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Politicians and Statesmen

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to hold a news conference after an extraordinary European Union leaders summit to discuss Brexit in Brussels, Belgium, April 11, 2019. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

“A politician . . . is a man who thinks of the next election; while the statesman thinks of the next generation,” wrote the American theologian, James Freeman Clarke in Old and New magazine in December 1870. Since (as before) then, this maxim has been proven true. For recent application, consider the last two British prime ministers prior to the incumbent Boris Johnson. Both were, by Clarke’s standard, born politicians.

Most recent was Theresa May (July 2016–May 2019) who tried everything in her power to keep a “strong and stable” government and an (at least ostensibly) unified parliamentary party. After her disastrous snap election in June 2017, May became entirely risk-averse, clinging onto whatever power she had left, and forsaking all paths leading to a clean Brexit.

Before May was David Cameron (May 2010–July 2016), who also prioritized his government’s immediate political future when he agreed to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act — a law passed by parliament, which prevents a sitting prime minister from calling a snap election without a two-thirds majority — along with his then-coalition government partner, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, when Cameron called for a European Referendum (later held in June 2016), he did so for short-term political gain. What else but pure politics could have prompted him, in 2013, to change his mind about holding a referendum and enshrine this promise in his Party’s 2015 manifesto? After all, personally, he wanted Britain to remain in the EU. Politically, he thought that it would. What a drastic miscalculation that turned out to be!

Yet, for the people who truly understood it, Brexit never was some short-sighted game. The same goes for no-deal. An economic aftershock and no-deal planning are of course politically relevant, but for millions of Brits, the question of Brexit — of sovereignty — holds far greater longevity.

I hope readers won’t mind if I remind them of an observation I made about Johnson almost exactly a year ago. As I recall, I was standing in the Palace of Westminster, next to the bomb-damaged Churchill Arch in Members’ Lobby, looking up at four bronze statues that tower over small busts of lesser-known prime ministers. “The looming figures are David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher,” I observed. But I wasn’t there alone. “Pointing to the latter two, a trusted Johnson aide told me, ‘We are living in as decisive times as these. And we need a prime minister of such stature.’”

Yes. The time for politicians has passed. The time for a statesman is now.

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