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Boris Johnson’s Hitler Comparison

Boris Johnson’s Hitler Comparison

Binoy Kampmark

“Hitler’s main aim was to create an empire in the east and violently subjugate Europeans. Any connection between that and the EU is simply laughable.”
Lord Bramal, The Guardian, May 16, 2016

Had he lost it? Perhaps not entirely. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson is spending his time drumming up support for a British exit from the EU, and making waves doing so. These waves, as his admirers and detractors know all too well, tend to vary in terms of size and velocity.

A closer examination of BJ’s recent statements on the subject of aggressive EU expansion and consolidation do not suggest total madness, but nor do they suggest total originality. Tease through the mad undergrowth, and a few shoots of sensible appraisal can be found: centralised cores of imperial power are not necessarily such a good idea, notably in the European context. “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.”

Ideas of a unified Europe have been thrown about with various degrees of enthusiasm over the centuries, but now, Johnson finds a loss of interest in the European idea, a general waning that has assumed the form of a battering ram in various populist reactions. (This, in a sense, is a true Tory speaking.) For him, “fundamentally, what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects of understands. That is causing this democratic void.”

Boris has long argued that much of this problem lies with the Romans, who were very much in the business of imperial rule over various nationalities spanning a continent. “Pan-European” hegemony has been a thriving stable of ideas ever since. His unqualified love for the Greek city states, notably Athens, continues despite a liberal counterfeit quality.

Any inspiration must lie with Eurosceptic Nicholas Ridley, who told then editor of The Spectator Dominic Lawson after resigning in an anti-European huff in 1990 that he was “not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.”

Johnson has also injected a degree of patriotic necessity into his campaign. Britons, he argues, should become the separatist “heroes of Europe” again, saving the rotting corpse from itself, and offering an example to follow. That example is obvious: a more fractured vision of political existence that might, just might, retain a few tinctures of democratic sentiment.

Not all on his side of the Tory aisle agree with this call to arms, co-opting the likes of Hitler in the EU slander games. Conservative MP and grandson of Winston Churchill called Johnson the “unchallenged master of the self-inflicted wound.” Stumbling to a political suicide, the former Mayor has made it a habit of pulling the carpet from under his own feet – and others who decide to take the road with him.

Sir Eric Pickles, the Conservative former communities secretary, began seeing a Ken Livingstone double – at least in terms of using inappropriate Hitler analogies. “If the last few weeks tell us anything: it is rarely a help to mention Hitler in support of an argument by an ex-mayor of London.”

Other Tories such as former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine see the entire Boris rationale as ludicrous, if not chilling. “If he were to be successful in his ambition to cut us off from Europe, the flag would fly in Frankfurt and Paris in his honour.” For Heseltine, the doom lies in the issue of financial protection – Britain’s financial services industry would take a battering. Far better for Britain to be in the mess doing something, than outside the mess doing nothing at all.

Johnson, in his sometimes awkward fumbling, occasionally hits gold, even if it is gold smeared by a good degree of dirt. The issue of stifling managerialism, and one that arises from institutional atrophy, is all too evident in EU governance. It has enslaved the sovereign ideal to a financial one, and reduced the social welfare notion to a rump.

After the idea, the fall; after the inspiration, the dull gloom. The EU has gone into a state of decline, dooming the democratic project in different ways. (It can be argued that it was never even democratic in aspiration to begin with.) What Boris tends to neglect along the way are other historical aspect of the debate, the sort that tend to be lost in the war of analogies. History is itself filled with its own misuses.

The Boris formula, for all its appeal to raw populism and Bulldog resistance, is not coherently one of improvement. As Heseltine reminds us, being absolutely sovereign – the Britain of 1940, for instance – comes with its own problems, its own dangers before the ambitions of other powers and intentions. “Peace [after the Second World War] was hard won. Europe came together to ensure it must never happen again.”

How that “togetherness” is fashioned remains the old question, and it will not come from the addled mind that is Boris Johnson. For one thing, he has given a sense about what good Tory fractiousness looks like.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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