USA TODAY US Edition

British politics mirrors our own

- MICHAEL WOLFF

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.

 ??  ?? POOL PHOTOBriti­sh PM David Cameron.
POOL PHOTOBriti­sh PM David Cameron.
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 ?? ANDY RAIN, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY ?? The British prime minister has said he will resign if the Brexit is approved.
ANDY RAIN, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY The British prime minister has said he will resign if the Brexit is approved.

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