By Andonis Vassiliades
Since becoming the leader of the Conservative Party and another unelected prime minister in a row, the public presentation and transformation of Boris Johnson from a scruffy, awkward presenting ‘clown’ into a clean-cut, groomed and serious politician is astonishing.
There is little doubt that he models himself on one of his idols, Sir Winston Churchill, and fancies himself as another modern-day Great Man who is fighting another ‘war’ for freedom and liberation from – to use his euphemism – ‘our European friends’. Characteristically, his speeches are full of Churchillian overtones.
He even uses famous lines from Churchill’s speeches to promote the impression that Brexit is a fight for the survival of democracy and, like Churchill, he declares: ‘I will not surrender’. But here lies the irony with his phoney war. Churchill is regarded as the architect of a united Europe. At the University of Zurich, September 19, 1946, he told his audience that sovereignty, freedom, prosperity and peace depended on a united Europe. Here is what he said in part: ‘we must build a kind of United States of Europe… a European [family] which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship… in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe…’
Historically, the UK has always remained confused and two-minded about its national identity and how that identity could be reconciled with a ‘European family’. Ever since Ted Heath’s government took the UK into the then EEC in 1973, the UK has been at war with itself. Successive governments and public opinion have been wrestling with the question of whether to accept or reject, love or hate their ‘European friends’. And, when convenient, Europe has been used as a scapegoat for the UK’s own political and economic failures.
Following the 1974 general election, Harold Wilson promised a referendum to decide whether the UK should stay in or leave the EEC. But before that, he tried to extract benefits and favours from the Europeans by renegotiating the terms of membership. On achieving those extra benefits, parliament endorsed ‘Remain’ as did 67 per cent of the voters in the referendum.
By the late 1970s, the love affair with Europe turned to animosity fuelled by xenophobia, domestic political instability, economic downturn and the ‘winter of discontent’. James Callaghan’s government collapsed under the weight and the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, took over in 1979. In the toxic political atmosphere that prevailed, the attacks on ‘foreign’ interests, the onslaught on public services, austerity, claims that democracy and sovereignty were threatened by subversive elements of the left, Europe became deeply unpopular. The Labour Party openly demanded the UK’s withdrawal whilst the Conservative Party was vociferously divided over the issue. Thatcher was resistant. Like Churchill, she saw the economic and political benefits of Europe so she engineered a ‘war’ with Europe to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership. She extracted substantial rebates, changes to the EEC budget and a reduction in the UK’s net funding contribution. Her ‘victory’ meant that peace was restored and Europe was embraced once more.
But that love affair was short-lived. Her resignation in 1990, following a ruthless challenge to her leadership, led to John Major becoming prime minister until 1997. In those years, which also saw the formal establishment of the EU in 1993, Europe remained central to UK domestic partisan politics and manoeuvres for power.
The general election of 1997 delivered a landslide victory for Tony Blair’s Labour Party. The UK political theatre between 2007 (when Gordon Brown succeeded Blair) and 2010 continued to be in turmoil. Public opinion polls in the period kept fluctuating for or against the EU. One minute the UK public wanted to stay in and the next to leave. The loss of ‘Britishness’, democracy and sovereignty (e.g. heated objections to the euro currency, the European passport and the metric system of measurement) were particularly evident in the fierce debates.
These debates were particularly aggravated by immigration issues. Politicians exploited and escalated xenophobia to such heights that certain policy contradictions could not pass unnoticed. For example, whilst the UK government appeared to be in favour of Poland joining the EU in the name of democracy, there was resistance to Polish workers arriving in the UK. So again, during David Cameron’s premiership from 2010 to 2016, and despite another renegotiated membership, public opinion toward the EU swung like a pendulum which culminated in the 2016 referendum for Brexit.
The political turbulence which followed the referendum has been unprecedented. Social divisions exploded in the open with a vitriolic effect. The nation has been carved up into ‘Brexit’ or ‘Remain’ camps, meaning in translation that ‘either you are with me’ or ‘against me’. ‘Brexit’ and ‘Remain’ have become social triggers that generate adverse and ugly reactions. Moderate politics has been replaced by atavistic instincts which are expressed in threats, overt attacks and violence. Surveys by the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff across the UK (and other specific research in Northern Ireland by others) confirm that violence is an emerging challenge to the stability of the UK. Respondents from both ‘Brexit’ and ‘Remain’ camps (but mainly the former) approve of violence even when people are ‘badly injured’ as ‘a price worth paying’ for achieving their aim. They do not care about becoming poorer or that the UK economy may collapse. Ominously, while they recognise that the UK may not survive the onslaught to remain a unified entity, they are willing to see the break-up of their country as another worthy cause if only they get what they want.
It is hard to believe that the general election on December 12 will heal these wounds. Like a popular drama series, ‘Brexit’ or ‘Remain’ will reappear, post-election results, in a new revamped sequel. This historically ferocious duality between ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ may prove to be the poisoned chalice that puts the unity of the UK in jeopardy.
Andonis Vassiliades is an emeritus professor