Britain has led again. In June 2016, the Brexit referendum was a leading indicator for the victory not only of Donald Trump, but also the victories of other right-wing populists, from Matteo Salvini in Italy to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
I spent much of last week in a sleep-deprived state of anxiety, fearing that Britain might lead again in precisely the opposite direction. My nagging, neurotic nightmare was another hung Parliament and a political (not to mention financial) crisis that would end up producing an unholy Labor-Scottish Nationalist-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the odious Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. This would then have given a kind of legitimacy to the “woke” left all over the world, including the United States. You may recall my manic dive into social media data, all of which seemed to portend a strong Labor showing.
I was not alone in worrying. I spent Thursday night in a London restaurant jam-packed with staunch Conservatives. Wild rumors circulated. Boris Johnson was going to lose his seat, necessitating a hasty elevation to the House of Lords. As 10 p.m. approached, we held our collective breath. And . . . phew! No, not just phew! Hallelujah!
Yes, Britain has led again — but not in the wrong direction I had feared. Far from a swing from populist right to Marxist left, there has been a fundamental transformation of conservatism itself. I have never been so relieved to be wrong. Boris Johnson’s chief strategist Dominic Cummings knew better: The social media data I was obsessing about were irrelevant.
In Britain, this is going to be seen as a win for Boris Johnson’s version of “One Nation” Toryism, a rather overused phrase that dates back to Benjamin Disraeli’s novel “Sybil.” With his pledges to spend, spend, spend on everything from the National Health Service to Northern infrastructure to minimum wages, Johnson will now be seen, I would guess, as rather more Disraeli than Churchill.
That’s true in the sense that austerity (which Churchill certainly practiced in his time as chancellor) is dead.
But more than a victory for One Nation, this was the triumph of something new: the national conservatism featured earlier this year at an important conference in Washington, D.C. The key name here is Yoram Hazony, the Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar, and political theorist, whose book “The Virtue of Nationalism” (2018) puts last week’s election into world-historical perspective.
Just as Brexit begat Trump, so Boris’s victory more or less guarantees that the Democrats will be decimated next November if they nominate either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
“Nationalism,” writes Hazony, “is not some unfathomable political illness that periodically takes over countries for no good reason and to no good end, as many in America and Britain seem to think these days. . . . [It] is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions, and pursuing their own interests without interference.”
True, not all national conservatives are as socially liberal as Boris Johnson. In his penetrating portrait of Boris in New York magazine, however, my old friend Andrew Sullivan got to the heart of the issue. Johnson, he argued, “has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. . . .
“What Boris is offering as an alternative is a Tory social democracy rooted in national pride and delivered with a spoonful of humor and entertainment. In some ways, his personality is part of the formula. His plummy voice and silly hair and constant jokes are deeply, even reassuringly, British even as demographic change has made Britishness seem fragile.”
I think this is very right.
Now for a mea culpa or two. Yes, it’s true: I was against Brexit, as I thought the trouble of getting divorced from a moribund European Union would be more than it was worth. I was content with the David Cameron-George Osborne government, dreaded Theresa May, and didn’t trust Boris. However, when the referendum result came in, I took the old-fashioned approach I was taught at school. We lost, so clap the winning team off the pitch, and come to terms with defeat. I had no time for, or patience with, the die-hard Remoaners, any more than with their American counterparts, the Never-Trumpers.
I was right about Theresa May. I was wrong about Boris. As Sullivan says, the effortless superiority and unbearable lightness of BoJo — which we Scots find so difficult to appreciate — is that he takes the ingredients of populism and turns them into a much more palatable dish than his counterparts on the continent will ever serve up.
The rise of national conservatism and the proof that it can work here in Britain sound the death-knell for woke socialism all over the world. Just as Brexit begat Trump, so Boris’s victory more or less guarantees that the Democrats will be decimated next November if they nominate either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
It also implies the ultimate victory of national conservatives on the continent, beginning with Salvini in Italy, whose departure from power earlier this year will be only temporary. Eventually, even in France, they will run out of ways to keep the Le Pens out.
National conservatism on the Continent has its nasty side, no doubt. But the best thing about Boris’s win was the part played in it by the revelations of anti-Semitism within the Labor Party. For the past four years, the left has tried to represent the populism that produced Brexit as racist. Yet the true racists turned out to be Corbyn & Co. And working-class voters saw that.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.