Boris Johnson has failed the Churchill test

In his highly entertaining biography of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson observes 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". Mr Johnson even interprets his hero's decision to campaign against Adolf Hitler early in the 1930s in this cynical light, explaining that Churchill - "put his shirt on a horse called anti-Nazism... and his bet came off in spectacular fashion".

I thought of that passage when I heard that Mr Johnson has thrown in his lot with the Leave campaign - ahead of Britain's referendum on European Union membership on June 23.

Mr Johnson has put his shirt on a horse called Euroscepticism. He is clearly hoping his bet will also "come off in spectacular fashion" and carry him, like Churchill, all the way into 10 Downing Street - preferably without the added bonus of a world war. The London Mayor's decision is certainly a significant moment in the referendum campaign. A Vote Leave group that was in danger of being led by cranks, nobodies and octogenarians will now be headed by one of the country's most popular politicians.

June could also be a particularly propitious time to be making the case against the EU. By then, the Greek debt crisis may well have flared up again. Europe's migrant crisis is also likely to have intensified, as improved weather increases the numbers of would-be refugees crossing the Mediterranean. That will increase infighting among the members of the EU, making the organisation look ever more shambolic.

The vision of hundreds of thousands more desperate would-be migrants, not too far from the English Channel, will also play directly into the most emotive argument that the Leave campaign will deploy: the fear of mass migration from Europe and the demand that the free movement of people from the EU should be halted.

Mr Johnson has put his shirt on a horse called Euroscepticism and is hoping his bet will "come off in spectacular fashion" and carry him, like Churchill, all the way into 10, Downing Street.
Mr Johnson has put his shirt on a horse called Euroscepticism and is hoping his bet will "come off in spectacular fashion" and carry him, like Churchill, all the way into 10, Downing Street. PHOTO: REUTERS

Seeing the potentially terminal difficulties that the EU is facing may have led Mr Johnson to try to "put himself on the right side of history", by placing a bet against Europe.

But there is more than one way of being on the right side of history. The first is simply to anticipate the direction of events. The second, more important, way is to align yourself with the right causes and values - those that the history books will ultimately vindicate. Churchill's decision to oppose the appeasement of Hitler was right in both senses. He saw how events were unfolding - and, yes, he ultimately benefited politically from his prescience. But he also stood up against evil.

Mr Johnson's decision to campaign for Brexit might put him on the right side of history, but only in the first and narrowest sense of foreseeing the direction of events. The EU is certainly in a sorry mess at the moment. There is also a strong strand of anti-establishment, anti-immigration populism loose in both the US and Europe, which could easily translate into a British vote to leave the EU. So betting against the EU could allow the London Mayor to pocket some political winnings.

A modern Churchill, which is what Mr Johnson clearly aspires to be, would immediately understand that Britain's decision about whether to stay in the EU has to be seen as part of a wider global picture. And that big picture is very worrying...

But Mr Johnson is on the wrong side of history in the more important sense, because he is aligning himself with some of the most malign forces in Europe and Britain. Across Europe, it is the far right and the far left that are calling for the destruction of the EU - and they will cheer loudest if Britain votes to leave. On the borders of the EU, Mr Vladimir Putin sees Brussels as a bitter enemy - and hugely resents the sanctions that the EU imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea. The Russian President will be delighted and emboldened at any sign of the disintegration of the EU.

In failing to appreciate the wider international context for his actions, Mr Johnson is following a distinctly un-Churchillian path. Churchill was the very opposite of a Little Englander. That is why he understood so quickly what the rise of Hitler meant for Britain, Europe and the world. It is also why he was one of the first politicians to understand the significance of Soviet actions in eastern Europe after 1945 - leading him to coin the term "iron curtain".

A modern Churchill, which is what Mr Johnson clearly aspires to be, would immediately understand that Britain's decision about whether to stay in the EU has to be seen as part of a wider global picture. And that big picture is very worrying - with Russia rediscovering its taste for war, the Middle East disintegrating, violent jihadism on the rise, China flexing its muscles in the Pacific and the US flirting with the lunacy of "Trumpism".

Given all that, it is depressingly small-minded of Mr Johnson to justify campaigning for Brexit partly on the grounds that Britain might save a bit of money on its contributions to the EU budget. The fact is that Britain will pay a very heavy price - directly and indirectly - if the EU disintegrates. As Prime Minister David Cameron correctly pointed out, this is ultimately a question of national security.

When Mr Johnson made his name as a journalist in the 1990s, campaigning against the follies of Brussels was fun. It was even possible to argue, back then, that the ambitions of the EU represented a serious threat to British self-government. But it would be absurd to look around today's world and identify the EU as the biggest threat to British democracy or national security. The times have changed. Sadly, it seems that Mr Johnson has not changed with them.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'Boris Johnson has failed the Churchill test'. Print Edition | Subscribe