Spectator Australia Diary
First published in The Spectator Australia, 13 September 2019
For the past three years, I had been looking to say something strong and substantial about Brexit. I first had a go at an Australian Chamber of Commerce event in London not long after the referendum, and then had a couple of pieces in The Spectator, but my speech to the UK Policy Exchange last week was the full-throttle, double-barrel roar that I’d long been yearning to give, turbo-charged by the Parliament’s consistent attempt to sabotage the people’s vote. I’d warned our High Commissioner, George Brandis, this was coming. He was good enough to host dinner for me; and Lord William Hague, one of his guests; and Alexander Downer, his predecessor, now chairman (among many other things) of the Royal Overseas League, were mildly encouraging. More so was Liz Truss, the new Trade Secretary, who’s now deep in discussion with her Australian counterpart and wants a pre-Christmas trade deal with us to be the first cab off the rank for post-Brexit Britain. She gave the vote of thanks and I cannot recall a more rousing one!
Over three days, I caught up with three secretaries of state, two ministers of state, several MPs, former PM David Cameron, whose memoirs will be released this month, and business figures including the leading Australian in the City of London, Sir Michael Hintze. To say there was only one subject on their minds would be a massive understatement. Is Britain to control its destiny or succumb to hectoring from Brussels; are British people to be permanently fractured by this existential argument over who and what they really are? In my lifetime, there’s never been a more momentous decision, not even that to retake the Falkland Islands. Defeat in the South Atlantic would have been a disaster but would not have left Britain a permanent colony of an EU that despises it.
Here’s my assessment of where it’s going. After all the parliamentary shenanigans, there will be an election for a parliament more comfortable with implementing the people’s decision to leave. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage will come to some sort of accommodation to avoid splitting the Brexit vote. The government will win in its own right because the electorate will polarise and Britons always choose to be their own masters. There will be some final huffing and puffing from the re-moaners but leaving the EU won’t break up the United Kingdom because the Scots would hardly secede from London only to accede to Brussels.
In so many respects, Prime Minister Boris Johnson really is a Churchillian figure, right down to the larger-than-life brilliance and the (consequent) mistrust of him expressed by so many colleagues. Hence the conclusion to my speech: As the scripture says, ‘he who puts his hand to the plough and then turns back is not worthy of the Kingdom’. Finally let me offer this reassurance: that if there’s one thing that writing a fine book on Churchill would have done for Britain’s new prime minister, it’s ready him for this challenge and to call it for Britain. This is his moment of destiny – as much as this country’s – and I’m sure that he feels that his whole life has been ‘but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Obviously, this is different from the great struggles of the 20th century when Australians in their millions thought that Britain’s cause was ours too. But war is not the only way in which a nation can be defeated. A collapse of self-confidence or a failure of will in a great matter could be scarcely less deadly. The impact on the wider world of a much-diminished Britain, humiliated, and stuck half-in juridically but half-out spiritually of a gloating EU should not be underestimated. Can we really afford to lose one of the great trumpets for freedom and fairness? That’s why I was so keen to lend moral support to Britain at this time when it’s needed most.
Budapest, my other stop, was hardly less preoccupied with Brexit than London. For the so-called Visegrad group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Britain has been the fifth vote needed to block some of the EU’s more suffocating initiatives. Eastern Europe fully understands why Britons want out of Brussels’ politically correct preening but will miss them when they’re gone.
There’s a small but influential English-speaking diaspora in Hungary, led by John O’Sullivan, former Thatcher staffer and one-time editor of Quadrant, now head of the Danube Institute. It including British academic Frank Furedi and Australia’s former ambassador Mark Higgie. The attraction is, in part, the force-field of Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, who was initially PM way back in 1998. He has not only transformed the economy but was the first European leader to cry ‘stop’ to the peaceful invasion of 2015 and is now trying to boost Hungary’s flagging birth rate.
In a speech to his third annual Budapest Demographic Summit, I found myself quoting Malcolm Turnbull who said: The gravest threat to Western society is neither global warming nor international terrorism. Rather it is the unprecedented, sustained decline in the birth rate … (so that) great cultures like Italy, Spain, Greece and Japan could become functionally extinct within a century. That’s right. The real ‘extinction rebellion’ we need is not against our failure to reduce emissions more but against our failure to produce more children. Hungary, whose population is predicted to shrink by a quarter over the next half-century, is waiving housing debt for larger families and not taxing at all four-time mothers, among other measures worth careful study.
Finally, in the wake of the Brexit speech coverage, a plea to journalists who invariably tut-tut the shallowness of our public life but feed it by reporting spur-of-the-moment jests rather than carefully considered speeches. Why bother trying to think or talking to journalists when they’re only looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment?