With a Scottish court considering whether Boris can be sent to prison should he fail to seek a Brexit extension beyond 31 October, I’ve been wondering (like many others, including Nigel Farage) what Boris is going to do.
It occurred to me that in 2006 Boris’ then parliamentary secretary Melissa had sent me a signed free copy of his book, The Dream Of Rome. I wondered if I might glean from its pages an idea of what Boris really thought about Europe. It matters a lot more than it did back then, when he wasn’t yet Britain’s Prime Minister
In the book Boris wonders what it was that held the Roman Empire together for so long, over such a vast area of Europe. He has a surprising answer: emperor worship. The Roman empire was held together by worship of the emperor, particularly in the time of the emperor Augustus. This, Boris says, was the ‘egg white’ that held ‘the Roman cake together.’
Boris gives this as the reason why the European Union can’t hold together. There’s no central focus on which all eyes are fixed.
Where are the Euro-rituals? Where is the Euro-religion?Where are the symbols around which the people of the continent could possibly unite?
It was the great Jacques Delors, the former President of the Commission, and an ardent Catholic, who saw this lacuna; and I well remember the despairing efforts of a priest in one of his think-tanks, who was asked to create a ‘spiritual dimension’ for the Community. He was on the right track, of course, but the task was hopeless. (page 186)
I can see what he means. The EU is a vast faceless bureaucracy. The centre of it is empty. The Romans managed the trick for a few hundred years, but nobody has ever succeeded since. And the EU won’t succeed either.
So on the one hand Boris shares the dream of Rome, the dream of a Pax Romana extending from Britain to Iraq. But on the other hand he thinks it’ll never be achieved again. Boris is both a Europhile and a Eurosceptic. He admires the ambition of the EU project, but regards it as doomed to failure.
But I suppose that also means that Boris thinks that the EU needs an emperor to hold it together. A Charlemagne or a Napoleon or a Hitler. And there’s no sign of anyone like that around. But, given that the three aforementioned figures appeared during periods of disintegration, who knows whether a new one might pop up in a period of European disintegration.
I tend to think that what’s currently pulling the EU apart is renewed nationalism, or a renewed sense of national identity. Instead of European nation states merging together in a vague, absent European identity, national identities are being re-asserted. Brexit is the re-assertion of British national identity.
But although The Dream Of Rome starts with the revolt of German tribes against Roman rule in 9 AD (and mentions a Belgian revolt 50 years earlier), Boris doesn’t believe that the Roman empire disintegrated because of internal divisions. Instead he thinks it disintegrated because of invasion from the east by Vandals and Goths and Huns. And maybe today it’s not so much the re-assertion of European national identities that is causing the EU to disintegrate, but instead a new invasion of Europe, this time from the south rather than the east. In fact, it is perhaps this new invasion that is the cause of the re-emergence of national identities across Europe, particularly since the invasion is being aided and abetted by the EU. The rich politicians in the European political class may welcome this invasion of cheap labour, but it’s not welcomed in Greece and Italy and Spain.
My own aversion to the EU does not arise from any undue nationalism, or distress at immigration, but from the fact that the EU launched a War on Smokers way back in 1989, and there’s no way that a smoker like me will want to have anything to do with such a totalitarian enterprise. In fact, since declaring war on smokers meant declaring war on something like one third or one quarter of all Europeans, it seems to me that this alone will guarantee the failure of the EU: it’s pure overreach, and should never have been something the EU tried to do.
Anyway, what did I learn about Boris today? That he’s a highly ambiguous figure. He might do one thing, but equally he might do the opposite. He might take Britain out of the EU, but he might just as easily tie it even more tightly to Brussels.
We’ll find out which it is in about 3½ weeks’ time.