The real Duffer of St George, out to slay the Euro-dragon

Boris Johnson. Photo European Federation of Cyclists / Flickr

I’ve kept somewhere an old Dictaphone — Google it, kids — on which I recorded Gus O’Donnell, press spokesman for then UK Premier John Major, announce a treaty deal at 1991’s Maastricht Summit, birthplace of the European Union as we know it today.

O’Donnell barely spoke half a sentence before he was drowned out by a stentorian baritone: “It will not stand! IT WILL NOT STAND!” The furious voice belonged to Boris Johnson, then Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, later Mayor of London and today, chief challenger to David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party.

I guessed that Boris had fallen for the multiple prejudices of the press corps of the time, that: a) the Europeans hated the Brits and would reject every option proffered; b) that treaties had been stone-clad since Westphalia, not ‘a-la-carte’ opt-in/out ‘works in progress’; c) that John Major, political assassin of the sainted Margaret Thatcher, was incapable of properly tucking in his shirt, let alone leading a diplomatic coup on this scale.

The blond bombshell was simply doubling down on his original duff pre-game bet. Boris’ argument simply would not stand. Privately the other diplomats were in awe at what Major’s small team had done at Maastricht. “We were all at school,” an impressed Dutch representative told me. “They were commandos. Hit hard, fast, seize the prize, get out smiling.” A Danish diplomat described it as a watershed for international politics: “The Brits have reinvented the practice of diplomacy for the next century.”

O’Donnell denied saying it, but was later chastised anyway for summing up events as “game, set and match” for the UK. If he had said it, it would have been understandable. Everyone one else but Boris seemed to see it that way.

I was there heading a team of trade and economics correspondents, then tracking the ‘Rounds’ of trade talks that would later give birth to refined globalisation and the World Trade Organisation. We had it wrong too, thinking that the negotiations to give rise to the world’s largest single market and trading power might require some thought about the rest of the world was doing in that department.

“No,” said O’Donnell, looking at me like I was an idiot. “Not relevant.” Then he dismissed me with a glare. The Maastricht Treaty, like the European Union it gave birth to, was about politics, not trade.

Major got his agreement on ‘subsidiarity,’ the right to deal with EU issues at national level and deferred another one on a move to greater federalism. Strategic aims like keeping the EU out of foreign policy and diluting its unitary spirit by rapid expansion in the former Soviet East were nailed down. There were UK opt-outs on workers’ rights and the future single currency.

But in the long run a simple dynamic applied. Alignment of economic policy made political alignment essential as well, and economic union would make political union inevitable. Only a short side article in The Economist the day after the deal made that point, as far as I can remember. Major simply basked in the success of his skilled rear-guard action, a retreat under fire, cast as a victory. Boris was only slowly proven right. It could not stand. And only as long as there was no alternative.

I was living in Amsterdam at the time, and during my six years there I saw life become much easier for the European-minded working in Europe, thanks to the European Union. Nothing could be done about the national peculiarities. Registering my second child’s birth with the city involved a hideous grilling from racist Dutch bureaucrats. Collecting a British passport next door before taking him to meet his grandparents followed a delightful exchange with chatty UK consulate staff.

(Boris wrote brilliantly in The Spectator about the identity crisis that followed the birth of his own child in Brussels. He and his wife were also born to English parents abroad. Under a UK law designed to limit the citizenship rights of children born to the so-called ‘New’ — that is brown and black — Commonwealth, his little Englander was expected to take the generous gift of citizenship of his country of birth. The Speccie’s headline on Boris’ piece was a classic: “Congratulations! It’s A Belgian!”)

Now I look back at what Boris has become, and that bellowing at O’Donnell makes a little more sense. Who will speak for England? That seemed to be the message. Not Major. It is I Boris! This Will Not Stand!

It fits the glib arrogance I remember, softened then as now by his bumbling geniality. Boris has come to rely on its power to rub the sharp edges off gaffes of the kind that have laid low the career of greater figures. But he is no dimwit, even if it pays him to play one. His crisp journalistic prose is of the very best Anglo-Saxon kind. A nimble tabloid writer writing for a broadsheet reader he knows well. His incoherent speechmaking is a poor measure of his real brainpower.

I’d not heard him shout before that moment in Maastricht. I only remember his normal voice, intended as a measured tone, coming out like a tannoy announcement at a golf tournament. I assumed he was partly deaf himself, which fitted the grandfatherly manner he cultivated at the age then of just 27.

I think his game plan grows out of that 1991 moment, evolved by opportunity. Cameron will slip and the UK will vote to get out, mainly in the absence of voters without strong reason to vote to stay in. Then Boris will again speak for England.

I suspect that it will be impossible to stop the Scots Nationalists from winning a second independence referendum and leaving the UK to stay with the EU, with which the Scots are far more comfortable. In any case there will be years of uncertainty for a fragmenting UK queuing up behind India, Mexico and China for one-on-one trade pacts with the rest of the world. It will be politically impossible to accept EC rules unchallenged like Norway does, or worse, TTIP conditions thrashed out secretly between Washington and Brussels.

You can’t definitively say that English independence from the EU will be a disaster. Shorn of the heavyweight burdens of former superpower-dom, a welterweight, faster boxing independent England might be better placed to benefit from the rough economic reinvention that leaving the EU will force on it. Its native innovation, as US analyst Alec Ross says, is raw material to the 21st century global economy, just as soil was to the agricultural 18th century, iron to the industrial 19th, and communications to the political 20th.

Finally perhaps the English will stop blaming the EU and immigrants for the shocking inequality endured by its people. It should not stand! Will the English take responsibility for a mess of their own creation, at least as much theirs for tolerating feckless bankers, corporate media and machine politics? For denuded affordable housing stocks, unsatisfactory job opportunities and constantly precarious family finances? Who will speak for England?

Political historians may look at a vote for Brexit in 2016 in the same way they look today at 1956 and Britain’s Suez humiliation. Another benchmark for the end of Empire. Nothing will be the same thereafter, except the genial old buffer likely to be serving as Premier. Not necessarily leading well or wisely, but at least taking some of the edge off the hardship we will endure. Not enough for me though. I still think I’ll vote to stay in.

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