Johnson’s Brexit journalism and Brexit politics are of a piece: in both he thrives by infuriating the Establishment

16 Dec

If one wishes to understand Boris Johnson’s performance in the Brexit negotiations, it is worth studying his performance as a journalist.

Nobody, so far as I know, has yet done this. HIs critics have trawled his articles in search of proof that he is a racist and a liar, but were already determined to condemn him, so were in no condition to learn anything they did not already believe.

Johnson has been writing about the European Union since 1989, when Max Hastings, in a stroke of genius, sent him as The Daily Telegraph‘s correspondent to Brussels.

Soon Johnson’s office was adorned with herograms from Hastings, in recognition of the wonderfully readable and widely noticed copy supplied by his protégé.

While other correspondents still treated the EU with a degree of respect, Johnson set out to ridicule the Brussels bureaucracy, and to dramatise the mortal threat which the Commission’s expansionist zeal posed to the British way of life, symbolised by changes in the rules governing crisps and sausages.

His readers enjoyed these reports enormously, but some of his rival correspondents did not. They accused him of making things up.

He reported (as I noted in my biography of him, Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister) that the Berlaymont building was going to be blown up, in order to get rid of the asbestos with which it was infected. The editor of The European saw this story and wished to arrange for one of its readers to push the plunger on the detonator, but this proved impossible, for there was to be no detonation.

The Berlaymont is standing to this day, its asbestos-ridden cladding replaced by what looks like an entirely new building, in which Ursula von der Leyen last week entertained Johnson to dinner.

Stories like this continue to annoy The New York Times, and other journals which attach the highest importance to checking the facts.

They are not mollified, if anything are made still angrier, by the observation that Johnson approached Brussels in the manner of a dramatist, not a literalist, the urge to entertain taking precedence over mere facts.

When a brilliant caricaturist tells the truth by exaggerating somebody’s features, nobody objects, but the same latitude is not extended to reporters, even though the presentation of their work – the decision about which story to put on the front page, with a dramatic headline – can seldom be said to be free from hyperbole.

The row about Johnson’s cavalier attitude to facts obscured several other aspects of his work. One was that he was onto something: the Commission really was trying to expand its powers at the expense of the member states.

A second feature was his respect for the ruthlessness with which Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, and his henchman, Pascal Lamy, were driving forward the process of European integration, which they believed to be in the French national interest, for it was a way of controlling Germany:

“With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.”

British officials, with “their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes”, were, Johnson lamented, “no match for the intellectual brutality of Lamy and his stooges”.

Another aspect of his coverage was harder to spot, for it was something he did not do. When objecting to the Commission’s plans, he did not generally protest that these were contrary to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

Johnson is no disciple of Enoch Powell. In his voluminous journalism he pretty much ignores him.

In an interview which I conducted with Johnson for the Christmas 2012 issue of Weltwoche, published in Zurich, he admitted that he has always been seen by hard-line eurosceptics as “incorrigibly wet” on the issue of British membership of the EU.

He is not a dogmatist: something seen also in his attitude to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some of the greatest Telegraph journalists – one thinks of T.E.Utley, who died in 1988 – articulated an eloquent and principled Unionism.

No attempt was made by Johnson to follow in Utley’s footsteps, and last autumn he did a deal with Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, which Unionists regarded with deep disquiet.

It would, however, be wrong to regard Johnson’s European journalism as inconsistent. His Telegraph colleague Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who has known him since 1991 and served as the paper’s correspondent in Brussels from 1999-2004, was occasionally commissioned by Johnson, by now editor of The Spectator, to contribute pieces, and has recalled:

“At no time during those years did I ever detect any deviation from his core view that the EU was amassing unhealthy powers…

“He shared my view entirely that the EU was creating an upper layer of executive government beyond accountability, with a Caesaropapist structure at odds with British democratic self-rule.”

During the long Greek agony over the euro, Johnson’s sympathies were overwhelmingly with the Greeks. Here he is, writing in The Telegraph in May 2012, defying the conventional wisdom that the answer to the eurozone’s problems is to go for fiscal union:

” it is frankly unbelievable that we should now be urging our neighbours to go for fiscal union. It is like seeing a driver heading full-tilt for a brick wall, and then telling them to hit the accelerator rather than the brake.

“Europe now has the lowest growth of any region in the world. We have already wasted years in trying to control this sickness in the euro, and we are saving the cancer and killing the patient. We have blighted countless lives and lost countless jobs by kidding ourselves that the answer to the crisis might be ‘more Europe’. And all for what? To salvage the prestige of the European Project, and to spare the egos of those who were wrong and muddle-headed enough to campaign for the euro.

“Surely it is now time to accept that the short-term pain of a managed euro rupture – a wholesale realignment, possibly a north/south bisection – would be better than continuing to immiserate so many people around the continent.”

The emperor has no clothes: this refrain echoes through Johnson’s journalism, and distresses Europe’s imperial class.

Johnson yearns to attract and amuse the largest possible audience, and does so partly by demonstrating his determination to do things his own way.

Michael Binyon of The Times has recalled how in Brussels Johnson would invariably arrive late for the daily press conference at noon, a fixed point around which the journalists’ day revolved.

Johnson would shamble in at about 12.10 looking as if he had just been pulled through a haystack, and a French journalist once asked Binyon: “Qui est ce monstre?”

If you want to make an impact in Brussels, you have to put on a performance. Johnson realised this, and by 1994, when he left, everyone knew who he was.

The short clip of him meeting von der Leyen last Wednesday evening was somehow tremendously watchable. Johnson as he took his mask off for the benefit of the cameras, then followed his host’s bidding and immediately put it back on again, communicated a subversive geniality, a sense of the ridiculous.

The message was that he had not gone native; that he was still the man who made his name as a journalist by refusing to take the Brussels Establishment as seriously as it took itself.

Whatever the outcome of the present negotiations, Johnson will be determined to preserve his reputation as a man who does not bow to the Establishment, and does not hasten to conform to its timetable or its manners.

By keeping everyone in suspense, uncertain of the outcome, he has maintained the theatrical nature of the proceedings, with himself as the lead actor.

Solemn people have often found his journalism irresponsible, and now they find his politics irresponsible. But that is part of the point. Whether writing, speaking or negotiating, Johnson puts on a performance which the spectators enjoy all the more because it horrifies the guardians of convention.

Why the Germans don’t always do it better

4 Sep

Every so often it becomes fashionable to use the understated brilliance and modernity of Germany as a stick with which to beat Britain for holding to absurdly antiquated ways of doing things.

I did it myself a few months ago, in a piece for ConHome suggesting that when the pandemic is over, we will have to look at what the NHS can learn from Germany.

Now John Kampfner has devoted a whole book, Why The Germans Do It Better, to this theme. It is a good title, but also a hostage to fortune. Will the Germans go on doing it better? Nobody knows.

And although the book, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading, doubtless contains all sorts of prudent qualifications to the bold assertion in the title, it is bound to encourage the kind of Briton who already believes that compared to Germany, the United Kingdom is hopelessly old-fashioned and resistant to change.

I love Germany, and in the 1990s had the pleasure of living for almost six years in Berlin. During that time, I wondered in vain how to write a book about modern Germany which could be read for pleasure as well as edification.

For in those days, and I fear this is still  true, while educated Germans often had an almost perfect grasp of the English language, and a detailed knowledge of British society, the reverse was by no means the case.

In some well-to-do parts of German society, Anglophilia raged almost out of control. They dispatched their children to fee-paying schools in Britain, followed by British universities. Even their dogs seemed to come from Yorkshire.

I hope some German author is at work on a study of this phenomenon, entitled Why The British Do It Better, which can sit next to Kampfner’s volume on my shelf.

But the truth about Britain and Germany is more complicated than such compliments, or exercises in self-denigration, can convey. And although it is worth identifying the things the Germans do well, it would be naive to suggest that simply by copying German methods, we can transplant their successes to British soil.

John Major said in March 1991 that he wanted Britain to be “where it belongs, at the very heart of Europe”. This always seemed, from a geographical point of view, an implausible goal.

Germany is at the heart of Europe, surrounded by about 20 other countries, all of them smaller than Germany. This is an inescapable fact, and offers a powerful reason for developing some system of amicable co-operation with those neighbours, so none of them becomes worried by Germany’s preponderant size.

The United Kingdom is on the edge of Europe. We have fewer neighbours and wider choices. We may make a dreadful mess of those choices: the Union with Scotland is now in grave danger.

But there is not much profit in trying to deny that the choices exist. Yet this is what Major and his successors tried to do. They said it would be mad to adopt any policy other than being at the heart of Europe.

This accusation of madness did not prove a happy way of managing Major’s critics within the Conservative Party, who put up a dogged resistance to his European policy.

In the eyes of the kind of people who will feel themselves in instinctive agreement with Kampfner’s title, this protracted row was an embarrassment.

It showed how backward and barbarous some Tory MPs were. Individual parliamentarians were held up as examples of complete madness. None of the care and sympathy which are nowadays supposed to be extended to the mentally ill were extended to these Conservatives.

There was instead a brutal attempt to cast them and their ideas out of polite society.

Germany did not have an argument like that. Although the German people wished by a clear majority to keep the German mark, German MPs voted on 23rd April 1998 by 575 to 35 in favour of replacing it with the euro, with no fewer than 27 of the “no” votes coming from the PDS, successor to the East German communist party.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl assured German MPs that the euro would make Frankfurt a “very big financial centre”, that Britain would be a member of the new currency within a few years, and that Switzerland would join within ten years.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which I rejoiced to read each morning, learned professors of economics argued with anguished pedantry that the new currency could not work. Their opinion was widely shared by German voters, who loved going on holiday in Italy, or at least to the local Italian restaurant, but did not think sharing a currency with the Italians was a good idea, and feared German savers and taxpayers were bound to end up subsidising the weaker members of the euro.

Kohl promised them their fears were groundless, and kept the political class solidly behind the project. He was a power politician of genius, who exploited the fact that the opposition Social Democrats believed more devoutly in his European policy than his own Christian Democrats did.

Nor was he above maintaining his dominance with the use of illegal bank accounts. High ideals and low methods were yoked together, but for a long time only the former got much coverage in the German press.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Kohl succeeded: it is hard to tell, for we have not reached the end of the story.

But it is in some ways a pity that German politicians failed to have the argument among themselves which created such animosity within the Conservative Party.

German public opinion was not prepared, and the assumption took hold that one’s duty, as a member of the political class, is not to rock the boat, and to suppress any details which might create the wrong impression.

There wasn’t, in Bonn, the open parliamentary debate which should have preceded so a momentous an experiment as subsuming the national currency, proud symbol of post-war recovery, within a new, supranational currency, as yet unsupported by a new, supranational state.

Dissent was stifled: something more easily done in a system with party lists. Many Germans saw with indignation the herd mentality that had developed among their representatives.

It has become a commonplace of commentary on foreign affairs that Germany is failing to rise to the great responsibilities which now rest on her shoulders.

Again, one may argue that this is a good thing: that being undramatic is better than being over-dramatic: that all difficult questions should be left in the calm hands of Angela Merkel, who long ago had the ruthlessness to knife Kohl.

But this preference for a quiet life has its drawbacks too. For years, Wirecard was held up as a German success story, a rare example of a national tech champion which could beat the Americans at their own game.

German regulators declined to investigate persistent allegations of irregular accounting and the company frightened into silence anyone who suggested its figures were too good to be true.

Only a year ago, Merkel promoted Wirecard’s efforts to get a licence to operate in China.

The German press failed to expose the Wirecard scandal. That was left to a troublesome newspaper based in London, The Financial Times, which took a courageous, principled, long-term view of the story, and wanted to tell its readers what was actually going on. Those qualities are not only found in Germany.