Welcome to the Fight: <br>Niall Ferguson Reverses <br>His Course on Brexit
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In a season when some of our greatest intellectuals are trying to figure out how to make their peace with Donald Trump, let us take a big-hearted view of the mea culpa, mea maxima culpa just issued by historian Niall Ferguson in respect of Brexit. Speaking at a forum of the Milkin Institute in London, Professor Ferguson on Tuesday gave his reasons for speaking out against an independent Britain and backing instead remaining in the European Union.
“It is one of the few times in my life that I’ve argued something without wholly believing it,” Mr. Ferguson confessed.
His rationale? A desire for a stable Britain. In theory he shared the Leave campaign’s exasperation with EU over-government, but “didn’t want the Cameron-Osborne government to fall” and with it the austerity measures vital to future economic growth after the Global Financial Crisis. Mr. Ferguson enumerated four areas of conspicuous EU failure: monetary union, security policy, migration policy, and radical Islam. In the core issues, he knew, the Europhile class of politicians, mandarins, and intelligentsia are pitted against everyone else, particularly “middle” Britons.
“One has to recognize that the European élite’s performance over the last decade entirely justified the revolt,” Mr. Ferguson admitted. “If those of us who are essentially part of the élite had spent a little bit more time in pubs around provincial England and, for that matter, provincial Wales, we would have heard what I just said.” But the rancor had reached the ears of London’s then-mayor Boris Johnson, who called the June 23rd vote Britain’s “Independence Day.”
Now, though, Brexiteers need a historian with Mr. Ferguson’s gift for keen cause-and-effect analysis; for although he evaluates separation as “more of a problem for the EU if Britain leaves than it is for the UK,” it is still too soon to cheer for Brexit’s triumph. Parliament is presenting an immediate hurdle as opposition parties and a cross-section of MPs refused to allow the government to initiate Article 50 separation without prolonged debate. Is this an affront to the will of the people voiced through the referendum?
Perhaps. But in a country that blends individualism with institutionalism — remember that Parliament set the terms for the restored monarchy at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 — it may be a quixotic re-assertion of its “supremacy” for powers it had ceded to Brussels. Plus moot. Parliament voted Wednesday night overwhelmingly to allow Prime Minister May to begin EU negotiations by the end of next March, with the proviso that the government publishes Brexit plans “subject to scrutiny.”
More vexing is the question of mapping out future relations with Europe, on which even stalwart Brexiteers are divided. “Hard” Brexit consists of one-on-one trade deals with EU members through the World Trade Organization and full autonomy over border issues; “soft” Brexit means paying for access to EU markets and accepting the EU’s “four freedoms” (movement of goods, services, capital, and people).
The hard Brexit line has the virtue of simplicity. Students of geo-politics, like Ferguson, would characterize this with Napoleonic firmness: “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Sever byzantine agreements with the Union and start afresh with a “Britain First” approach. Whereas soft withdrawal calls for nuanced reassessment of each piece of EU-UK legislation and subjection to various “penalties” for enjoying EU privileges, minus membership. Critics scoff at this tenuous alternative to being a EU member, which begs the question of the Brexit vote in the first place. Mr. Ferguson has consistently called this phase of break-up the “settlement costs” of EU divorce.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The kingdom’s exit strategy will involve two years of discussion, debate, and deal-making. Other European factions, particularly at France and Germany, are equally unhappy with the EU arrangement and, wanting to reclaim their own independence and sovereignty, will take courage from Britain’s example. Thus allied, this combined pressure will help Britain negotiate a better deal with the remaining EU countries.
In the end, popular demand for freedom fuelled Brexit. Niall Ferguson called it. “The EU leadership had performed so badly that British voters had the right to say the heck with this.” Americans will see more than a hint of the Donald Trump phenomenon, with his movement to “drain the swamp” of Washington insiders and cronyism. The President-elect signals that a trade deal with Britain is a priority of his administration. Mr. Ferguson himself lives and works on both sides of the pond. If this is an omen of greater US-UK amity, let us say “Welcome to the fight.”
Mr. MacLean blogs for the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute from an outcropping on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.