One of the most baffling reactions among liberals since 2016 was to compare Boris Johnson to Donald Trump. I reside in England, and saw tweet after tweet from the Max Boots and Tom Nichols of the world on why these two, and Brexit and the election of Trump, are exactly the same.
The reality, as always, is a lot more complicated. There is of course similarity in both events. Both were a rebel yell against orthodoxy in the respective countries. In the United States, it was by masses of people who oppose the elites’ conventional wisdom, from mass immigration from Latin America to foreign intervention in the Middle East. In the United Kingdom, it was about the ever-closing European Union. The British, and mostly the English, did not want to be vassals of an empire.
But that was where the similarities end. Trump is mercantile, Boris is a free trader. Trump is a businessman from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who wants the United States to end what he perceives to be free-riding from allies and focus on China as the peer competitor, given that America’s favorable balance is fading fast and there’s a time to draw a line in the sand.
Boris, a classics scholar from Oxford, can recite The Iliad in ancient Greek, talk about ascending tricolons in rhetoric, and is a former editor of The Spectator with books on the Roman empire and Winston Churchill under his belt. He is at heart a historian who wants to break open the EU monopoly and open up trade to turn London into a Singapore upon the Thames. That’s something Germany’s Angela Merkel is extremely worried about, as she considers post-Brexit Britain, alongside the United States and China, to be “an economic competitor for the EU.”
Trump is rightfully skeptical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, given that the United States has been carrying Europe’s security burden for more than 70 years. Britain wants to strengthen NATO as a counter to the potential EU army. Trump wants America to retrench from parts of the world. Britain is renewing obscure imperial era treaties with Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand, sending the Royal Airforce to the Pacific, and reopening a naval base in the Middle East, 60 years after the Suez Crisis.
The way Boris and Trump are similar, however, is not their whiff of blond hair, but the entrenched resistance they both face from unelected bureaucrats and opposition politicians. Entrenched edifices and interests are always hard to topple.
As the new Boris-negotiated Brexit deal is stuck in Parliament for one last time, one cannot help but wonder how different it would have been if Boris had been in charge of negotiations with EU heads of state and not former Prime Minister Theresa May. It is now amply clear that May never wanted to even try for a favorable deal.
Her priority was not to make a damaging Brexit. In reality, however, she neutered her own side first, and made sure the EU won’t take British negotiators seriously. Added to that was the daily sabotage. Conservative MPs who won under Conservative tickets turned into Liberal Democrats and independents trying to block Brexit openly with the Labour Party and the Greens. Imagine half of the Republicans turning into Justin Amash.
May’s personal lack of charm wasn’t a help, either. Boris is different. He has a rapport with French President Macron, and he understood that the EU’s concern about North Ireland was legitimate. With the removal of the backstop but keeping Northern Ireland in customs, Boris made the ultimate compromise, which turned the EU to his side.
The reality now is that the EU wants this deal to be passed in the Parliament. The British Liberals and Greens who counted on the EU to cancel Brexit are now thrown under the bus by the same imperial entity they thought was going to save them.
The next days and months are going to be ugly. No one likes to find out false gods, not especially liberals believing in the End of History. It’s almost like a religion being proven false. The street demonstrations against Conservatives might increase, and there will be resistance against the opening economy. Small issues will be hyped up in sympathetic media to show how Brexit ruined Britain.
But there is also a sense of inevitability in the air. Brexit cannot be stopped anymore—delayed, maybe, but not denied. The last time Johnson lost in Parliament was after a bunch of Conservatives tabled a motion taking No Deal off the table. That was good—after all, crashing out of the EU is not prudent anyway. Britain needs to have good security and trade terms with its neighbours.
But that crisis is over, and the soldiers are falling in line. It is not known yet if Boris has the numbers in the Parliament, but even May supports this deal. And public support for the Conservatives is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, Conservatives under Boris lead with more than a 12-point margin in any general election scenario, followed by the Liberal Democrats. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is polling their lowest in decades, and the far-right is decimated beyond recognition.
Nirad C. Chaudhuri once stated that one can only be a true Englishman living anywhere in the world if one yearns to be free. Before Brexit, I walked around talking to people and wrote about how much the people of this island simply want to be different from the EU. It is cultural and historical.
Britain remains a maritime power, looking out at the world, instead of a vassal state within the European Union. I also wrote about why, in the coming inevitable clash of interests between the United States and the EU, Britain will have to choose its linguistic cousins. One of the things that has been overlooked is this short post by Johnson immediately prior to the referendum.
In it, he wrote of Saint George, England’s patron saint: “They deplored the dragon but they said that getting rid of it was too risky. Stuff that said St George. He slew the dragon, liberated the people and restored democracy. And he got the princess.” In that spirit, the final push awaits. Here’s hoping it’s out with the EU and on to the world.