The recent confirmation by Jose Manuel Barroso that an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU left me thinking there are now two leaders in British politics who find themselves princes of realms they can only dream of ruling with the blessing of Brussels: Boris Johnson as the would be leader of the Conservative party and Alex Salmond as the pretender to an independent Scotland.
Boris Johnson played the court jester of the Conservatives for much of his political career. This role was executed with an acerbic wit that allowed him to comment on Europe and political correctness in a way that would have sent many a noble to the dungeon or the gallows.
As Boris seeks to be a challenge to Cameron he will need all the nobility he can gather to do so. While many successive Tory leaders have had to court Eurosceptics, not one has come from that camp with such conviction at a time when the party is on the cusp of retaining power in 2015.The EU was not the issue for recent leaders as it is today with UKIP gouging support from the right.
To challenge Cameron, Johnson’s decision to reject a popular in/out referndum on the EU seems reminiscent of a famous prince who became a popular king, Henry of Navarre who was crowned Henry IV of France.
Henry was raised a Protestant, but the Basque outsider converted to Catholicism to secure the support of a rival camp and, crucially, his own people. He is best remembered for that most Machiavellian of quotes, ‘Paris is well worth the Mass’. He went on to be extremely popular in his realm but was undone, somewhat brutally, by extremists within his new camp who distrusted his conversion. ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose’, as Henry would say.
Alex Salmond could be forgiven for thanking President Barroso for offering true independence for Scotland, from both Brussels and Westminster. Could such an offer yet make the socialist leader the darling of the Bruges Group and the Freedom Association? Having embraced NATO (officially, at least), could the SNP go further and ask Scotland to reject the EU to go it alone as UKIP promises the UK as a whole could do?
Such a move would be a masterstroke worthy of a king but would overturn the strong commitments Salmond has made to be a part of the European project. ‘Independence within Europe’ is SNP policy though it would not be out of place in any speech by the newly Europhile Johnson.
The minority rule the SNP currently enjoys stems in no small part from acquiescence of Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the fact there is there is very little between them in terms of policy. All three are firmly pro-EU and the prospect of leaving the EU would raise the hackles of many in those two parties. For the SNP it would be a u-turn too many and an anti-EU stance, delicious as any UKIP supporter would find it, would be seen as short term posturing not to be credited.
Each prince, in his rush for his respective throne, believes his alliance with the EU to be essential to both his personal success and that of the future of the country he wishes to lead.
Johnson’s move from jester to prince will require others to take him seriously as a uniting and able leader. He is, for now, Europe’s most powerfully elected transport chief and a fading figure of the ephemeral Olympic games.
His struggle to convince his eurosceptic colleagues to be allies will be dwarved by the courting of europhiles and liberal democrats that must be done if he is to be our next Prime Minister. Every Tory leader from Major onwards tried to enact his own Edict of Nantes to pacify the opposing camps. Not one succeeded.
Unlike Henry, Salmond will not be able to credibly rule his country independently. He will be remembered more as a middle grade store manager of some faceless, Belgium based multinational than as the first Prime Minister or even President of Scotland.
Both princes would have done better to have reached out to the public, the majority of who want a referendum on EU membership and want us all, better together, to leave it completely.
The Belgian capital is a wonderful city but it’s no Paris, for the EU is no ally of the nation state. Brussels may well be worth the beer but never the Mass.