5 July 2019

Free Exchange: Niall Ferguson on Europe, Brexit and Boris


With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a new series of essays, podcasts and interviews on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.

For the latest episode of Free Exchange, CapX’s acting editor John Ashmore sat down for a fascinating discussion with one of the world’s most renowned historians, Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson on…Boris Johnson:

Boris Johnson’s persona is a kind of Monty Python version of Winston Churchill, he even wrote a bad book about Churchill to encourage people to see him as in some sense a latter day Churchill and I expect there will be much talk of the 1940 spirit as we approach October 31. But I just don’t think this stuff resonates and I think it’s counter-productive because it makes the continental Europeans sigh and raise their eyebrows and the Americans think we’re chronically stuck in the past, whereas I don’t think ordinary people are. This is a real relic of the age of Dad’s Army – the kind of sit-coms Boris might have watched at Eton.

Ferguson on…what Churchill would have made of Brexit

I’m not convinced Churchill would have approved of Brexit since it amounts to a leap in the dark to think Britain can simply exit the EU and hope for a bunch of free trade agreements, including with the United States, to turn up – at a time when most of the world is turning away from free trade.

I really struggle with people who bring Churchill up in these discussions. I wish we could get our seance equipment out and get some guidance from the great man on what to do. My sense is that he would not see this in the terms of the Hard Brexit lobby.

Ferguson on…the idea that the EU ‘guaranteed peace’ in Europe

It’s a silly argument because the one thing that didn’t happen was the creation of a European defence union. Europe integrated in every other respect, leaving Nato to do the hard work of protecting Europe from the Soviet threat. Nato’s the key to that story of peace in Europe, not the EU and even when the EU tried to play a peacemaking role in the Balkans in the 1990s it failed abjectly.

Ferguson on…online political debates

If you flunk the facts in an interview with Robin Day you’re in big trouble. That’s gone because I think the arguments are much more like internet memes and you can be quite clearly wrong about something and it doesn’t matter because a big part of the electorate is in a confirmation bias-based bubble and they just filter out bad news.

I think we tend to underestimate the extent to which there has been a radical segmentation of the public square. I see this whenever I tweet about Brexit because there’s a certain Twitter account that will just heap opprobrium on me for being insufficiently bullish about the prospects of Boris Johnson and they’re very similar in tone to the accounts that jump on top of you if you make a negative comment about Trump.

Ferguson on…Scottish independence

If there’s one person who could persuade Scots to back Nicola Sturgeon, it is Boris Johnson because he kind of sums up all that the Scots find annoying about the English elite.

Ferguson on…historical parallels

I think if you ask yourself, what is our time most like, what era do we most resemble – maybe it’s not the late 19th century, maybe you have to go back further to the 16th and 17th centuries when the printing press created a whole new environment for political and religious conflict. I think the internet has done something very like that in our time…it was witchcraft mania back then, now it’s fake news.

Ferguson on…the future of the EU

I still hold the view that Brexit will be a footnote in a chapter about the break-up of the European Union…It might not go any further in the direction of integration, but it won’t quickly disintegrate. Ultimately you could argue, in that case Brexit doesn’t really matter – and I would say ‘right, exactly right!’. So why waste all this time on a divorce from something that is in the end becoming weaker over time and is almost certain not to become a superstate…We’re divorcing a slowly decomposing spouse.

John Ashmore is Acting Editor of CapX