Wednesday 14 February 2018

Boris Johnson's speech: leadership ambitions without leadership qualities

It is hardly a great secret that Boris Johnson harbours leadership ambitions. What is less clear is whether he has leadership qualities. His speech today was billed as one which would reach out to heal the divisions over Brexit and to provide a unifying vision for how it would be undertaken. Had he delivered on this it would indeed have been a demonstration of leadership of a sort which has been much needed since the Referendum result.

That vote was so close as to reveal little more than a near equal split of views and endorsing, if anything, only the policy of leaving the EU but not any one of the many ways touted during the campaign of doing so. Johnson of all people should realise this, since he reportedly saw the arguments for and against leaving as so finely balanced that he wrote two articles - one making the case for, one against - before he belatedly announced his support for leaving. Once the result was announced, or at least once May became Prime Minister, the leaderly course would have been to acknowledge those facts and to seek a consensual way forward. Doing so would have had political difficulties (as would any course of action) but the form it would have taken is clear. A soft Brexit that would have given some voters all that they wanted and most voters at least some of what they wanted.

May blew that chance, which is why Britain is now in such a state of disunity and bitterness. Perhaps Johnson could, even at this late stage, have done what she failed to do. But he did not. Instead, apart from a few slightly conciliatory words, he doubled down on the preposterous position that the ‘Will of the People’ is for the hard Brexit of seeking neither single market membership nor a comprehensive customs treaty. Indeed, he implied a position even harder than that which appears to be that of the government by suggesting that during the transition period, which Britain needs and has asked for, we should not be bound by EU law. So his ‘unifying’ message came down to telling remainers and soft Brexiters alike to suck it up.

As for the supposed intellectual core of his speech, it was based on an absurdity. The EU, he opined, is a political project rather than a trade project. That is in one way a statement of well-known fact; well-known since Britain joined what was then the EEC. Johnson was simply channelling one of Brexit’s foundational myths, that ‘we did not know what we were joining’ (see this excellent blog for a detailed debunking of the myth). In another way, it is a profound misunderstanding of how politics and economics inter-relate, a misunderstanding that has permeated British Conservatism since its embrace of Friedman and Hayek in the 1970s.

The misunderstanding is that markets exist ‘naturally’ and prior to regulation, with regulation coming second and distorting what would otherwise naturally occur. In fact, regulation is a prior condition for markets, certainly for effectively functioning markets. So whilst it is true to say that the EU (going right back to the original European Coal and Steel Community) used economics as a means of pursuing political goals, it’s also the case that political integration has been a way of pursuing economic goals. It seems to have been a continual surprise to Conservative Eurosceptics ever since the Thatcher government pushed so hard to create the European single market that such a market entails as its prior condition a trans-national legal and regulatory framework, up to and including the ECJ.

That is the only reason why the single market, unlike free trade agreements and areas, is able extensively to dismantle Non-Tariff Barriers and, as a consequence, liberalise trade in services as well as goods. It is this liberalisation that Johnson wants Britain to turn its back on, but the irony is that if he succeeds it will not mean an escape from the world of politics to one of idealised free trade and free markets: free trade deals and, for that matter, the WTO are themselves arenas in which political horse-trading and power-plays abound and within which various forms of transnational regulation and arbitration occur, often with little or no democratic accountability and control. ‘Global Britain’ outside the EU doesn’t escape the politics of globalization, it just puts itself in a weaker position both politically and economically by absenting itself from the regional blocs that frame the politics of globalization.

In any case, this version of 'liberal Brexit' is very far from what many who voted leave were told they were voting for. Immigration and protectionism may not have been the only issues in leave voters’ minds but it would be absurd to suggest that they played no role. The Leave campaign was fought and won on largely illiberal, nationalist lines, not on liberal, globalist ones. So Johnson is telling those voters, quite as much as remainers, that they have to suck up the version of Brexit he endorses. It is a strange kind of unifying speech that is contemptuous of so many on both sides of the divide.

Finally, if Johnson’s speech was both divisive and intellectually flawed it also failed to deliver on what is perhaps the most pressing leadership challenge of all at the present time. What are the concrete, practical details of how Brexit is to be achieved, even if it is to be a Brexit on Johnson’s preferred lines? On this, he had nothing whatsoever to say. Like every speech he gives it was long on rhetoric and devoid of practicalities, as if “confidence and self-belief” can substitute for pragmatic details.  A campaign speech, not a speech for governance. It’s reported that this is also how he conducts himself in cabinet discussions. He has nothing to say on the practicalities because he knows nothing of the practicalities, and he knows nothing of the practicalities because he does not care about them. And he does not care about them because he cares about nothing - perhaps not even, in itself, Brexit – except his own naked ambition. An ambition which is not, it seems, even to lead, since leadership requires the hard effort of consensus-building and attention to detail, but the burning, narcissistic desire simply to be the leader.

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