An Establishment Apology on Brexit

My Newspaper Article of the Year 


Often regarded at home and abroad as one of Britain’s leading historians, Niall Ferguson, a Stanford University professor and a regular columnist in the Sunday Times wrote this header on 11 December 2016: “Sorry I was wrong to fight Brexit to keep my friends in No. 10 and No 11”.

Maybe I’m mistaken but this did not receive nearly as much opprobrium as one might imagine.

This eminent historian says this volte-face was brought about not because he regretted taking the wrong side in the debate (and by implication urging Sunday Times readers to copy suit at the polling station) but because of his regret at not sticking by his principles.  For many years in his books and articles Ferguson has railed again the EU, eurozone and the single currently predicting that the Euro would collapse because of the vast differences in the economies of the member states particularly between northern and southern Europe.

He recalls his prediction that David Cameron would lead Britain out of the EU but that figleaf may not be sufficient to warrant forgiveness from those who trusted his advice and insight never mind restore him to his pedestal.

Ferguson admits that ultimately his motivation to back ‘Remain’ came about because of his desire to support his friends, the Prime Minister David Cameron and his Treasury side- kick George Osborne as well as the IMF’s Christine Legarde.  He places the blame firmly on his 14 years living in the U.S. because Americans want Britain inside the EU in order to counterbalance “the French whom they do not trust”.    Since most Americans don’t know where Britain or France is on the map, I assume he is referring to the American Establishment, the same group one of whom said that if Britain left the EU, it would fall to the back of the queue for a new trade deal with America.

“For the first time in my career I wrote things about which I had my doubts in order to help my friends stay in power.  That was wrong and I am sorry I did it” says a contrite Ferguson.

Clearly the benefits of a diverse group of people in critical decision-making is not yet embedded near the seat of power no matter how much those leaders may profess to believe otherwise.  American President John F Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961 gave rise to the term ‘groupthink’ to illustrate the pivotal failure in the decision making process when the dominant view prevails and opposing views are ignored or not property considered.  In a room of powerful people, one can imagine the tension when two dissenters are under pressure to conform, in this case Schlesinger and Fulbright especially if the President of the United States is in the Chair.

To be fair to the Kennedys, they learned from their mistake a year later in the Cuban Missile Crisis and were much more critical of the evidence presented by the CIA in particular and a major conflict perhaps even a catastrophe was averted.

Ferguson goes on to say that Cameron’s promise of a referendum was not a mistake because it ensured his 2015 election win (hello?) which saw off UKIP and Labour, his mistake was accepting pitiful terms from the EU leaders instead of walking away which is the advice Ferguson regrets not giving him – if only he had urged Cameron to play hard-ball with the EU.

I would go one step further than Ferguson and predict that history will not take a dim view of Cameron at all (and I’m by no means a fan), on the contrary I expect that his place in history as a great leader is not beyond the bounds of reality,  the Prime Minister who took Britain out of the EU (admittedly inadvertently) and into a new era of self determination with trade agreements far more valuable than anything accessible within a protectionist EU framework.  

Nevertheless, we wait with bated breath as a wave of general elections sweep across continental Europe this spring, France, Holland and German in particular.  Although the current leaders may remain in place, the pull of the anti immigration rhetoric and the public’s scepticism of politicians will have consequences resulting in a shift in policy simply in order to survive or win.  One example of this is Merkel’s call for a burqa ban. Much as I hesitate to draw parallels between Brexit and Trump, the consequences of this ‘anti establishment’ vote will reverberate far wider than might previously have been the case.

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