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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

In Britain, the old politics and the new

Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson speaks in Exeter, England, on Friday.
Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson speaks in Exeter, England, on Friday. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Ours is a time of paradoxes. For example: Even as information technology has empowered enormous and open-access social networks, politics in Britain continues to be run by the tiny and exclusive old boy network.

The current contest for the Conservative Party leadership will decide who is Britain’s next prime minister. Seven of the original candidates were Oxford men. The two remaining candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are, respectively, the former president of the Oxford Union and the former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Johnson went to Eton; Hunt was head boy at Charterhouse.

Of Britain’s 54 prime ministers since Robert Walpole, 27 were educated at Oxford, 19 at Eton. If Hunt defies the bookies by winning, he will be the second Old Carthusian to occupy 10 Downing Street.

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Boris Johnson is believed by some of his supporters to be the British Donald Trump. Aside from hair and body mass, however, they have nothing in common. Though born into a wealthy family, Trump was and remains a social outsider, sneered at by Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When he announced his bid for the presidency four years ago, Arianna Huffington announced that she would cover his campaign in her website’s entertainment section. Johnson was already a member of Britain’s social and political elite before he even got to Oxford.

Trump was early to see the huge political potential of social media, joining Twitter in 2009. He has 61.4 million followers. Johnson was late to the game, joining in 2015. He has 613,900 followers, exactly 1 percent of Trump’s total — and fewer than a third of the Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn’s.

Trump notoriously communicates at the level of a 10-year-old. Johnson speaks the archaic jolly-good-egg English of P.G. Wodehouse. Last week, apropos of the Irish border backstop, Boris told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg , “We were the authors of our own incarceration.” Trump would simply have said: “We locked ourselves up.”

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“People are yearning for this great incubus to be pitchforked off the back of British politics,” Johnson declared of Brexit. If the Tories failed to deliver Brexit, they would face “mortal retribution.” Boris must be the last man in Britain to call his family “loved ones.” He isn’t Trump. He’s Wodehouse’s spoof demagogue, Spode.

Moreover, this quintessential product of the old elite is three weeks away from being anointed prime minister by another old elite. At the last general election, 46.8 million people were registered to vote, of whom 69 percent turned out. But Britain’s next leader will be chosen by one-third of 1 percent of the electorate: by the 160,000 people who pay the almost $32 annual subscription that is required to become a member of the Conservative Party.

For most of the 20th century, mass-membership political parties were the organizations that ran democracies. In 1953 the Conservatives could claim to have nearly three million members. The number of individual members of the Labor Party peaked in 1952, at 1,015,000; there were more than 5 million corporate (mainly trade union) members.

Today, as in most European countries, the parties have withered away, so that Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike resemble enthusiasts for an anachronistic hobby such as stamp-collecting.

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Here is a further paradox: The British political landscape, under the strain of Brexit, increasingly resembles a continental European system. The age of two-party dominance, despite a fleeting resurgence in 2017, looks to be over. According to Britain Elects, four parties now have the support of more than 15 percent of the electorate. YouGov places the Brexit Party — founded by the true British Trump, Nigel Farage, less than five months ago — level with the Tories on 22 percent. I could tell you similar stories of fragmentation in most European Union countries. Ironically, even as they seek to leave the EU, Britons are becoming more politically European than they have ever been.

The final paradox has to do with the logic of Brexit itself. Since the 1980s, British Euroscepticism has rested on the belief that the European Economic Community that the UK joined in 1973 was inexorably morphing into a federal “super-state.”

For a time, especially as the continental leaders forced through their ill-conceived monetary union, this seemed a legitimate fear. Yet the rise of the Internet dooms the European federalist project as surely as it dooms the old political parties. A hierarchical structure of recognizably 1950s provenance, the EU has proved unequal to the challenges of three network-propelled crises: the US-originated bank panic, the Arab revolutions, and the trans-Mediterranean migration surge. The political backlash against these failures, of which Brexit is just a part, has been a death sentence for the project of “ever closer union.”

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So here we are. An Old Etonian is about to become prime minister because he looks “to the manner born” in the eyes of a tiny, self-selected electorate, and because he is willing to promise them the kind of magical Brexit they still believe in. Yet in reality Brexit is an impossibly expensive and complicated divorce from a spouse who is terminally ill. It’s like seceding from the Holy Roman Empire.

One day Britons will realize what a colossal waste of time and energy all this has been. Speaking of modern networks, the Brits would be vastly better off if they had spent the last three years mining Bitcoin.


Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His updated second edition of “The Ascent of Money’’ was recently published by Penguin.