Referendum Blog: May 16

Referendum Blog: May 16

BBC BORIS BIAS:  Was Boris Johnson wrong to refer to Hitler in a point about the history of attempts to unite Europe? Was what he said as controversial as was projected? Senior Labour figures Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper certainly thought his mention was below the belt, and so did several figures in the Conservative ‘remain’ camp such as Lord Soames.

The tone of the BBC’s coverage also suggested that there were problems in his approach.  He had sent ‘sparks flying’. This is what newsreader Clive Myrie said in the BBC1 News at Ten bulletin;

The prominent Vote Leave campaigner in June’s EU referendum, Boris Johnson, has compared what he claims is the ambition of some in Europe to create a single Superstate to the aims of Adolf Hitler.  In an article for a Sunday newspaper, he said both the Nazi leader and the EU, shared similar goals but today’s politicians were simply using different methods. The shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn who backs the Remain campaign said his comments were offensive and desperate.  Here’s our political correspondent Ben Wright.

BEN WRIGHT: It’s a time for hard hats. Boris Johnson rarely does subtle but his latest intervention in the referendum campaign has sent sparks flying. A leading Leave campaigner, Mr Johnson said the last 2,000 years of European history had seen doomed attempts to recreate the Roman Empire by trying to unify it – Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods, he said.

Wright also included opinion from Hilary Benn:

I think to try and compare what Hitler and the Nazis did, the millions of people who died, Holocaust, to the free democracies of Europe coming together to trade and cooperate, and in the process to help secure peace on the continent of Europe is frankly deeply offensive.

BW: Europe’s history and Britain’s place in it has become a battleground in this referendum. Glowering over Parliament is Churchill, whose own views on Europe are being pressed into service by both sides. And the past is being invoked to stir our emotions, our gut feelings, and that’s why Boris Johnson mentioned Churchill’s wartime enemy. But of course, this referendum is really about the future, the political and economic repercussions of staying in or leaving the EU. And today the governor of the Bank of England, who does not do interviews often, decided to repeat a warning he made last week.

MARK CARNEY Bank of England Governor: What our judgement is, as a risk, is that growth will be materially slower and inflation notably higher in event of a ‘Leave’.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH MP Conservative Vote Leave: The Governor has strayed now into the expression of what is a simple, personal prediction. I don’t actually think that it is possible to say with any absolute accuracy that that will happen.

BW: Boris Johnson’s comments have whipped up a controversy this weekend. The Leave campaign knows that many big economic voices are sceptical of their case, but this referendum is about hearts as much as heads. Ben Wright, BBC News.

Wright thus two important claims based on his opinion as a BBC correspondent. First that Johnson was trying to stir up emotions and gut feelings ’and that is why he mentioned Churchill’s wartime enemy’; and second, that the leave campaign was trying to appeal to people’s hearts rather than their heads because they knew that ‘many economic voices are skeptical of their case’.

So what did Boris Johnson actually say that was so emotive and so calculated, according to Wright, to appeal also to people’s emotions?  In his interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Johnson actually said:

The whole thing began with the Roman Empire. I wrote a book on this subject, and I think it’s probably right. The truth is that the history of the last couple of thousand years has been broadly repeated attempts by various people or institutions – in a Freudian way – to rediscover the lost childhood of Europe, this golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans, by trying to unify it. Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically.

The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods. But fundamentally what it is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void.

Points about this are:

  • Johnson’s remarks were based on his considered judgment as a historian who has studied and written about in depth European history.
  • Attempts to unify Europe by Napoleon and Hitler had ended in tragic failure,
  • The EU was also an attempt – by clearly different methods – to unify Europe, but it was also likely to ultimately fail because there was no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe, and there was no single authority that anyone respect6ed or understood.

What he did not say directly was that the EU and its operations are  ‘like Hitler’ or ‘like Napoleon’; his central assertion was rather that all attempts to achieve ‘European unity’ are ultimately doomed because there is no underlying allegiance to ’Europe’. Newsreader Myrie was this wrong and over-polarising in drawing the conclusion that Johnson had asserted that Hitler and the EU ‘had similar goals’. The Johnson claim was rather that the goal of ‘European unity’ was unattainable, whoever tried to achieve it, and it was based on false illusions about ancient Rome.  Ben Wright missed completely from his analysis the key point that ‘there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe’ and thus misled viewers.

The BBC did include in the sequence comments from Jacob Rees Mogg:

Boris was making a carefully calibrated comparison. And all these figures, Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon and Hitler were all trying to create a United States of Europe, though admittedly they wanted to do it by force whilst the EU is doing it by stealth.

The issue here is that the ‘remain’ side pounced on the Johnson remarks to suggest the Leave side was desperately trying to evoke comparisons to Hitler in order to discredit the EU. The BBC seemed to be too eager in its flagship bulletin to jump on the same bandwagon and constructed a report which seemed to be deliberately calculated to exaggerate the evocation of Hitler’s name.

Interestingly, earlier in the day, Andrew Marr appeared on his BBC1 show to strike a very different approach. In the newspaper review, Julia Hartley-Brewer said:

‘This is being overplayed. He’s saying the European Union are looking towards a federal superstate, and various people have tried this: Napoleon, Hitler…of course Hitler is the mention everyone gets, but what he is saying is true.’

Marr responded:

‘It’s much more nuanced than the headline suggests. I’m not normally one to say ‘Boris is very, very nuanced’ but he’s very careful. He specifically says ‘I’m not saying the EU people are like Hitler.’ He’s saying, ‘Again and again and again we’ve tried to have a united Europe and every single time it’s ended in tears’.

Actually, Marr also got what Johnson actually said wrong. He missed the key point about a lack of underlying loyalty. But the overall observation that his statement was ‘more nuanced’ than the headlines suggested was spot on.


Photo by BackBoris2012

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