Born again or Brown again?

We asked Labour insiders and commentators who should be the next leader of the Labour Party – now or

The Labour Party is in many ways already mourning its defeat at the forthcoming general election. There are still several possible outcomes to that election, but none of them is that Labour will emerge with a clear working majority. The bleak truth for Gordon Brown is that he is fighting his first and last election as Prime Minister. There is a general acceptance of this, and the mood in the parliamentary party is as resigned as it is jittery. The aim, at present, is to lose well, to expose the Conservatives and to prepare for life after Brown.

So what of the succession? Few doubt that a leadership contest is under way. The main contenders - Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas - may be fighting a phoney war, but it is a war of sorts all the same, with politicians on manoeuvres and the corridors and back rooms of power febrile with speculation. "The mood is very uneasy at present," one leadership contender told me. "But at least I'm prepared to speak honestly rather than relying on unattributable briefings."

Labour is deeply divided, on several levels. There are the old, obvious (and tedious) divisions between the Blairites and the Brownites - always a spurious division founded less upon ends than means. Blair and Brown were not separated by ideology: they both passionately believed in New Labour and accepted the neoliberal consensus. What separated them and their followers was character and cold ambition.

Yet, more important, surely, are the divisions between the freethinking liberal pluralists (or democratic republicans) and the unreconstructed statists in the party, as well as those between the free-market reformers and the social democrats. In recent months this magazine has begun
to campaign for a realignment of left-liberal politics. We are attracted by the idea of coalitions between progressives, especially if they result in electoral reform, genuine reform of the House of Lords and of the City, legislation for fixed-term parliaments, stronger civil liberties, an enhanced Freedom of Information Act, closer ties with Europe, a multilateral foreign policy and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the years of the long, unregulated boom, New Labour's high command entered into a Faustian pact with the forces of finance and with the repellent Bush administration. In so doing, the party ceased to be a moral crusade, and many of its natural supporters became alienated. They remain alienated, but without them Labour can never win again.

The economic crisis has offered Labour an opportunity to learn from the wrong turns taken in recent years, but also from what the party got right. From crisis can flow opportunity. Above all else, what is required, if the election results spell the end for Brown, is for the party to elect a leader who has the vision, ideas and stamina not only to remake his or her party, but to lead a complete reconstruction of the British political system. But who is that person? And what should his or her priorities be?
Jason Cowley

Meghnad Desai

Economist and Labour life peer
I have seen seven Labour leaders come and six go - Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair. Gordon Brown is still very much here and not likely to go before the election. The new Parliamentary Labour Party will be slim, with maybe no more than 150 members, and it will need someone who can reconcile and unite, who can think anew the theory for a 21st-century social democracy, and who can be an internationalist rather than a small Englander.

My choice for the crown of thorns? The field is two Eds and two Milibands (overlapping ­categories), Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson. Some pine for Jon Cruddas. I don't. It is not enough to be loved by the left: remember Michael Foot - lovely man, disastrous leader.

Johnson is loved by the unions, but then they loved and destroyed Jim Callaghan. Balls is unlikely to unite the party. Of the two Milibands, I go for David rather than Ed. So it is between David and Harriet. If we are to take Middle England with us, it has to be David. I say that with some trepidation, lest it harm his prospects.

Roy Hattersley

Deputy leader of the Labour Party (1983-92)
Speculating about who will be the next Labour leader is good journalism but rotten politics.

If Labour wins the next election - and victory remains within the party's power - the next leader will not take over until 2014, and four years is a long time in politics. Long ago, Jim Callaghan told me that the party would be led, in ten years' time, by David Owen, me or somebody nobody had heard of. It turned out to be somebody who, then, nobody had heard of.

After the next election but one, it will be James Purnell, Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas - or somebody nobody has heard of. I will vote for Miliband. Each of the politicians on my "shortlist" is a genuine radical who realises the im­portance of Labour setting out its vision of the good society and describing the practical - and sometimes necessarily controversial - policies that will bring it about. Ideological caution is the certain path to defeat. Whoever first made the point, New Labour foundered because it was "neither new enough nor Labour enough". The next leader must - instead of trying to invent an alternative to social democracy - work out a way of applying its basic principles to the modern and changing world.

Sunder Katwala

General secretary, Fabian Society
More important than who should lead is how Labour could get its next leadership election right. Let's hope it takes place in government, a few years from now. But if Labour loses this spring, the first decision could be its most important in opposition: whether to have an immediate leadership contest or leave it until after the first autumn conference. If Michael How­ard had not done the latter in 2005, the Tory leader would be David Davis, not David Cameron.

If Labour goes straight for a contest, we would miss the debate we need. So let's see the merits in playing it long. If Labour loses, Gordon must stay! If he prefers to make a quick exit, the National Executive Committee should appoint a caretaker and schedule an autumn contest. It could make a real difference to the chances of being out for one term, or three. Front-runners - such as David Miliband, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman - should not fear a longer debate with more ideas. Those who might not run - perhaps James Purnell and Jon Cruddas - might sharpen debates.
Without hearing their arguments, it is too early to set the field. So why not imagine that Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper could surprise us by emerging in front, with Cooper edging home as the party's first permanent woman leader?

Melvyn Bragg

Writer, broadcaster and life peer
I'm in at least four minds as to who should be the next Labour leader. When is the law coming in that allows peers to resign from the House of Lords? Because Hamlet/Mandelson looks very fit for the part of the new prince.

David Marquand

Professor of politics at Oxford University
Assuming Labour loses the election - not yet certain, but a lot more probable than not - the party will need to skip the generation immediately after Brown's and go for someone in the generation after that. The choice will be between the Miliband brothers: David or Ed.

Clearly, this will be psychologically difficult for them. Sibling rivalry is a powerful force. Ed and David seem well-balanced and harmonious. All the same, I imagine David would find it hard to give way to his younger brother. But so what? The party will have a right to pick the better man for the job, and I don't think there's any doubt that that means Ed should be the one to go for it. He is both a safe pair of hands and a potentially inspirational figure. A very rare combination.

He would face a daunting task. I don't believe Labour has yet taken the measure of David Cameron and the new-look Tory party he has constructed. Labour politicians and Labour-friendly commentators have convinced themselves that the new-look Tories are fakes: that, like old-look Thatcherites, they are slavering at the thought of making savage cuts in spending; and that Labour in opposition will reap a rich harvest of disillusioned Tory voters without having to engage in painful rethinking of its own. I think this is self-indulgent piffle. The truth is that social democracy is on the slide all over Europe. I don't pretend to know how the left should respond to this melancholy tale. Nor, I suspect, does Ed Miliband. But he has shown that he has the intellectual capacity to think through the problems - and the charisma to lead his party in the search for answers. It would be madness to choose anyone else.

Helena Kennedy

QC and Labour life peer
I really do think it is premature to have this debate. There is a whole set of potential leaders among the next generation, and I do not want to see some has-been who is seriously tainted by his or her complicity in the Iraq war taking on the mantle as some interim measure.

If and when a new leader is required, I want to see a proper debate within the party about what that person believes in and where they will take the party in the future. Whoever succeeds in taking on the role will have to throw off the taint of many New Labour policies and be prepared to participate in a total review of policy and vision. I think Compass is where the new thinking is currently taking place, and any prospective leader with any sense should be looking closely at its work.

Neal Lawson

Chair of Compass
Jon Cruddas should be the next leader of the Labour Party, because he understands that we face a triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy, and that we need a progressive alliance of parties, unions and civil society organisations to make change happen and embed it. In practice, that means the effective regulation of businesses, and measures to democratise public services, such as a high-pay commission at one end and a living wage at the other; and real proportional representation, to ensure a new era of pluralistic politics rather than the domination of a few swing voters led by Murdoch and the Mail.

Above all, a candidate such as Cruddas would bring hope back into centre-left politics; the hope that we are aiming for a good society and have the wherewithal to make it happen.

Billy Hayes

General secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU)
There is no contest - Gordon Brown. To reconnect with millions of voters lost since 2001, we need to reassert the coalition between working-class communities and liberal-minded pro­fes­sionals. First, an expansionary economic policy is vital. Shutting down the government's life support to the economy could precipitate a double-dip recession. That is where the Tories would have gone, and will go. Labour must be different - voters will appreciate this.

Second, there must be a break from policies that have fractured our electoral coalition. Scrapping ID cards, committing to withdrawal from Afghanistan and scrapping the Trident replacement and aircraft carriers would help; they would also transform the future of government spending. Third, the problems of the housing market must be addressed. The private sector will not deliver for five million on the council-house waiting list. Government support for social housing is crucial.

Robert Skidelsky

Political economist and life peer
Your question is based on the assumption that Labour will lose the next election. I don't think this is a foregone conclusion. Labour might win a small majority or form a minority government with Liberal support. In either case, Brown will stay on as leader and Prime Minister. As to his successor, I have no preference.

Labour has a great opportunity to work out a post-slump political agenda. This could be based on: a) an expanded role for the state in the investment field (railways, housing, schools, hospitals, green technology), and b) greater equality of wealth and incomes. Both would require bringing the share of GDP spent by the state more in line with the European norm, but this will be necessary anyway for purposes of fiscal consolidation and one may as well make a virtue of it. The party should set up a high-powered commission of a non-partisan character to work out an intellectually grounded post-slump programme of action. The commission should be set up as soon as possible (ie, before the election), and its existence and preliminary findings should be one of the main grounds on which the government  appeals to the country.

Billy Bragg

Musician and activist
I want a leader who will do something about excessive bonuses and who will split up high street banks from the casino banks, so that next time the bankers mess up they lose their homes and we don't lose ours.

Greg Dyke

Director general of the BBC (2000-2004)
I suspect that we are living through the final months of the last Labour government ever to have an overall majority, as, by the time Labour has another chance to govern, the political world will be very different.

I suspect wholesale change in our political system will come faster than many imagine. The decline of the two-party system has been happening for years - in 1951, 97 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative; in the last election, that was below 70 per cent - but the MPs' expenses scandal has put the final boot into politics as we've known it. The election could well result in a hung parliament which, in turn, could bring the vast reforms we need. The introduction of proportional representation is no longer a ­matter of if, but when.

The next Labour leader will need to articulate a new left-of-centre ideology, unite the rational left, see off the Blairites and be able to negotiate with and befriend other radical parties in this new era of politics. Tough job.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos
It is tempting to say that the next leader should be Anybody Who Is Not Ed Balls. But the party should aim higher. David Miliband is a serious candidate, but he is seen as indecisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and has never been hugely popular in the constituencies or the unions. James Purnell remains the lodestar for liberal modernisers - but I am biased since he is a colleague at Demos. Perhaps Liam Byrne should be the next leader: he is younger, brighter and more passionate than many of his colleagues.

The new leader should ditch the anti-civil liberties measures of Blair/Brown; come out in support of real proportional representation; form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; support or steal the Tories' education plans; base a new attack on poverty and plans for public service reform on the "capabilities" approach of Amartya Sen; avoid new incursions against freedom in areas such as smoking and alcohol; and adopt Lib Dem tax policies hitting wealth, rather than income.

Last but not least, the new leader should surround themselves with people who will tell them when they are screwing up.

Stefanos Stefanou

Businessman and Labour donor
I think that Gordon Brown will now lead the Labour Party to the next general election. He will have a good chance of winning a small majority, but only if he reverts to being a strong, robust and determined leader, as he was when he started as Prime Minister. He is obviously surrounded by inexperienced ministers and advisers. They have managed to transform him into a person who performs for the media in a gimmicky way - that was never Brown's style.

However, if, for whatever reason, Labour needs a new leader, I think that the only person who will be able to lead and unite the party is Harriet Harman. She appears to be a strong personality, and charismatic without being a clown like Cameron. She will probably succeed, provided she doesn't allow the so-called PR experts to destroy her personality with their superficial techniques.

Frank Field

Labour MP for Birkenhead
Labour, whether it wins or loses, will be faced by a new kind of politics after the election. We will have to put behind us the modern era, when governing was largely about distributing a continual real-terms growth in public expenditure. The new politics of cuts will be centre stage, requiring leadership qualities that can combine Labour's idealism - particularly protecting those towards the bottom of the pile - with a realism that appeals to the majority. Courage will, above all, be required to mark out the political map of this new country, but with that courage must go stamina, and also judgement when taking risks in repositioning the party.

While there are a number of candidates who possess some of the necessary qualities, I see James Purnell as the one individual who combines most of them. But Labour in the new parliament will also need a deputy leader who can reach those parts of the electorate untouched by the current leadership, and who will also be trusted by our core voters as we engage that new country. Step forward, Jon Cruddas.

Bob Crow

General secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
Who leads the Labour Party isn't the issue. What matters is that the party has presided over attacks on workers through the anti-union laws and privatisation, and through the extension of powers to the European superstate. Until Labour wakes up and starts fighting for the workers rather than the bosses, it's a dead duck, politically.

Ken Loach

Film director
Who should be leader? None of the present clique. What to do: reassert Clause Four and act on it to the letter.

Clare Short

Former Labour MP
It is very late in the day, but if part of the answer to Labour's problems is a new leader, we need an analysis of what is wrong in order to look for the kind of leader who might be able to put things right. I do not believe that anyone really knows the qualities of a politician until they have worked with them. Potential leader spotting is led by the media on the basis of unexplained qualities that appear to be completely presentational. Underneath this is a pro-Blair versus pro-Brown division. But this, too, is entirely presentational. They created New Labour together. Brown was the brain, Blair the frontman. The clashes were of egos, ambition and hangers-on, not of principle or strategy.

The reality is that the New Labour project has collapsed. Now we need someone who respects the democratic process in the party, parliament and cabinet. We need someone who wants to reverse the growth of inequality in the UK. We need someone who is willing to reorientate UK foreign policy, peel off from our craven, lapdog role and start to work with others for a stronger UN and a more equitable world order. We need a leader who will cease to echo US/Israeli policy in the Middle East and work with others for a just settlement in accordance with international law. The tragedy for Labour is that there is no such potential leader in the parliamentary party and little discussion in the wider party of how these changes might be made.

Lance Price

Former adviser to Tony Blair
Speculation about the next Labour leader is predicated on expectations of defeat at the election. But the question is legitimate. The debate and manoeuvring that accompany it are impos­sible to hide. Unless Gordon Brown pulls off a remarkable victory, the task confronting the next leader will be determined by the scale of Labour's defeat. Whoever it is must have an unambiguous understanding of what made New Labour popular. Of the two styles of ­politics embodied in the leadership since 1994, one worked and one didn't. If we want a compromise candidate whom we never expect to form a government, we may go for Harriet Harman.

If we want a leader with the creativity, popular appeal and determination to lead us back into power, the shortlist boils down to David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham and James Purnell. I would support the Foreign Secretary.

Charlie Whelan

Former adviser to Gordon Brown
There's going to be no leadership election because we're going to win the election and Gordon Brown's going to be leader.

Peter Wheeler

Member of Labour's National Executive Committee
The next leader of the Labour Party should be Gordon Brown - there is no vacancy. Without Brown, we would have faced the sort of economic meltdown they have seen in Iceland or Ireland. We are facing a Tory party more right-wing at every level than it was under Margaret Thatcher. This isn't the time for these dinner-party debates; it's time for Labour supporters to be campaigning hard for a Labour victory. I am just on my way out to deliver some leaflets - anyone is welcome to join us.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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