Boris Johnson Must Change His Act
LONDON – Some of the United Kingdom’s right-wing newspapers – supporters of both Brexit and its principal advocate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson – have been quick to assure us that US President Joe Biden has already forgiven the Conservative government for its obsequious cheerleading for the departed Donald Trump. The new Democratic administration, they claim, will want to do business with a UK that is now distanced from the European Union and ready to assume a new role as an influential global fixer.
Let’s hope those newspapers are correct. But Biden and his team will have to overlook quite a lot for the sake of such transatlantic goodwill. They will certainly have to turn the other cheek and forget about the UK government’s embrace of a policy that required special pleading to Trump rather than a special relationship with the United States.
That dispiriting story began with an embarrassed-looking Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, being told that the UK’s national interest required her to get along with the misogynist Trump. May was even prevailed upon to invite him to Britain for a sort of semi-state visit, without a carriage ride through London with the Queen but including a speech to both Houses of Parliament.
The then-Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, saved Parliament’s dignity by vetoing this idea, a decision for which he was widely criticized. Bercow now deserves some apologies from those who doubted his ability to detect a rogue.
May, a decent and honest woman, was far outdistanced by her successor and his colleagues in the Trump sycophancy stakes. In January 2017, Johnson’s senior fellow Brexiteer and principal ministerial fixer, Michael Gove (a former journalist with The Times newspaper), conducted an interview with then President-elect Trump that plumbed new depths of oleaginous toadyism.
Gove wallowed in Trump’s endorsement of Brexit. It subsequently came to light that Gove’s then-employer, Rupert Murdoch, was in the room while the interview took place. And why not? The owner of Fox News as well as The Times was entitled to keep an eye on his two protégés.
But Johnson has more substantive issues to try to explain away or forget as he seeks to build good relations with Biden. His problem is not just the contrast between what he wrote and said about Trump and his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama (under whom Biden served as vice president). What really matters is what Johnson stands for and the way he behaves, which inevitably invite comparisons to Trump.
If the US-UK relationship is to be as close and productive as all who believe in liberal democracy should want, Johnson must change three aspects of his approach. First, Johnson has – to put it politely – a rather distant relationship with the truth. But as the Yale historian Tim Snyder has pointed out, post-truth politics can easily drift into something far more dangerous and sinister, particularly on the back of social media. Sooner or later, a political Pinocchio can do a great deal of damage.
Second, Johnson and most of his Brexit colleagues do not respect the UK’s vital national institutions. They have demeaned Parliament, attacked the UK’s independent judiciary, dismissed senior civil servants for ministers’ political errors, and pilloried Britain’s renowned public broadcaster – the BBC – for its efforts to provide balanced news coverage. In any liberal democracy, majoritarianism needs to be checked and balanced by the very institutions that Conservative ministers and the right-wing press have rubbished.
Third, Johnson’s government reflects too many aspects of Trumpian nativism. For “Make America Great Again,” read “Make England Great Again,” or MEGA. Johnson’s government bears the stamp of English nationalism like the words embedded in a stick of seaside rock (a hard, sugary candy sold at British coastal resorts).
We British are outside the EU now and must make the best of this self-defeating choice. But leaving Europe is an impossibility, because we remain geographically, economically, politically, and culturally part of it. We must work with our European friends – our closest neighbors and largest trade partners – in order to advance our national interest and show others that we understand how to cooperate on the international stage.
Above all, the UK needs to show a grasp of the disciplines and manners of partnership, whether we are trying to augment our soft power or use our hard power carefully and responsibly. The habit of cooperation is indispensable, whether we are addressing trade, security, or the environment; seeking to constrain brutish behavior by China and Russia; or navigating the perils of Middle East politics.
To convince the Biden administration at meetings like the planned G7 summit in June and November’s COP26 climate-change conference (both of which the UK will chair), we should first demonstrate that we are not as reckless and feckless as Trump in the way we treat allies. After all, taking cheap shots at your friends damages you more than it does them. And they will remember the patronizing insults when you next ask for their assistance.
Unfortunately, the Johnson government still has much to do to show that it can be a trusted partner. Above all, it must persuade the US and Europe that it does not regard Trump as a fitting role model for a twenty-first-century liberal democracy.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
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