Boris was right to compare the vote for Brexit with the struggle for freedom in Ukraine. And here’s the thing: deep down, his fulminating critics know it. It’s why they’re so angry, why they’ve been lashing out so furiously against the PM. Because Boris has drawn attention to something that they would prefer to leave in the shadows – the fact that the very same members of Britain’s chattering classes who are currently cheering the Ukrainian people’s fight for national sovereignty waged a reactionary crusade against the British people’s vote for national sovereignty back in 2016.
The hissy fit over Boris’s comments has been mad. You could be forgiven for thinking he had said that Brussels is indistinguishable from Putin, that being in the EU is akin to being invaded by Russia, and that the 17.4 million of us who voted ‘Leave’ in 2016 were behaving as bravely as the Ukrainian people currently are. Only he didn’t say that. All he said is that both the vote for Brexit and the Ukrainian uprising against Putin’s barbarous invasion are expressions of people’s yearning for freedom. And he’s right, they are.
Addressing the Tories’ Spring conference in Blackpool, Boris said it is ‘the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom’. He then gave a ‘famous recent example’ of British people choosing freedom:
‘When the British people voted for Brexit, in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.’
That was it. Brexit was a vote for freedom, the fight in Ukraine is a fight for freedom, and they are both good things. The End.
The idea that speaking of different world events in the same breath means you think those world events are exactly analogous is ridiculous. I believe that Saudis who risk public whippings and imprisonment by speaking their minds on Islamic theocracy are fighting for the same thing as middle-class students on plush British campuses who are sick of cancel culture and who set up Free Speech Societies to counter it. That is, freedom of speech.
But that doesn’t mean I think a free-speech warrior at Oxford is as brave as Raif Badawi, or that the prim, clipboard-wielding cancellers in our student unions are as wicked as Saudi Arabia’s lash-happy thought police. Of course they aren’t. Nonetheless, something important binds together both the comfortable Westerner who wants to break free of the Safe Space and the valiant Saudi blogger who suffers terribly for his right to criticise political Islam – an ‘instinct’, to use Boris’s word, for freedom.
Likewise, Boris was only saying that, in different ways, both Brits and Ukrainians have recently stood up for their sovereign rights. Sajid Javid nailed it when he said that what Boris meant was that ‘the desire for self-determination in everyone, no matter what country they’re in, no matter what their circumstance, is strong’. That’s the issue: self-determination. It is not controversial – or it shouldn’t be – to say that Brexit was a calm, safe, peaceful vote for self-determination while the Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression is a brave, bloody, dangerous struggle for self-determination. Different events, same instinct.
And yet, predictably, people went nuts. ‘Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense’, said former European Council president Donald Tusk. Former Labour minister Douglas Alexander said Boris’s comments were ‘facile, flawed and morally unworthy’. Social media has been abuzz with Remainers slamming Boris for speaking of that foul calumny Brexit alongside the Ukrainian people’s heroic uprising.
This has all been incredibly revealing. First of all, can we take a moment to savour the hypocrisy of certain Brexit-bashers, who rage against Boris for speaking of Brexit and Ukraine in the same sentence and yet who were happy to compare Brexit with every awful thing in history, especially the Nazi era. Who can forget all the ceaseless talk of a ‘return to the 1930s’? Boris’s very mildly stated belief that the ideal of freedom motivates both Brexiteers and Ukrainian resistance fighters is perfectly commonsensical in comparison with the historically illiterate hyperbolism of some of those who opposed Brexit.
Then there’s the question of why people got so mad about Boris’s comments. To me it’s obvious. It’s because Boris, in that moment, threatened to expose their incredibly shallow, contingent commitment to the ideal of national sovereignty. The liberal elite is all over Ukraine right now. They wear Ukrainian coloured ribbons, hang the Ukrainian flag in their living-room windows, cheer brave president Zelensky for defending Ukraine’s national identity and sovereign rights. And they’re right to do all of that.
And yet some of these people spent much of the past six years denouncing flag-waving Brits as xenophobes. They treated our support for national sovereignty as a species of racism. They laughed at talk of ‘national identity’. Dumb gammons going on about nationhood – what are they like! They devoted themselves to mocking the British people’s aspiration for a stronger, more perfect form of sovereignty, and yet they now pose as principled supporters of the Ukrainian people’s fight for sovereignty. Boris was fumed against and ridiculed because for a brief moment, a split second, he threatened to drag this stark contradiction into the full glare of political scrutiny.
He should have done. It’s time we got real about national self-determination. Every nation should enjoy it, whether by voting for it, as we were lucky enough to do, or by fighting with all their might for it, as the Ukrainian people bravely are. Freedom is freedom, however achieved.
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