Before becoming the part-time Mayor of London, Boris Johnson fancied himself as something of a historian. In his biography of Winston Churchill, he observed that, “To some extent, all politicians are gamblers with events. They try to anticipate what will happen, to put themselves on the right side of history.”
One can’t help but picture Johnson, the Blonde Opportunist, pondering whether Remain or Leave would best serve the cause in which he most fervently believes – himself. And, seen through that lens, he concluded that backing Brexit would be his fast-track ticket to Number 10. For Boris, the ‘right side of history’ ends with him in Downing Street; the national interest comes a distant second.
But rather than dwell on the side-show of Boris and his role in the Tories’ never-ending psycho-drama over Europe, let’s instead focus on something important, which is what Winston Churchill himself actually believed. In 1948, Churchill spoke of the “three majestic circles” that should define our approach to the world: namely the Commonwealth, the Anglo-American alliance, and Europe. And he rightly opined that “we are the only country which has a great part in every one of them”, adding that Britain was “the very point of junction”.
For almost half a century this has been a truth understood across the political spectrum in this country, and it has served us well, enabling us to navigate the transition from Imperial to post-Imperial power, to manage the dangers of the Cold War, and to negotiate the uncertainties of its aftermath. As our history shows us, Britain’s success has been and will continue to be, in large part, built by the dynamism that comes from being at the heart and confluence of Churchill’s three ‘majestic circles’.
But in recent years we have seen this wisdom challenged, and the consequences of that have been nothing but damaging. Churchill’s message is as true today as it was in 1948: Britain must always seek to engage politically, economically and institutionally with our American, European and Commonwealth allies, and we must remember that weakening ties with one circle will inevitably weaken ties with all. This was President Obama’s argument on his recent visit to the UK; he made it clear that Brexit would damage our national interests not least because it would weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Obama intervened to defend his own national interest. We are American’s closest ally in part because they want an ally with global influence, something that will be diminished if we vote to leave. By being part of the intersecting majestic circles we ensure greater global reach, which is something of benefit both to ourselves, and our American partners.
The 23 June Referendum must, therefore, be set in the context of a fundamental strategic choice about Britain’s place and role in the world, and based on a hard-headed assessment of the costs and benefits of our relationship with each of the three circles of influence.
Taking the trans-Atlantic relationship first, it is clear that the debacle of our involvement in Iraq can certainly be attributed to our placing too many eggs in that particular basket. Obama made it clear that an America-only policy is not viable, but it is about more than that. As the US relinquishes its self-styled role as the world’s policeman, pivots towards the Pacific, and as the spectre of a possible President Trump looms, we must be realistic. We should come to the conclusion that the Special Relationship alone cannot sustain our prosperity and place in the world. In fact, we must accept the lessons of history, and conclude that an over-reliance on our trans-Atlantic ties cannot possibly be in our national strategic interest.
Some have therefore concluded that we should gravitate towards the Commonwealth. But this is already happening, via the EU. The EU has trade deals with two-thirds of the Commonwealth, and negotiations are on going with much of the remaining third. Thus a post-Brexit Britain would have to ask the vast majority of our Commonwealth partners for trade deals, to replace those already agreed with the EU. What an absurd waste of time and effort that would be, with results that would without a shadow of doubt be far worse than the status quo, due to the massively reduced leverage that the UK would have, as a sole trader.
We should of course continue to strengthen ties and relations with and across the Commonwealth, both via the European Union and on a bilateral level. But we cannot pretend that the Commonwealth can ever replace the role that the EU and the US play for the United Kingdom. The simple fact of the matter is that the very strength of the Commonwealth – its tremendous political, social, economic and cultural diversity – is also a weakness insofar as it precludes the commonality of purpose and interests required to place it, alone, at the heart of our approach to the world. Moreover, we cannot seriously expect that the Commonwealth could ever replace the EU in terms of global prominence and reach, and nor can we seriously think that an alliance that is predominantly based on our imperial history could ever fill the huge hole that Brexit would create in our tariff-free trade with the 500 million consumers on our doorstep.
This brings us to the third of the three key circles of influence – the European Union. What sets our relationship with the EU apart is that it is defined not by our history alone (be it imperial or Cold War), but rather by our geography, shared interests, values and aspirations for the future.
The European Union’s core strength lies in the manner in which it secures a confluence of values and interests. By pooling their sovereignty and integrating their economies, the member states of the EU have both created the conditions necessary for lasting security, whilst simultaneously laying the foundations for our future prosperity, progress and influence.
The aim, therefore, must be for us to lead, not leave. There is, following a vote to Remain, a natural place for the UK as the leader of the no-Eurozone nations. Germany is a reluctant leader of the EU, and is crying out for the British people and Government to get off the fence and commit, once and for all, to the vision Churchill outlined back in 1948.
The institutions and alliances holding the EU together are complex and multi-layered. But we live in a complex and multi-layered world – a world in which there truly is strength in numbers.
It is against this backdrop that Boris Johnson’s recent disgraceful comments about President Obama’s Kenyan heritage must be judged. In 1948, Churchill painted a memorable picture of Britain’s place in the world. 58 years later, Boris Johnson, a man who aspires to hold the highest office in the land, reduced Churchill’s compelling geo-political analysis to a dog-whistle. What a damning indictment of the depths to which the Conservative Party has sunk.
The EU referendum offers the British people a unique opportunity secure our future as a prosperous, forward-looking nation. If we choose to seize it we will not only shape the destiny of our own country, but that of the European Union and the world. It is not only our relationship with our EU partners that is at stake in this vote: our position at the confluence of the three majestic circles will also be on the ballot paper.
Let’s hope that this message is communicated to the electorate clearly, and in no uncertain terms, between now and 23 June.