Sean Walsh argues that a “details” Prime Minister is not what we want in a moment of national crisis.
“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”, asks Tony Hancock in his superb spoofing of Twelve Angry Men. Hancock, of course, is the pompous but decent Englishman, convinced of the proprieties of our system of lawful government but only dimly aware of the historical processes that have given rise to it. Hancock is not, on this showing, a “details man”, but adds to the general gaiety of the nation. Remind you of anyone?
Well possibly if not certainly of the Boris Johnson caricature offered up by the likes of Phillip Hammond. Johnson, according to his critics, does not do detail and detail is all that matters when it comes to “delivering” what 17.4 million people voted for in 2016. Hammond is a man for whom the Mona Lisa is no more than individual flecks of paint on an old canvas. Brexit, on his reductive analysis, is to be assessed purely in terms of the normal Treasury calculus; an approach which takes ideas such as “sovereignty” and “common law” and bastardises them into the language of Eurostat. All of which is bad enough, but it’s worth pointing out that Hammond’s own eye for detail does not float free of his wider prejudices. Colleagues who voted to endorse a manifesto pledge are, on his assessment “extremist”.
Detail, shorn of context, is meaningless. And a leadership candidate who promotes their candidacy on an alleged aptitude for the fine print should not be trusted in a crisis where understanding the bigger picture is essential. The detail claimants are out in force: the Hunt/narcissist version (“I have the contacts to reopen the deal); the Hancock delusion (“I have a plan that’ll force the EU to renegotiate the Political Declaration”); the Rory Stewart version (“We have to deal anyway so why not now?). And whatever it is that Gove is saying today.
Each of these “pitches” elevates detail over vision. They are the interview notes of a middle manager type looking to improve a business plan that their boss had to resign over.
A Prime Minister in waiting does not pitch over detail but squashes the detail in a vision.
The EU, like all managerial autocracies, invades your life with the specific intent of relieving you of your freedom. It may well be that it convinces you that the invasion is to your economic benefit but if so then your bargain is Faustian. It advances an agenda that would dissolve the nation state (except perhaps, Germany) while claiming that your natural allegiances can nestle comfortably within its centralising structures. But its vision is misconceived. It’s entirely possible to consider yourself both Scottish and British. That is not a zero-sum calculation. It is not possible to be in favour of the nation state and a Remainer. That is competitive. The EU is a jealous God. She demands your affection first and foremost and -for that reason- is not deserving of it. My allegiance to my country and family is spontaneous and unsolicited. The EU’s demand that I love it in the same way is Fatal Attraction.
I hope that Johnson gets this. The objection that he is not a details man is asinine. I don’t want a Prime Minister -at this moment in history- to be a detail junky. I want one who can ruthlessly and credibly prosecute a clean departure from the EU. And then get on with what must happen after. I want someone who can sees the contours of departure and will not let a recidivist civil service redefine them according to its own prejudices.
And I also hope he is not confusing a necessary condition for a sufficient one. I hope he doesn’t think that his role would be to “deliver” Brexit and then get on with the business of defeating Corbyn. Brexit is not there to be “delivered”. It is not a piece of paper in an in-tray. It is an expressed instruction from us to the political class that, if enacted properly, will redefine the context within which every political decision becomes transformed. And if it’s not honoured then the cracked vase that contains the covenant of trust that allows this country to function at all will be shattered.
The commentariat consensus that the Tory Party faces an “existential threat” isn’t just a point about its survival but about how it chooses to exist. The Party has abandoned conservatism. Brexit is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity for a new Prime Minister to express the genuine conservative instinct in a uniquely imaginative way. Conservatism is a moral idea, or it is nothing – it has nowhere else to go.
As I say I hope that Mr Johnson understands this. If not, then the “existential crisis” that threatens the Tory Party will not be about how it chooses to live but whether it survives at all.