21 November 2019

Niall Ferguson on Brexit, liberalism and how to think historically

By Niall Ferguson

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.

Earlier this year we spoke to world-renowned historian Niall Ferguson about Brexit, the crisis of European liberalism and the prospects of his home country, Scotland, separating from the UK. You can listen to the full interview here.

JA: Do you see any useful parallels between what we’re going through at the moment and previous periods in history?

NF: “I was reminded of Norman Stone’s book, Europe Transformed, by the sad news of his death and I went back and refreshed my memory, as I had last read it when I was an undergraduate. One of the arguments Norman made in that book is that liberalism and its mid-19th century variant did indeed suffer a strange death in the late 19th century in Europe, as well as in the United Kingdom. And it’s sort of happened again that the centre ground (which was liberal in the standard sense of the term), Christian democracy and social democracy, is crumbling everywhere. Suddenly populists are challenging liberal verities – including free trade – and tariffs are suddenly back in the news just as they were in the late 19th century.”

“So I think it’s worth trying to understand the politics of the today by going back to Norman, re-reading Europe Transformed and realising that we are in one of those phases. One might call it a phase of backlash against globalisation, when the costs of liberalism, of free trade, of free migration suddenly seem to outweigh the benefits. And I think it’s not a bad analogy. It’s a better analogy than the 1930s, which people constantly bring up, as if there’s some resemblance between Donald Trump and Mussolini or Hitler. That’s just a silly and unhelpful analogy. I think it’s much more illuminating to look at fin de siècle politics.”

Do you think Brexit arose out of a certain version of British history?

“It’s often complained – I see this in the New York Times – that Brexit represents a kind of incurable British or perhaps English nostalgia for the days of Empire, or for the the world wars. I’m not sure I see that in the British electorate. In fact, I’m struck when I talk to people in pubs, which I have a habit of doing, how little those historical allusions really come up. This is, from the vantage point of the average voter, not that freighted with history.”

“It’s just a few Conservative politicians who can’t resist bringing up the Battle of Britain or whatever event appears most appropriate. 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 a latter day Churchill…But I just don’t think this stuff resonates. And, indeed, I think it’s counterproductive because it just makes the Continental Europeans in particular sigh and raise their eyebrows and the Americans think that we are just chronically stuck in the past, whereas I don’t think ordinary people are.”

Certainly it’s been a while since we had a Prime Minister as steeped in history as Churchill himself, isn’t it?

“Churchill’s a wonderful example of what I think of as applied history, because the whole of Churchill’s career was based on a series of historical insights. He was somebody who went back and forth between writing history and making it in a way that’s very rare. Re-reading his life through the eyes of Andrew Roberts in Walking with Destiny, his excellent new biography, I was constantly struck by how important historical analogies were for Churchill. This is partly ancestor worship because he loves to look back on his famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.”

“But it’s actually more than that. There’s  a depth to Churchill’s understanding of Britain’s relationship to Europe in particular, that helps explain why he was prepared to go into the political wilderness in the way that he did in the 1930s and stick with his critique of appeasement when it was completely unpopular, and seemed to consign him to political oblivion. So it’s worth, I think, reflecting on how Churchill would have thought about Brexit. He envisaged Britain after the war in a kind of dual role maintaining the Empire, but playing a part in in a process of unification of Europe designed to avert future conflict. In that sense, I think Britain was to continue playing the balancing role that it had played, but to use some kind of union of Europe to avert the need for regular conflict.”

“I’m not convinced that Churchill would have approved of Brexit, since it amounts to a leap in the dark to think that Britain can simply exit the European Union and then hope for a bunch of free trade agreements, including with the United States, to turn up at a time when the mood of the world is distinctly turning away from from free trade. This doesn’t feel like a particularly good strategy with any great basis in British history. The point about the phrase ‘splendid isolation’ when it was used was that it was an ironical one, it’s not particularly a good idea to be isolated if you’re an island economy off the Eurasian landmass. So I really struggle with people who bring Churchill up in these discussions. I wish we could somehow get out our seance equipment and and get some kind of 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.”

What do you think of the argument that the EU has been the guarantor of peace on the continent? 

“That argument has always been the weakest one that the pro Europeans make and it’s a silly argument. Because the one thing that didn’t happen was the creation of the European defence union. That was the thing that didn’t take place and Europe integrated in every other respect, leaving NATO to do the hard work of protecting Western Europe from the Soviet threat. NATO is the key to the 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 abjectly failed and had to be bailed out by the US. So I think there are some pretty poor arguments on both sides, involving what really is a sort of fake history.”

And what about closer to home – do you worry for the future of our Union?

“I was on the anti-independence side of the 2014 referendum and was pleased by the result, but it was not exactly a resounding victory. And I think that everything that has happened since then has tended to make matters worse for the Union. The fact that the Scots didn’t vote to leave of course is not irrelevant. But I think, more generally, that the spectacle of incompetence in Westminster just serves to erode the commitment of middle class Scots to the Union, I was up in my hometown Glasgow last week, conversing with some of my contemporaries at Glasgow Academy, the ones who didn’t leave, stuck around and so are broadly middle class anti-nationalists. They were clearly against independence in 2014. But I heard repeatedly the worry expressed that if anything was going to get Nicola Sturgeon over the line, it would be the fiasco down south…”

“I have another historical analogy which I like to play with – 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 we have to go back further all the way to the 16th and 17th centuries when the printing press created a whole new environment for religious as well as political conflict. I think the Internet has done something quite like that in our time. And one consequence of it is to weaken established hierarchies.”

“That happened in the 16th and 17th century and it’s happening now to allow fake news to spread very rapidly – it was witchcraft mania back then, now it’s fake news – to allow an extraordinary polarisation of kind of violence of language that threatens to spill over into real violence and, above all, to erode the sovereignty of states. And I think that’s been one of the themes of recent years, which is partly why people are attracted to Brexit.”

“If you live at a time when sovereignty is being dissolved by technology, as much as by economics, you think, ‘Oh, if only we could build a wall or have a fence that was secure’. You see it in the US, you see that as part of what I think is driving Brexit. And it’s very, very hard to do that, in a time such as this. So I see the Union under threat now in the same way that it was in the early 17th century, when really the relationships between England and Scotland and Ireland blew up as part of a broader European crisis.”

“I think the future for the European Union itself is quite bleak. And I still hold the view that, in the end, Brexit will be a footnote in a chapter about the break-up of the European Union. But these processes are quite hard to time. And I think there’s a lot of inertia which will keep the European Union going the way the Holy Roman Empire kept going. It might not go any further in the direction of integration, I think it probably won’t, but it won’t quickly disintegrate.”

“And so ultimately, you could argue, well, in that case, Brexit doesn’t really matter. And I would say ‘exactly right!’. So why waste all this time on a divorce from something that is becoming weaker over time, and it’s almost certain not to become a superstate? Remember the starting point for so much euroscepticism was ‘it’s becoming a superstate’. And at the time of Maastricht and the time of monetary union, that wasn’t an implausible thing to fear. But the lesson of the last 10 years is that it can’t become a superstate. It just can’t, the Germans aren’t going to let there be a fiscal union. All of Macron’s dreams of more integration are already pretty much dead in the water. So why worry? Why bother with it all? It seems like we’ve we’ve just wasted so much political capital on this divorce and we’re divorcing a slowly decomposing spouse.”

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Niall Ferguson is an author, broadcaster and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution