Perhaps it’s something to do with the nature of their education, but it seems in recent days as though Cameron and Johnson have been trying to reduce the debate about the EU referendum to a game of common-room poker in which they try to outbid each other with horrendous consequences if we take the ‘wrong’ decision.
Cameron started it, when he said something along the lines of “I bet World War Three”.
Johnson: “I’ll see your World War Three and raise you a Hitler and a Napoleon”.
Cameron: “I’ll see your Hitler and Napoleon, and raise you an ISIS”.
It might be mildly amusing to watch if they were just playing cards, but they’re not – the real stake here is the future direction of a continent, and it would be reasonable to expect all of those involved to try and keep a sense of perspective in laying out their arguments.
It’s certainly true that part of the vision of those involved in setting up what has become the EU was that the major European powers should never go to war with each other again, and that the best way of preventing that would be to enmesh their economies irrevocably. It’s also true that, for the last 70 years, the peace has held between countries which spent large parts of the previous few centuries at war with each other. Whether there was cause and effect here is rather harder to determine. If countries have reached a point where they recognise that they need to stop invading each other on a regular cycle, perhaps they no longer need the formal institutions to prevent it. Perhaps; we can never be certain what might otherwise have happened, yet the certainty with which politicians pronounce on this point is alarming.
The comparison with Hitler and Napoleon is a ludicrous one. A Europe united by conquest by one state or another – such as France or Germany in this case – is not at all the same thing as a Europe united by discussion and agreement between partners, and it’s nonsense to suggest that it is. The ‘unifying’ intent of Hitler or Napoleon is better compared with the process by which the individual ‘unified’ current states of Europe – such as France, Germany, and, yes, the UK – were themselves created in centuries gone by than with the process by which a united Europe has been built.
As for ISIS welcoming Brexit – well maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. The aim of a united caliphate which they are pursuing by bloodshed and fear certainly puts them more in the Hitler and Napoleon camp than the Monnet camp of history; but merely avoiding doing what a perceived enemy might want us to do doesn’t strike me as a particularly brilliant line of argument. Trying to do the opposite of what someone else wants us to do because he’s not our friend is more kindergarten stuff.It would be nice to think that the standard of debate might improve as the referendum approaches – but it seems more likely to degenerate further.