LONDON – If history repeats itself – first tragedy, then farce – what comes next is Boris Johnson, a shape-shifting politician who embodies the contradictions of our age. Johnson is a tribune of the people who grew up with the privileges of the 1%; a child of immigrants who campaigned for closed borders; a Conservative who wants to upend the political order; an erudite man who mocks expertise; and a cosmopolitan who casually calls black people “piccaninnies.” Johnson did more than anyone to bury Britain’s European future; but his ultra-flexibility may yet prove to be its salvation.
In his first public appearance after being appointed Foreign Secretary, Johnson compared the Brexit vote to the French Revolution. Provoking boos at the French Embassy’s Bastille Day celebration, he hailed the referendum as “a great popular uprising against a stifling bureaucratic ancient regime (sic) whose democratic credentials had become very far from obvious.”
But the Brexit vote – with its promise to recreate the Britain of yesterday – is less revolution than counter-revolution. Boris and his band of Brexiteers have more in common with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who overturned the French republic to create a new monarchy, than with Danton or Robespierre.
If anyone or anything has a claim to embody the progressive ideals of 1789, it is the EU. Its politicians and officials have translated the vague trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity into a concrete form: 80,000 pages of laws that cover rights and regulations from the bedroom to the factory floor. And the application of these rules helped waves of countries – from Greece and Spain to Estonia and Poland – move from autocracy to democracy.