USA TODAY US Edition
British politics mirrors our own
Political class draws doubts in the ‘Brexit’ debate.
The European Union, hit this past year by Greece’s insolvency and by unprecedented immigration pressures, now faces Brexit. A referendum in the United Kingdom, to be held on June 23, will determine whether the British stay in the EU or exit — the latter event threatening the modern idea of Europe.
The Brexit vote — a culmina- tion of long-standing and everbuilding British ambivalence, if not open scorn, for European political integration — has gained considerable new momentum with the recent support of London Mayor Boris Johnson, perhaps the single-most popular political figure in the U.K. The vote is, now, not just to stay or remain in the EU, but an effective shadow vote for prime minister. If the vote is to leave, then the current Tory prime minister, David Cameron, who is campaigning to stay, will, he has said, resign — meaning Johnson, or Boris as he is singularly known in the U.K., might become prime minister by July.
These are both — the battles between the EU and Britain and between Cameron and Johnson —inevitable, and it is appropriate that they are joined.
Johnson’s comical, sui generis, self-conscious, even hyperbolic English persona represents something of the kind of let-the-- British-be-British spirit that, many believe, European rule is trying to flatten. The EU, for its part, represents the kind of culturally monochromatic, icily modern, all-business temperament that David Cameron — a PR man before he entered politics — might seem to symbolize.
The EU issue in Britain, particularly for Cameron and Johnson’s Tory party, has always been a primal one, a sense of selling out not just independence but character. It’s something that feels forced and compromised, vs. something that you want to stand up for.
Similarly, Cameron feels confected, a committee creation of
policy bits, and Johnson feels real, genuine and spontaneous — like, in fact, Donald Trump.
Johnson, like Trump, is an antidote to the political class and to political abstraction. He is direct. Politics is refracted. Johnson, a journalist who has long been a member of Parliament as well as a two-term mayor, is by any measure more experienced and nuanced than Trump, but, like Trump, is most known for his personality and brand. Both Trump and Johnson represent an anti-politics, a one-on-one, charismatic relationship with the voter, rather than one dependent on ideology, policy or party.
Curiously, in both cases, a central argument against them is that they are phonies — in Trump’s case, that he’s not really a conservative, and is a made-up billionaire businessman (actually just a reality TV star who inherited money from his father). In Johnson’s case, he’s not even really anti-EU, and is a put-on version of a P.G. Wodehouse character. (Johnson has also been especially effective on television.) But, in fact it is their acting out, mugging for the camera and acknowledgment of their role — their performance — that makes them seem real and honest, and, in turn, that makes the buttoneddown professionalism of politics as usual seem contrived and false.
In the U.S., Washington, as a place remote from everyday life, is the enemy. In the U.K., Brussels is even more distant, unfeeling and unresponsive — and foreign.
The defense for continued membership in the EU and, as it will likely be for a Hillary Clinton candidacy over Donald Trump’s, is that we — we of the political class — know better. The complications of government are so vast that the only solution is that the solutions must become more complex, best left to policy pros.
In one sense, the EU ought to be an example of the success of complexity. Political abstraction has helped create the modern European world, an epoch of peace and prosperity.
But this political abstraction has created an emotional vacuum that is being filled by compelling actors like Johnson and Trump. And it is precisely that emotion, that direct engagement, that many find both unreasonable and frightening.
The argument for staying in the EU is that this is the safer route. Leaving the EU is an unknown economic and political course — one that could lead to the breakup of the European project and, empowering Scotland, the breakup of the United Kingdom as well.
The argument for Hillary Clinton in a matchup with Donald Trump would be similar: She is clearly a much safer and predictable choice, even if making it requires holding your nose.
The argument for doing just the opposite — in the case of both Trump and Brexit theoretically a conservative position — is about doing what feels good, about breaking free, about starting over, about following your inner voice. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are both inner-voice politicians: He speaks to me. It is the impersonal, Brussels and Washington, vs. the personal, a particular language, demeanor and special wink, surprising and invigorating — and possibly reckless.
We will shortly see how convincing the safe, largely unappealing, least-worst-case scenarios can still be.