London Mayor Boris Johnson: 'We Can't Leave Europe, We're Part of the Continent'
In a wide-ranging interview with SPIEGEL, London Mayor Boris Johnson discusses his recent Churchill biography, his views on Britain's planned referendum on EU membership and why he believes Greece will ultimately exit the euro zone.
Boris Johnson, 51, is standing in downtown London. He says his neck is stiff because his wife forced him to climb a Swiss glacier over the weekend. The dark-blue suit he's wearing is a bit battered and the toes of his black shoes are curved like those a clown might wear. They're the perfect emblem for a man who is currently the great comical figure of British politics, a free spirit who said in the run-up to the parade celebrating the Queen's 60th jubilee that the event would be "like Dunkirk but more cheerful." The British army had to be evacuated in fishing boats from the city in northern France in 1940 as Hitler's Wehrmacht approached.
When asked if he might one day become Britain's leader, he famously quipped, "My chances of being prime minister are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive." And even though he has a reputation of being a man close to the people, London's mayor is in fact a product of the elite, having studied Ancient Greek and Latin at Oxford. Despite his many contradictions and the occasional mini-scandal, Johnson's fellow Britons have always been forgiving and he remains one of the country's most popular politicians.
On the eve of the publication of the German translation of his Winston Churchill biography, "The Churchill Factor," he sat down with SPIEGEL for an interview about the book and Britain's future in Europe.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Johnson, Winston Churchill remains Britain's greatest hero even today. How much of the "Churchill Factor" is there in Boris Johnson?
Johnson: The whole point of the book was to expose how unlike Churchill is to anybody currently in politics. He is cut from a different cloth. He really did run on a different fuel. He had more psychic energy, he had more interest. Those cabinet meetings were a nightmare, for they would sit together for two and a half hours, most of which Churchill was talking about other peoples' subjects. He was a very fertile brain in all sorts of ways -- he was painting, designing his clothes, inventing funny little things to make his cigars stay together and even the tank in World War I. He had phenomenal, child-like energy.
SPIEGEL: You write that he is very authentic as a man, as a politician. How important is authenticity for a politician today?
Johnson: It depends on what you mean by authenticity. He wasn't terribly good on TV. He did a party political broadcast in 1951, which was really terrible. But I think he would have learned. And he obviously got the hang of radio. He was able to give people a very fair understanding of his character and his motivations and to sum up his feelings in very powerful language. I think he would have handled Twitter and all that. He would have been Googling himself the whole time, to see whether Churchill was getting mentioned. He would also be on Twitter, trying to get the most followers.
SPIEGEL: Hitler dominated Europe in 1940 and Britain was the only country still resisting him. Churchill was determined to keep on fighting. During cabinet meetings he said he would rather bleed to death and sacrifice the island than agree to a cease-fire with Hitler. The historian Sebastian Haffner wrote in his Churchill biography that without Churchill's deadly determination, Hitler might have succeeded in ruling Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains with a giant Germanic SS state well into the middle of the 1960s. Is that an exaggeration?
Johnson: Humanity would have plunged into a new dark age of absolutely frightening and appalling characteristics without Churchill. There is no question that his decision to keep on fighting in 1940 gave the Allies time to prevail ultimately in World War II. If the British had done a deal with Hitler, as many in the establishment urged Churchill to do, it would have been catastrophic. Hitler could have started Operation Barbarossa earlier, and he might well have been successful. Why would America have had to come in? Would we have had D-Day? Not without Britain as a launching pad.
SPIEGEL: Why didn't Churchill cut a deal?
Johnson: It was classical mixture of what he thought was his political destiny and what was right. He had hitched his colors to the wagon of anti-Nazism. He said Hitler was a menace and he proved completely right. He almost met Hitler in Germany in 1932. He had seen the Hitler Youth and got a real sense of what was going on. In the end, he did not do a deal, because he thought it would have been a total humiliation for the British Empire. He was a romantic and an imperialist and he believed that there was something very special about Britain. He thought everything was steadily getting better in Britain, that the Empire was a thing of progress and that Hitler and the Nazis were genuinely scary and unattractive.
SPIEGEL: There is a famous picture showing Churchill in a pinstripe suit, with a cigar, a Bowler hat and a tommy gun. He smiles and shows no fear. It was taken in 1940, a decisive year in the war. Goebbels hated that picture. The British people loved it. What made this image so special?
Johnson: The photograph was taken in 1940 and showed Churchill as a man who knows how to use a gun. A man who is not afraid to personally take charge of events, and that's exactly what he did.
SPIEGEL: He is wearing a suit, not a uniform ...
Johnson: ... and his absurd hat, which was already out of fashion. He looked like somebody from "Downton Abbey" 40 years later.
SPIEGEL: He showed humor in serious times, embodying the very British trait of grace under pressure.
Johnson: He certainly understood that the British like an element of Falstaff in their leaders. The idea of the amateur. Someone, who looks like he is willing to make jokes.
SPIEGEL: There's a similar picture of you holding an AK 47 in Kurdistan. Was the pose inspired by Churchill?
Johnson: It was done to show solidarity with the Kurdish Peshmerga at the beginning of the year. All the experts say that I'm holding the gun completely wrong, there are no bullets in it. I don't regret the picture, because I hate the Islamic State. The Kurdish resistance were doing a pretty effective job in that part of Northern Iraq of moving them out.
SPIEGEL: In the original photo, Churchill looks like he is willing to fight for the British way of life, freedom of speech and the freedom to live a life as one pleases.
Johnson: He incarnates the values he is willing to fight for. A certain sense of personal liberties. Plus the freedom to drink alcohol -- never forget that Hitler was a teetotaler, one of his many appalling vices. Churchill did drink the most phenomenal amount of alcohol, amounts that can fell an ox. Then, after 10 o'clock at night, he started to write.
SPIEGEL: He eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature and not for peace as he would have liked. Why did he insist on writing down everything he did?
Johnson: He started writing very early. Blenheim Palace, where he grew up, is a huge estate, but it has no money that goes with it. His father Randolph had to write to make money and the same thing was true for Winston. He used to tell his wife Clementine that he could not get the roast for Sunday lunch unless he sold an article to the Mail on Sunday. In the end, he wrote more than Dickens and Shakespeare combined. He wrote to promote his views, his career and his achievements, but he also liked to take the dosh. And he was very successful in keeping the money. After he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, he decides that he has ceased to be an author and has become a politician. Therefore, the money from his books and his vast advances no longer qualified as income, but as capital gains. So he pays no tax -- as the Chancellor of the Exchequer -- on a £60,000 advance, which was a huge amount of money in those days. He was a very clever man.
SPIEGEL: He also was a narcissist. Where did his driving ambition to have an extaordinary role in history come from?
Johnson: You do not have to be Sigmund Freud to know what was going on with Churchill. It's all there: The mother, who is a sex goddess, a most extraordinary woman, 200 lovers, some sources say. The father, who criticizes him abundantly, along with the constant feeling that he was a disappointment. And so Churchill self-inflates.
SPIEGEL: There is also a nasty side to Churchill. When the Labour Party politician Bessie Braddock told him, that he was drunk, he famously replied, "I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly."
Johnson: A very cutting thing to say, but it was a joke. You could not say this today, but there are a lot of things you cannot say anymore.
SPIEGEL: At times his nastiness reached whole new levels. His unregretted use of chemical weapons, his disdain for Mahatma Ghandi, his terror bombing of Germany during World War II. Does that not tarnish the image of him as a glorious hero?
Johnson: You cannot believe it when you read him saying about chemical weapons: "Why are we worried about a bit of sneezing?" And his views on India are completely unacceptable today. He was born in 1874, he is a product of the Victorian empire. He is there at the absolute peak of British greatness, when the Empire was seven times as big as the Roman Empire at its biggest. The people who grew up in that epoch were tougher. They were hard people.
SPIEGEL: There appears to have been only one thing that he was afraid of: sex.
Johnson: There's this scene where Daisy Fellowes, a chic and heartless beauty, invites him to her flat in Paris for tea, to see her little child. But as Churchill shows up there is no sign of the child at all. Instead, Daisy is lying naked on the chaise lounge and Churchill allegedly makes his excuses. My own view is that he was probably just like everybody else, you know. He liked women quite a lot and seems to have had lots of girlfriends before Clementine. Now I can't say that the relationships where consummated. But that may be a function of the time's greater discretion.
SPIEGEL: Churchill thought that European unity was a good idea. He argued for the United States of Europe, and you even quote him saying that each country would have pay its full share in the community. As the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph from 1989 until 1994, you were one of the fathers of euro-bashing in a way. What do you have against Europe?
Johnson: Look, we can't leave Europe. We're part of the European Continent. What is the English Channel? It's a primeval river that got slightly too big. The Thames and the Seine are both tributaries of the same large river. We're always going to be a part of Europe psychologically. The trouble is that the euro and the euro zone have taken over so much emotional and intellectual energy of the people running the community. This is a real shame. Europe should be about so much more. I think we need to focus on other things that are good for our populations. I believe in the free market of services and all those things.
SPIEGEL: What would happen if Britain actually did vote to leave the EU in a referendum?
Johnson: The Foreign Office, the German Foreign Ministry and everybody else would get together and invent a series of bilateral deals and virtually reconstruct the relationship. A lot of it would be rebuilt on an intergovernmental level. The British representation to the EU in Brussels wouldn't move, you would still have the same people there. There would be several disadvantages. First, we wouldn't be able to stick up for what we believe in. Secondly, we would face some penalties. And then there is the Scottish factor. If we get out, what happens in Scotland? But there would be lots of positive things as well. It would be good for British democracy, because you couldn't blame Brussels anymore. British politicians would be more accountable. We could reduce the burden of regulation, we'd be able to do deals with Indonesia or the United States without the need to worry about other EU partners. We would save quite a lot of money on the EU contributions. And also there would be a big psychological shock in Brussels after a "no" vote. And everybody would say, "Alright, stuff this. We genuinely need to reform."
SPIEGEL: Would you not regret it if Great Britain left the EU?
Johnson: I don't think it's the only option. But I don't think it would be the end of the world either if we left. I'm going to see what kind of reforms we can achieve. The stakes are not as high as they were in 1975, when Britain joined the club. Geopolitics have changed. The relative size of the European Union market is declining. It's not as crucial to our future as it was 40 years ago. My ideal world is, we're there, we're in the EU, trying to make it better. We don't need the European Union to tell us how many hours we can work, we don't need all this health and safety stuff. Brussels should get back to the great principle of Cassis de Dijon -- mutual recognition, not harmonization. I hope our German friends will take us very seriously during this reform process.
SPIEGEL: Germany is not exactly loved on the Continent right now.
Johnson: (German Finance Minister Wolfgang) Schäuble's Grexit plan has not been the most tactful document I have ever seen. It's a fascinating insight into a purist's mind, the thoughts of a man with a clear vision of how Europe should work. Intellectually he is right -- he is saying, you have got to cut your budgets and hand over significant portions of your economy to some German controlled institution in Luxembourg.
SPIEGEL: It's a harsh way of saying, hand over control or you're out of the club.
Johnson: Schäuble was just trying to put the dilemma very clearly to them. If they want continued financial support, it is he who pays the piper who can call the tune.
SPIEGEL: Do you consider a debt haircut to be the right solution?
Johnson: The Greeks should leave the euro, no question. Poor things. And they will leave eventually. If you write off the debt, what do you say to all the other countries that went through the misery? This is one of those problems with no real solution. It's sad.
SPIEGEL: David Cameron has ruled out running for a third term as prime minister. You are one of Britain's most popular politicians. Are you considering throwing your hat into the ring?
Johnson: Thankfully, there's not going to be a vacancy until late 2018, if not later. By that stage, you know, a new generation of Tory thrusters will be sprouting like dragons' teeth. So the torch has been passed. Mind you, Churchill was 65 when he became Prime Minister.
SPIEGEL: You are 51 now. A short time ago, you purchased three water cannons from Germany for a quarter of a million pounds, but the home secretary has forbidden their use in Britain. Was this your worst deal ever?
Johnson: Rubbish, it was brilliant deal.
SPIEGEL: For Germany?
Johnson: No, these machines are perfectly usable. If there's a riot, we'll use them.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Johnson, we thank you for this interview.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles