72. A Faux Pas Too Far

Peter Burke
Chair
Oxford For Europe

20 March 2022

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Ukraine has made us all re-think our view of the world, but sadly we have a Prime Minister who has chosen a bizarre way to do this.

Dear Mr Rees Mogg,


In a typically Johnsonian piece of boosterism and toxic populism at the Tory Conference in Blackpool, the Prime Minister tried vainly to rustle up the spirits of Churchill and Martin Luther King. “I have a bream“ as he tastelessly put it – he simply could not resist the temptation. Frankly, given what he has done to the fishing industry, that quotation can really only come back to haunt him.

The “Instinct to Choose Freedom”

But the most appalling and chilling part of the speech what his attempt to link the Ukrainian People’s need for independence to U.K.’s alleged liberation from the clutches of the EU. He said: “I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time. I can give you a couple of famous recent examples. When the British people voted for Brexit in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.”

At one of the recent Ukraine rallies in Oxford (photo: Ruvi Ziegler)

This sounded truly appalling when he said it, but the more often you think about it the worse it gets. Firstly, it totally minimises the appalling suffering which the Ukrainian people are going through, and it shows a mind-boggling lack of understanding and empathy.

Secondly, it neglects the simple fact that UK was a member of the EU of its own volition, having entered in 1973 after a great deal of hard work and indeed resistance from some of the other member states. During its years of membership it benefited massively and was one of the big three states at the centre of European decision-making. When is left it was torn out in an unplanned and chaotic way against the wishes of at least half of the UK population, and the ultra hard Brexit which Johnson forced on his country is something that the nation never voted for. His hard Brexit involved the UK imposing sanctions on itself which are and will remain for the foreseeable future immeasurably more severe than any new sanctions it has imposed on the Russians.

Carl Bildt . “This is truly disgraceful. Despicable. Any thought of inviting this man to an EU summit should be shelved.” Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org (CC BY 2.5 DK)

Thirdly of course what he has said is a profound insult to the people he claims to be our friends and neighbours in Europe, people with whom, no more than ever, it is essential that we collaborate closely. We really do not need to alienate them. You need only listen to the comments of EU figures such as Donald Tusk, Guy Verhofstad, Carl Bildt, or Tories such as David Gauke and Tobias Ellwood to get a sense of this. Even normally unthinking allies like Teresa Villiers and Julia Hartley-Brewer are distancing themselves – that must be a serious red flag.

And if there is something Johnson knows about EU membership which Zelenskyy doesn’t, he had better tell him soon, because becoming an EU vassal state is Ukraine’s greatest wish, now that NATO membership is off the table.

A Date Which will live in Infamy

Perhaps when he compares the EU to Russia, Johnson forgets what he has just told us about the depravity of Russian (or perhaps I should say Putin’s) behaviour. Perhaps he needs reminding that we are witnessing an unprovoked assault on a peaceful country, carpet bombing of residential areas, mediaeval sieges on large cities with deliberate cutting off of access to food and water, and now we learn the wholesale deportation of civilian populations to the depths of Russia. And of course the act of firing live ammunition at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station when was already on fire: that was perhaps the moment when it dawned on many of us what we were witnessing was not only a human tragedy on an epic scale but also an existential threat to the whole of Europe and beyond. When, speaking memorably to the US Congress, Zelenskyy compared the invasion to Pearl Harbor (‘A date which will live in infamy’ as Roosevelt put it), he could’ve added that it was actually much worse, not only an appalling act of war but a massive crime against humanity. And nobody describes he horror more tellingly than Zelenskyy himself.

Even in the transactional terms of Johnson and his friends, what he said was a serious mistake. It has meant that almost nothing he said in the rest of his speech is getting any airtime. It has poisoned relations with allies. It has once again brought to the surface the divisions caused by Brexit, which we thought not long ago Johnson himself was trying to brush under the carpet. In his heart of hearts, after all, he knows it to have been a huge mistake. If he has forgotten, then perhaps he should re-read his own unpublished article of early 2016.

The Wrong Analogy

There are perhaps some analogies which Johnson could’ve chosen for the plight of Ukraine. He could, for example, for the first time in his life, have tried to learn something about Irish history. He could listen to Timothy Garton Ash, who has pointed out that Russia’s decision to invade on the basis of ancient historic links between the two countries would be analogous to the UK invading Ireland because once we were part of the same country.

Or perhaps for analogies he should focus on more recent events. Johnson’s gaslighting of the public, and the rapturous reception from his captive audience in Blackpool is reminiscent of Putin’s rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium only a few days ago. We know many of the assembled multitudes had been required to attend by their employers, sometimes not even knowing where they were going, but they cheered him to the rafters nonetheless. How many of Johnson’s apparatchiks, despite perhaps having misgivings about the guff they were hearing, cheered him for the same reasons?

If Johnson wants to avoid comparisons to Putin, then this is absolutely the right time for him to rethink some of the steps his party is taking as we speak to bring the country closer to autocracy. The Police and Crime Bill will make peaceful protest more hazardous, the Elections Bill is a blatant attempt to guarantee one-party rule going forward, the Judicial Review Bill remove some of the key checks and balances on the executive, the Nationality and Borders Bill threatens people’s right to citizenship of their own country, and proposed changes to the Human Rights Act will strip away some human rights which we had always thought inalienable. When will the British public wake up to the fact that when we see such an appalling negative examples abroad we need to send out the message, loud and clear, that this is not a direction of travel we want? The UK deserves better.

A Servant of the People

Johnson told us he had been on the phone to Zelenskyy a day previously. He wants to bask in that reflected glory and compare himself to the Ukrainian president.

I have a confession to make. In 2019 I reflected with some sorrow that both the UK and Ukraine had elected a comedian as their leader. In the interim one of the two has become a statesman admired around the world, somebody for whom the title ‘Servant of the People’ is not just an empty boast, somebody who will be spoken of with respect for generations to come and after whom streets will be named and statues erected. The other remains a comedian, but a comedian who has long ceased to be funny and who tries to use faux humour to mask the clear and present danger he poses to our democracy. He is deeply compromised as the evidence is showing more clearly every day, and his talk of standing up to Putin rings hollow. The more he tries to compare himself to the Zelenskyy the more he will suffer by the comparison.

It is true that in the light of international crisis some of his backbenches, such as Douglas Ross and Andrew Bridgen, have withdrawn their letters to the 1922 committee, and perhaps he feels immunised against the consequences of the police investigation into ‘partygate’. He is unscrupulous enough to use Ukraine, as he has done with Covid, to distract from the real issue of what is his inadequacy at best and his deliberate undermining of his country’s freedoms at worst. He should never be allowed to get away with that. At a time like this, more than ever, the country cannot afford to have someone in charge who is an international figure of derision and who persists in digging holes for himself and his country.

Can Johnson take a leaf out of Zelenskyy’s book? As he persists in showing us, it is too late.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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