HH: I can think of no better person to talk about the biggest story of the day, the aftermath of the Brexit vote than John Fisher Burns, British journalist extraordinaire, for many years the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, two times a Pulitzer Prize winner. He was also the bureau chief in Baghdad, the bureau chief in Afghanistan. Christopher Hitchens, our friend on this program for many years, called him the greatest war correspondent of our time. John Fisher Burns, welcome back. I guess if you do this long enough, John, you get to cover everything, including a story I’m sure you never expected to be watching, the exit of Britain from the EU. Your reaction?
JB: Yeah, I’ve seen chaos everywhere else in the world. Now I’m seeing it on the home front. And I’m as stunned as millions of others in this country are by where we find ourselves.
HH: Now I note there are two stories here – the immediate aftermath and the long term. Let’s go to the immediate aftermath, because you’re a veteran watcher of this, of the one would-be prime minister is Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Theresa May and Liam Fox, and there may be others. Who do you expect to run the British government in a couple of months?
JB: Well, certainly Boris Johnson is ahead by a couple of furlongs at the moment. But there are some fairly serious question marks that hang over him. And there may well be that people who in the past have said they’d like to see him in 10 Downing Street will hesitate. There’s a large section of the population here that regard him as a bit of a clown, a highly-intelligent, highly-amusing buffoon. And there are, of course, many people who think that we need Boris in 10 Downing Street because of his intelligence, because of his good record as the mayor of London. And we’ll have to see, but there are the strong candidates, amongst whom Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who’s held that very difficult job for longer than anybody in history, now more than six years, would probably be the strongest of the women candidates. And Michael Gove, former Education Secretary, radical reformer as Education Secretary, currently Justice Secretary, and bent on reforming the prisons, born an orphan, adopted, a man with a very interesting hinterland. He could come up on the inside rail.
HH: Now what about Dr. Fox, because we’re fond of Dr. Fox here, given his stellar run at Defense before he fell.
JB: He’ll definitely, he has a lot of support in the country out in the shires, as they say, amongst Tory voters, Tory party members. I’m not sure that he has the charisma to carry it through, nor actually the ambition. But you can’t rule him out. I would say at the moment he’d be a sort of 30-1 outsider.
HH: I must also say I share your admiration for Theresa May. She would be the second coming of Maggie Thatcher in many respects.
JB: She would. There’s a major question over her, which is very unfortunate, in that as we learned some years ago that she has Type I diabetes. It doesn’t appear to have inhibited her very assertive, energetic performance as Home Secretary, but moving into 10 Downing Street would be a further call on her energies and resources. On the other hand, it seemed evident this weekend that she was preparing her candidacy. And she certainly would be a very, very strong candidate, and of course, the stronger for the fact that the country’s had a woman prime minister already who was highly successful, and would probably have quite a taste for another one.
HH: Now she was a remain person, but she also has the great respect of both sides. So I just thought she’s a good bridge for a divided country.
JB: She is, and I think she calculated this pretty well. Like most senior politicians, I think she thought that remain would win, but she was, she’s in her heart a Euro skeptic, as any Home Secretary of this country dealing with issues like immigration tend, and the European Court, tend to be. So she positioned herself quite well. She didn’t, she was hardly vocal at all on the remain side of the campaign. She’s known to be a Euro skeptic. She’s quite popular on the Conservative back benches. So she’ll be a strong candidate if Boris fails. And Boris always has the, you know, he engages in pyrotechnics, verbal pyrotechnics, and it’s possible that he could, as they used to say in Nixon’s days, misspeak himself in the course of the campaign.
HH: Now John, you must be amused by the number of Americans who have opinions, I among them, on why this happened. And there are two camps here. It’s the immigration issue, or it’s Brussels. It’s probably both. I’m in the party of Brussels, that the UK just got tired of Brussels telling them what to do. You live there. What was this?
JB: Well, first of all, it was a big surprise. The polls, once again, after two general elections and one referendum, I think the country will be a long time before we trust the polls again, which were telling us that there was a 3-5% poll lead for remain, and that the undecided were going to break for remain rather than leave. And you could see on the face of David Dimbleby, who’s the sort of Walter Cronkite of the United Kingdom, on his face a complete shock 20 minutes to 6 in the morning, UK time, on Friday, when he said we’re out. We’re out. even the remain, the leave side, even Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and their associates who ran the Brexit campaign seemed absolutely stunned. And in fact, most of them just went to ground over the weekend to try and figure out where this is all going. And we’ve had a very interesting statement by Boris Johnson this morning in the form of his column in the Daily Telegraph, which is entirely conciliatory. He describes the outcome, and remember, this is a man who was the leader, in effect, of the Brexit campaign. He describes the outcome as not entirely overwhelming, and he goes on practically the entire column is about reconciliation. We must reach out, we must heal, we must build bridges, because it is clear that some have feelings of dismay and of loss and confusion, and he offers a formula for the kind of Europe, or relations with Europe, that he would like to build. Basically, it’s his campaign platform for the Tory party leadership in the job of prime minister. And he says we must be a part of the single market. In other words, we must guard tariff-free trade with Europe, we must retain the right for Brits to go live and work in Europe. Two to three million of them already do that. We must protect the rights of those Europeans already working here, including the 50,000 who keep our National Health Service running. And the one thing, change that he does indicate is that we must have an Australian-type point system for immigration. In other words, we must gain control of our immigration problem. And it looks to me like that’s a platform that he might very well be able to heal the wounds within the Tory Party on.
HH: Let me ask you, John Fisher Burns, as a Brit, and you’re such a Brit, was there a spark of pride in you, whatever your skepticism of Brexit is, that the UK voted to go it alone?
JB: Do you know, I think those of us who, millions of us did, who sweated this thing out for months, would have to admit that, and certainly anybody who as a boy read Shakespeare and talked about the Sceptered Isle set in the Silver Sea, rather liked some elements of the idea of regaining control of our own borders, regaining full sovereignty. When Obama came here during the middle of the campaign, and spoke for Downing Street, for Cameron, said the United States would wish the UK to stay in Europe, and that the UK would go to, as he put it, the back of the queue in trade negotiations with the U.S., there were a lot of people, and I must say I was among them, who felt that Obama was advocating for the United Kingdom something that he would never, that Americans would never accept themselves, to fight only on part of it. Would America ever accept a court external to the United States with jurists from, shall we say, Guatemala or Brazil or Canada overruling the United States Supreme Court on matters that were essential in American domestic politics. Of course, the answer to that is no, they wouldn’t. So yes, a lot of us like the idea of regaining some of our sovereignty were pretty frustrated with the European bureaucrats in refusing to concede anything at all to Cameron during the renegotiation that preceded the referendum on managed migration from Europe. But at the same time, we were very worried about economic consequences. And also, we’ve grown up in a Europe where we can travel freely, where we can appreciate European cultures, where we, many of us, speak European languages. And so when we finally learned what had happened at 20 minutes to 6 on Friday morning, I think a lot of us felt that we were in freefall. And I think that’s probably the state that remains today, that there are millions of people who had some hankering for a greater degree of sovereignty, who now are asking what have we done?
HH: John Fisher Burns, we will continue to check in with you in the weeks and months ahead for that kind of balanced, incisive approach. I appreciate you taking time with us this morning. The great John Fisher Burns. I’ll be right back, America.
End of interview.