Britain Should Heed Mr. Dull Over Mr. Fun on Europe
Two voices are coming to define the argument over whether Britain should vote to leave the European Union in June: those of Boris Johnson, a contender for prime minister when David Cameron steps down, and of John Major, who already held the job. The comparison flatters Major every time he speaks.
The trouble is that Major doesn't speak, or get heard, enough. Meanwhile Johnson, like Donald Trump in the U.S., makes headlines regardless of whether what he says makes sense. No exposure of inaccuracy or inconsistency seems to dent his popularity. And the possibility of a Brexit continues to grow.
The U.K.'s unimpressive "Remain" campaign should make a lot more use of Major, especially now that trust in Cameron -- the most influential proponent of staying in the EU -- has taken a hit from his poor handling of revelations in the Panama Papers about his father's offshore investments.
This may not seem like a winning proposal. Major, the son of a circus performer and garden gnome salesman, has always come across as a gray and awkward man, defined forever by The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell's caricatures of the former prime minister wearing his underpants outside his trousers. Bell is brilliant, but of course unfair.
Major, who took over from Margaret Thatcher after her defenestration by the Conservative Party in 1990, achieved a lot during his seven years in office, including an unexpected re-election victory. He inherited an economy that was plunging into recession with inflation above 8 percent; he left it with healthy growth and inflation below 2 percent.
He also passed the test as a statesman, navigating the first Gulf War and the Yugoslav wars. He negotiated the 1992 Maastricht Treaty with the rest of the European Union, securing opt outs for Britain from joining the new euro currency and a social charter. He kept the U.K. out of the EU's borderless Schengen Area project. In other words, he was main the architect of the semi-detached EU membership that the U.K. has been crafting for itself ever since Thatcher first asked for some of its money back.
Major understands from bitter experience the EU's advantages and failures. Indeed, he backed one of those disasters -- Britain's joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, in 1990. He is also acutely aware of how Britain's European question is first of all about the insatiable nature of the demands from euro-skeptic Tory MPs. As Major said in a speech shortly after Cameron promised a referendum:
I learned 20 years ago that the parliamentary party includes irreconcilables who are prepared to bring down any government or any prime minister in support of their opposition to the European Union.
Members with Conservative heads and UKIP [UK Independence Party] hearts cannot be placated. Whatever is offered to them will be insufficient. They will demand more. They will only be satisfied by withdrawal.
Major's argument for Britain to remain in the EU is unsentimental and broadly focused. He sees the EU's value in its ability to integrate former dictatorships, ex-Soviet bloc countries and warring Balkan nations into a peaceful union of democracies. He said in a speech last week:
We see Russia threatening her neighbors with trade embargoes, cyber attacks, energy cut-offs, and encouraging pro-Russian minorities to ferment trouble. I am not, and never have been, a Cold War warrior, but we ignore what Russia is doing at our peril. A united Europe can help penalize and deter her: a disunited, shriveled Europe cannot.
Equally, he understands that because Brexit would weaken Europe, the rest of the EU would do all it could to punish the U.K. for causing such damage and deter others from following its example:
Moreover, it is blithe optimism on a Panglossian scale for the “Out” campaign to assume our partners – having been rebuffed, deserted and weakened – will still feel so well disposed toward the U.K. that they will be eager to accede to our demands. I fear the reverse will be true. A divorce, at the behest of one partner, is rarely harmonious – or cheap. Such a broken relationship is more likely to be full of rancor.
In the other corner of the Brexit ring stands Johnson, a man who blends entertainment with politics in a way that has made him probably the country's most popular politician. Johnson began his working life as a journalist for The Times newspaper, which fired him for making up a quote. He then got a job at The Daily Telegraph, which sent him to cover Brussels for a readership that despised the EU. He gave them what they wanted.
Until his election as Mayor of London, the pinnacle of Johnson's political career had been as a junior minister for the Conservative opposition, or "shadow" government. He was fired for lying about an extramarital affair. As mayor, Johnson has achieved little of note, but has been a hugely effective political campaigner and a good front man for the city. His campaign for Brexit follows a by now familiar pattern, in which entertainment blurs reality.
This was exposed when he appeared to argue for Brexit in front of Parliament's Treasury Select Committee last month.
As hard as Johnson tried to defend claims he makes to ridicule the EU -- that EU directives ban children under eight from blowing up balloons, ban the recycling of tea bags, and regulate the size and shape of coffins -- he was forced to confront, if not accept, the reality that the EU does none of these things. The EU requires a warning on balloon packages to say they are a choking hazard, it does not ban anything about their use. It has a directive against recycling animal waste (implemented after the U.K.'s outbreak of Mad Cow disease), and it was a Welsh local council that ludicrously decided to include tea bags, because they touch milk. There is no EU regulation on coffin sizes.
Similarly, Johnson says the U.K. parliament has found that 59 percent of U.K. laws are from the EU (it found that 15 percent to 55 percent of laws and regulations descend from the EU, depending on the criteria used). He says 16 percent of intra-EU exports go to the U.K.; it is somewhere between 7 percent and 10 percent. Johnson has understood that the facts are not central to the Brexit argument, which given its already semi-detached status is at heart an emotional one.
None of Johnson's arguments explain why the U.K. would be better-off outside the EU, or why the risk is worth taking -- and given his record on teabags and balloons, there seems little reason to trust his word. Although Major is a far less entertaining figure, there is a solidity in his drabness that can have a power of its own. He should be put front and center of the campaign to stay in the EU, underpants and all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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