What is it with Europe and the Tories? Like it or not, David Cameron appears to have succeeded in his project to ‘detoxify’ the Conservative brand and, if the polls are right, looks set to sweep into Downing Street next year. Granted this is as much to do with Gordon Brown’s seemingly natural aversion to any form of good luck rather than a genuine excitement for the Tory programme for government but, nevertheless, there’s more than a strong possibility that they’ll be back at the helm by next summer.
While this is not a state of affairs I’m particularly happy about, it’s one I’m forcing myself to become accustomed to. Those with slightly longer memories than the forty-ish per cent of the electorate who seem to have been charmed by Cameron will not need reminding why a Tory government is a bad thing. For those who do, here’s an abridged list: mass unemployment, the destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industries, increased crime, high interest rates, the Poll Tax, sleaze (far worse than anything we’ve seen from Labour – none of the current government have ended up in prison yet, after all), government sponsored intolerance, homophobia, that infuriating born-to-rule arrogance and, of course, the endless bloodletting over Europe. All of these were features of the Tories’ last stint in government and, for all the image massage from David Cameron, I’ve seen nothing to convince me that this won’t be their programme for next time around.
Strangely, considering the public never seem to put it at the top of their list, Europe is the issue that worries the Conservative Party more than any other, and this has come to the fore once again as the leadership ties itself in knots over the Lisbon Treaty and the referendum that was never going to happen anyway. They can live quite comfortably with the wilful destruction of communities brought about by senselessly dismantling British industry, as they did in the eighties. There’s not a whiff of embarrassment about their instinct to protect their rich friends at the expense of the majority. Massed queues at job centres are arrogantly dismissed as ‘a price worth paying’ (for what, we never really found out). But the slightest whiff of accommodation with Johnny Foreigner in Brussels, and his evil plan to bring peace and the benefits of economic co-operation to the ordinary people of Europe, and the Tory anger really rises.
So what is it about Europe that needles the Tory psyche in the way it does? Is it the fear of the hysterical coverage in the Daily Mail, The Sun and the rest of the (largely) Europhobic press? Is it a form of appeasement to the visceral xenophobic mania of the Tory grassroots? Is it a lasting homage to the teary-eyed memory of Margaret’s ‘glorious’ term of office? Are they simply wary of UKIP on their right flank? Who knows? What doesn’t seem to be behind the Conservatives’ Euro-paranoia is any form of reasoned argument. Perhaps if there was, people would actually listen beyond the dog-whistle soundbites about sovereignty and national identity, and Britain might even end up having a mature, informed debate on the nature of our engagement with Europe. Of course, what’s much more likely is that a Tory government will pick up where it left off, with a reactive approach to Europe and the numerous vested interests who will no doubt pull a Cameron administration in all directions.
This process seems to have already begun with today’s shuffling of Cameron’s position on Europe in the face of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. While many in his party (William Hague, for example) may see this as a pragmatic sticking plaster to get them through to the General Election, there can be little doubt that the Europhobe wing of the Tory party will expect more once they have their hands on the levers of power. Faced with the reality of being a European leader and the demands of the inner baying mob, which way will Cameron jump? Already it starts to look like John Major all over again.