern Ireland, you could argue that the English would be better off letting them go

    • Replies: @Anon
  22. Anon[185] • Disclaimer says:
    @(((They))) Live

    Unification is the top priority in Dublin, they talk about it all the time. Now they can smell it.
    “English tribulation, Irish aspiration”.

    • Replies: @(((They))) Live
  23. Anon[185] • Disclaimer says:
    @(((They))) Live

    You might, nobody else does.

  24. @Anon

    The only people in Dublin who talk of, or want unification, are Sinn Fein and their voters, the rest of the country don’t really want it, if it was put to a vote I think it would struggle to pass 40% never mind 50%

    Ireland is not the country it once was

  25. @Gracebear

    If only Boris Johnson wasn’t a fool, he might still be a journalist instead of a former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London!

    Mr Cockburn is wrong, not for the first time. A fool is one thing Boris is not. An unprincipled, entertaining scoundrel maybe.

    “could also make sure that Brexit really happens”

    Hope springs eternal. As I understand it, no one at the time Cameron announced the referendum knew which way he’d jump, and it’s also reported that he’d written two press pieces, one on “Why I’m voting Remain” and one on “Why I’m voting Leave”.

    He might be better than May, but that’s not saying a huge amount.

  26. @Anon

    “Britain was a complete shambles, riven with class antagonism, almost ungovernable. “

    That was 1970s, post-EU Britain. But even then it was a much better place than it is now.

    Our balance of payments was better, our demographics were better, working people could afford housing (even in London!), crime was lower, we made things instead of importing them and selling coffee and houses to each other.

    (Forgot to say in my previous post – Johnson was a big advocate for Turkey’s entry into the EU)

  27. Anonymous [AKA "Disordered (email forgetter)"] says:

    What probably will need to happen is that the British welfare state need be made ultra-efficient, no more burdensome regulations since the EU is not requiring you any extra burdens. Maybe even corporatized. As you say the City of London will be the ones with money, well a corporatist nation is the answer, as well as making the chav youth learn something and work. Something that should help would be the eventual cease of immigration, wages will go up. Lower taxes, bring investment from America and former colonies. And, it’s not like countries outside the EU don’t usually negotiate trade deals with it, even Third World nations do. All in all, this will cause a country that at least works for a living and builds wealth to keep at least some pared back benefits. It won’t be pretty, GBP might still devalue, which might be even necessary. Labor will have to be pleased somehow, but at any rate, saving will need to be done. But I wouldn’t think the economy would necessarily be lowering to Portugal status. And even then, it might be a temporary situation. The EU isn’t necessarily going to stay afloat in its current guise or demeanor at least. Perhaps the bluff will finally be called, or not. And it is true that the other home nations aren’t enthused, though it’s not as if the split is about to happen, there was much more tension other times. So who knows.

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