Locked up to make us feel better

Petty criminals are increasingly being given life sentences not for crimes they have committed, but

Almost unnoticed, a fundamental change in penal policy is gathering pace. The main factor in the length of a sentence is, increasingly, not the severity of a crime, but the supposed risk that an offender will do something worse if released.

Risk assessment is at best an inexact science - often, as we shall see later, shockingly so. But its emerging role in the sentencing process is having dramatic consequences: hundreds, soon to be thousands, of petty arsonists, pub brawlers and street muggers are in effect being given life, usually on the basis of highly subjective pre-sentence reports.

The change is certain to cause a further great rise in the prison population, already at record levels, having grown faster under new Labour than under any previous government. It is also arousing deep concern among lawyers, and will top the agenda at a special conference organised by the Criminal Bar Association in Birmingham next month.

The consequences for classical notions of justice are profound. Old lags have a saying: "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." It needs reformulation: "If you can't do the time, don't have a background that might make a bureaucrat think if ever you're set free, you might be dangerous to the public."

At the heart of this shift is a piece of legislation whose import was barely appreciated when it passed through parliament: the Criminal Justice Act 2003, with its indeterminate public protection (IPP) sentences. According to the act, judges must impose an IPP - life in all but name - on any person convicted of any one of 153 separate violent and sexual offences, if they believe, in the words of the act, that there is "a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm from the commission of further specified offences". In an appeal judgment last year, one of the most senior criminal appeal judges, Lord Justice Judge, made clear how huge a departure this is: "Although punitive in its effect, with far-reaching consequences for the offender on whom it is imposed, it [the IPP] does not represent punishment for past offending. The decision is directed not to the past, but to the future."

It is not as if it had been difficult to lock up the truly dangerous under existing legislation. For decades, judges have been able to give "discretionary" life sentences to those convicted of certain crimes short of murder, such as rape and wounding with intent to kill. After 1998, the "two strikes and you're out" law (now replaced by the IPP) meant that anyone convicted of one of a short list of very serious crimes for a second time got life automatically.

However, the scale on which the IPP is being used dwarfs these older measures. Discretionary and automatic life sentences used to be given about 200 times each year. Since coming into force in April 2005, the IPP has been imposed more than 2,000 times, with a rate of over 100 new IPPs each month. As an official told me, Home Office models predict that by 2011, there will be 12,500 inmates serving IPPs - more than three times as many as those doing life for murder.

"Risk panic"

Hard cases, as the saying goes, make bad law, and the cases that the government cited to justify the 2003 act were very hard indeed - such as the release of the paedophiles who killed the 14-year-old Jason Swift in 1985. Such debate as there was helped to fuel a "risk panic", in which the media have focused obsessively on crimes committed by previous offenders who should have been under supervision, such as the 2005 murder in Reading of the teenager Mary Ann Leneghan.

It cannot be stressed sufficiently that there is no empirical basis for this panic at all. A study of sex offenders emerging from long-term imprisonment, published in 2002 by a team led by Oxford University's Roger Hood, found (as had earlier, similar projects) that their reconviction rate is reassuringly low. Of the 94 followed for six years after release, only eight were reconvicted for a further sexual offence. Another four were reconvicted and jailed for a non-sexual violent crime. Since the study, multi-agency schemes to monitor such offenders after release and more widespread sex offender treatment in prison may well have reduced this risk.

Even freed lifers commit relatively few crimes. The number of homicides by those previously convicted of homicide and released varies each year between zero and two - roughly 0.3 per cent of murders. In all, about 3 per cent of freed lifers will eventually be convicted of an imprisonable offence.

Nevertheless, public rhetoric is at fever pitch. A recent Observer article claimed that the system for monitoring freed sex offenders in the community is close to collapse. This was accompanied by an editorial headlined: "Control these terrifying predators". Robert Whelan, of the think-tank Civitas, told the Sunday Times that the lesson from the Mary Ann Leneghan case was that all offenders should be kept much longer in prison. Those who disagreed, he said, were "diehard utopians".

Radical as the 2003 act is, it was not the first attempt to protect society from its most dangerous members. From 1857, government criminal statistics began to include figures for "known thieves and depredators". The long search for ways to deal with them began.

By the end of the 19th century, social Darwinism and the work of writers such as Cesare Lombroso had added a veneer of science to the notion of the predatory criminal, and preventive detention for periods far in excess of the ordinary prison sentence was increasingly seen as the solution. Some, such as the writer Bruce Thomson, argued that these inmates should also be castrated: "With cattle, this kind of selection is in fact almost always followed: for hardly anyone is careless enough to allow his worst animals to breed. Why, then, should incorrigible criminals go into prison for short periods only, only to be sent out again in renovated health, to propagate a race so low in physical organisation?"

The term "personality disorder" had yet to be invented, but many argued that dangerous criminals had something like a disease, which made their behaviour incorrigible. As the Westminster Review put it in 1898, "the criminal, while not in the ordinary sense lunatic, is thoroughly irresponsible, hopelessly perverted and mentally and physically incapable of reformation. He is a dangerous animal, and society must be protected against him."

Tyranny of bureaucrats

Against this background, the first public protection sentencing measure took shape: Herbert Gladstone's Prevention of Crime Act 1908. When sentencing a criminal, the court would pay close attention to his record, and so deduce whether there was a high risk of recidivism. If the court thought there was, indeed, "evidence of habituality", it could impose a "dual-track" sentence - first an ordinary penal element, equating to what would previously have been the total sentence, and then "preventive detention", usually for five years. Thus, Gladstone argued, the most dangerous villains would be incapacitated.

The Liberal MP and writer Hilaire Belloc argued in vain that this was "utterly at variance with every political or social principle that western Europe had ever known" for more than 3,000 years. The act, Belloc said, would enshrine the "tyranny of bureaucrats".

One of the sharpest critics of the 1908 act was the home secretary who took office two years later, Winston Churchill. His fear was that it was likely to fall hardest not on the most dangerous, but on prolific petty criminals. "The general test should be - is the nature of the crime such as to indicate that the offender is not merely a nuisance but a serious danger to society?" Churchill wrote in an official circular. Thus he identified a crucial issue of enormous relevance today.

Compared with its 2003 successor, the 1908 act was relatively little used - usually there were fewer than 100 preventive sentences a year. But when it was finally evaluated by a departmental committee in 1932, the findings were devastating. As Churchill had predicted, most of those sentenced were not dangerous at all, but "men of little mental capacity or strength . . . whose frequent convictions testify as much to their clumsiness as their persistence in crime".

Undeterred by this failure, Attlee's Labour government passed another preventive detention act in 1948. In 1963 an inquiry by the home secretary's Advisory Council on Sentencing showed that this was equally unjust. Most of those given the new form of preventive detention - up to 180 people a year - were, in the words of a report from Cambridge University, not predators, but "passive inadequate deviants". In 1967, the 1948 act was repealed.

Overcrowded prisons

Evidence is now emerging that the defect spotted by Churchill in the 1908 act is equally manifest in that of 2003. According to official figures, just 28 - 4 per cent - of the first 707 IPPs were imposed on those convicted of crimes against children, and a further 40 on rapists. Forty-four of those sentenced were arsonists, and 149 had been convicted of wounding. But by far the biggest group - 284 prisoners, or roughly 40 per cent of the total - were given IPPs for robbery, almost all of them for street crimes or mugging.

To be sure, some muggers may, on release, go on to commit murder. A minority of arsonists may one day set a fire in which someone is badly hurt. Yet it is clear that the crimes actually committed by many of those getting IPPs are relatively insignificant - and nothing like as serious as those which would previously have merited life. The median tariff set for the first 707 IPP prisoners - that is to say, the penal element of the sentence, the term that would have been imposed before the 2003 act - is just 30 months.

In theory when the tariff expires, IPP prisoners, as with those serving life for murder, become eligible for Parole Board review, and hence possible release. But as the board's chairman, Sir Duncan Nichol, pointed out last December, even if they do get out at their first opportunity, they will probably spend much longer in jail than before. Most IPP inmates will have spent months on remand, and by the time they have been sentenced and settled in a long-term prison, their review date may well be looming.

It takes months, however, for the various prison and other officials necessary to this process to prepare and write their reports. In addition, before freeing someone already deemed dangerous, the Parole Board will need to see that their so-called "dynamic risk factors" have declined - perhaps by graduation from a long course of therapy while in prison. The likelihood is that the time many inmates spend in jail being assessed as future risks will be longer than the time served as punishment.

Nichol commented: "The global impact of IPPs will be that prison overcrowding will increase; places on offending behaviour courses will be scarce; prisoners may spend more time in custody awaiting such courses when they might otherwise have been released earlier; crucial time will be spent writing parole reports by prison and probation staff who have other duties; and the Parole Board will need increased resources to deal with a quadrupling of our indeterminate casework."

A further factor seems likely to make sentences longer still. The 2002 study of long-term sex offenders by Professor Hood and his colleagues suggested that the Parole Board has an innate and understandable bias towards being overcautious: no one wants to be responsible for setting a maniac free. The study looked at what happened to 82 men whom the board decided were "high-risk" and hence refused parole. Four years after their eventual release, just seven had been reconvicted of a further sexual offence, and four for a violent offence - a false positive rate of 92 per cent for a sexual crime, and 87 per cent for either sex or violence.

These men had been serving determinate, fixed-term sentences, so knew the latest they would get out: perhaps, in their cases, such apparent overcaution was acceptable. Now, however, many of the same type of prisoners will be serving IPPs and may never be freed at all, or be freed only after an exceedingly long time.

Sex offenders sentenced today will have been assessed using one or more structured, psychological "tools". These are not, in any sense, infallible: derived from analysis of prob abilistic risk factors shared by groups, they are a very blunt instrument when applied to individuals - when even their staunchest advocates admit that they are no more than about 75 per cent accurate. Hood's team also looked at what happened after release to prisoners deemed to be high-risk using the tool known as Static-99, and found a false positive rate only slightly better than the Parole Board's.

But at least these tools have been evaluated. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of IPPs is that the method being used by judges in most cases has no such basis at all.

According to the Home Office, most non-sex offenders considered for an IPP - that is, more than 90 per cent - will have been subject only to the standard OASys pre-sentencing assessment, a box-ticking exercise by a probation officer who often will have no direct experience of the offender. Having considered, in a formulaic manner, a variety of factors derived from the paper record, the officer ends the process by making what amounts to a purely subjective judgement: is this offender low, medium, high or very high risk? If either of the latter two, he will probably get an IPP.

I spoke to officials who designed the OASys forms. To date, there has not been any evaluation of their predictive powers, even though they are now being used daily to justify indefinite incarceration. It is, as Belloc put it, "the tyranny of bureaucrats". A new study by the criminologist Diana Fitzgibbon can only amplify such concerns. Based on her investigation of OASys risk analysis in a large city, it finds evidence of "risk inflation", leading to the "non-transformative warehousing" in prison of those thought to be risky. She also discovers widespread gaps in offenders' OASys files - omissions of crucial episodes in their histories that might, had they been considered, have led to their being given a lower risk category.

Authoritarian dystopia

Perhaps this risk inflation explains some of the cases of IPPs that have already been upheld by the Court of Appeal. For example, there was the 18-year-old with no previous convictions who set fire to two rubbish bins at a seaside resort; and the middle-aged man who set fire to his house when his mother went into a care home - he didn't even do the job very effectively: he poured cooking oil on some cushions and tried to set them alight. Among the numerous robbery cases, there was a man who punched a pizza delivery driver in the chest, and tried unsuccessfully to steal his car; later that night he threatened - though did not hurt - someone else and made off with his mobile phone.

In his story (later a Tom Cruise movie) "The Minority Report", Philip K Dick wrote of a system governed by the notion of "precrime", where people who had yet to do anything wrong were convicted and sentenced because the authorities "knew" they would.

Dick was writing science fiction, but even minus his "precogs" - weird beings with the gift of second sight - the precrime world is already here. It shows every sign of becoming an authoritarian dystopia.

The facts of crime and punishment
Research by Sarah O'Connor

2,000 number of preventive detention orders issued in the UK since April 2005

3% only this proportion of freed lifers is reimprisoned for new offences

17,000 increase in UK prison population since new Labour came to power

8,000 number of extra prison places the Home Office plans to create by 2012

£100,000 cost of creating each new prison place

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

***

 

Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster