On the playing fields of Eton

On the playing fields of Eton

The outgoing mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is incensed that US President Barack Obama has advised British people to vote to “remain” in the referendum on UK membership of the European Union on June 23.
Visiting London to celebrate Queen Elizabeth 11’s 90th birthday on April 21, Obama declared that “Brexit,” British exit from the EU, would harm Britain’s own and wider international interests. Courting accusations of racism, Johnson retorted that Obama was “part Kenyan” and spoke as he did out of “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
Now a Conservative MP and the effective leader of the “Brexit” campaign, Johnson is not otherwise known for deploring outside intervention in Britain. During his eight years as London mayor, he presided over the absorption of large swathes of London land and property into foreign hands. Johnson’s critics are bound to think it rich that the man who has been busy selling off his country’s capital city is striking the attitude of a super-patriot.
They may be particularly bemused by Johnson’s sudden concern about American pressure being brought to bear on the UK. Nobody has been more eager to pledge British support for military adventures conceived in Washington. The truth is that this power-hungry politician regards “Brexit” as the populist cause that could make him British prime minister. Frankly skeptical in the past about the case for leaving Europe, he now presents himself as a messiah to Conservative MPs and British people who favor withdrawal from Europe. Nor can it be doubted that should the referendum go his way, the position of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the “Remain” campaign, would be fatally undermined.
Cameron has been damaged by revelations of his offshore financial arrangements. But he is leading a “Remain” campaign with far more high-profile support. What the Brexit campaign enjoys is the backing of much of the British press, including the several newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media baron who became an American citizen. A devotee of the free market, Murdoch is an inveterate opponent of the European Union with its “social model.” Object though he may to Barack Obama for meddling in British affairs, Johnson does not mind in the least when newspapers whose proprietor resides in New York lecture British readers on the failings of the European Union. Not infrequently it is Johnson himself, an inveterate columnist with close ties to Murdoch, who is doing the lecturing.
Opinion polls suggest that the referendum result will narrowly favor preserving the status quo. In that event, Johnson will have been denied the opportunity to step forward as the saviour of his party and nation. He will have been denied it because many believe British exit from the EU would have turbulent consequences — not just for the UK but for European Union at large, caught up as it is in a deepening crisis over migrants and refugees and contending with escalating popular skepticism about its whole raison d’etre.
Brexit would be certain to intensify the appetite among Scottish people for complete independence from the United Kingdom, pro-European sentiment being far more entrenched in Scotland than in its dominant southern neighbour, England. Outside the European Union, the UK might face the unraveling of the “inner empire,” the residual imperial British state made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson, who dreamed as child of becoming “world-king,” could end up as the ruler of “little England.”
Yet there is likely to be turbulence in any event, with the losing side furiously ill-reconciled to the referendum’s result. So far as Cameron and Johnson are concerned, the matter is personal, jealous rivals, as they have been since their days at Eton, the venerable British “public” school that has spawned many British prime ministers. According to romantic legend, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was “won on the playing fields of Eton,” when Napoleon Bonaparte suffered defeat at the hands of the school’s great military alumnus, the Duke of Wellington. Now Eton is again implicated in the future of Europe — in the shape of a feud between a pair of its old boys that has nothing romantic about it.
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