Monday 15 February 2016
“Thin gruel” a Parliamentarian described last week. This could have been a fitting epitaph to the meagre offerings the Conservative Party has served the British people during their ideologically-driven austerity programme since 2010. It was in fact Jacob Rees-Mogg criticising the EU deal David Cameron has negotiated and is awaiting ratification from the other EU member states. Putting aside the details for a moment, Rees-Mogg’s unfortunate and unashamed appropriation of an anti-neoliberal, Dickensian Oliver Twist metaphor reveals a lot about modern British Conservatism and values.
Immigration in this country was largely a non-issue until the rise of Ukip and its threat to traditional conservative heartlands in the run-up to the general election of 2015. In a panic, and rashly and recklessly, David Cameron promised the country a referendum of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. Tactically, Cameron sought to counter the threat of Ukip, bolster his party’s re-election chances and win the referendum by leading Britain’s thin-gruel reform of the EU. Thus he jeopardised the future of the country for three self-serving reasons: the first, to increase the chances of his and his party’s re-election (mission accomplished); the second, to permanently ground the Ukip bandwagon (objective failed); and third, to silence, at least for a generation, the Conservative Eurosceptic warmongers (on this the jury is out until the referendum, but at the moment looks unlikely).
The recklessness of this strategy in gambling on Britain’s future in order to assure his party’s predominance over the British political landscape is staggering. Government figures and statistics were there for all to see, including Cameron. Migrant workers did not claim benefits in large numbers and benefit tourism only existed in people’s minds, yet Cameron decided to stoke this fear and misconception for political gain. Official figures and reality were thus not expedient and were therefore ignored.
A more distinguished and more responsible course of action would have been for Cameron to have discoursed with the British people over the virtues of immigration. He could have provided more resources (at a time when borrowing to invest in the country had never been cheaper) into the areas that had seen the largest increases. He could have built more schools and invested in more nurses in order to ease the pressure on public services, taking a wiser and more nuanced view that supported immigration is a long-term economy and tax boon.
George Osborne’s living wage pledge, again designed to foster support for the Conservative’s One Nation makeover (or disguise) and to soften the blows of austerity and the clawing back of the state, is skewed and cock-a-hoop as it completely nullifies any limited effect on immigration Cameron’s thin-gruel negotiation might have had. Independent figures, too, since the pledge indicate that it won’t compensate for these cuts. It is an example of the Treasury and Downing Street working completely at odds with each other. Yet the effect, as always with Conservative policy, is whether the electorate ‘imagines’ the living wage will compensate for the cuts and ‘perceives’ that the Conservatives have moved into the centre ground and are moderates representing working Britain. In reality the pledge is a confidence trick designed to fool the electorate: a slight of hand; giving with one hand while taking more with the other.
Here Osborne and the Conservatives have form. The ‘pasty tax’ confirmed the oft-held view of the Conservatives as the nasty party and the party of the rich. Osborne also conveyed mistruths about Britain’s triple A credit rating, warning that without severe austerity the country would end up like Greece. Here all economists and government officials knew the claim was inaccurate and a gross exaggeration, not needing to see the proof in the pudding of Britain’s eventual loss, along with the U.S., of its triple A rating that made no difference whatsoever to its ability to borrow from the markets at extremely low rates of interest, but which it was ideologically adverse to do.
The same was true of the Conservatives propagating the myth that the previous Labour government’s overspending caused the financial crash. They must have thought all their Christmas’s had come at once when Ed Miliband confirmed this in voters’ minds by apologising for the profligacy in a doomed attempt at trying to distance himself from it, when the real cause of the crash, unfettered neoliberalism, watched from the sidelines with amusement while gearing to swell Conservative Party coffers for the upcoming election, a pact that must have consisted of pledges not to impose financial regulations designed to protect the economy.
In analysing some of the details of Cameron’s EU deal, the proposals for index-linked child benefit payments to migrant workers appears sensible and fair, though what the reverse effect of this is unclear. Would, for instance, British migrant workers working and living in Warsaw or Riga or Dublin or Rome have their child benefit payments index-linked up? Cameron’s phased-in benefits package will also have no effect on immigration or on welfare and so is pure discrimination based on people’s unfounded fears of immigration. This ‘thin gruel’ will also lead to the discrimination of British migrant workers and a watering down of the EU’s founding principle of the free movement of people. The suspicion, too, remains that an anti-EU ‘thick gruel’ would not only have destroyed the EU as an advanced citizen-empowering political entity, but would also not have been hearty enough for the out brigade, who would no doubt have campaigned for Britain to leave just as vigorously whatever the ruins of the European ideal it left behind.
This can be also seen in the Eurosceptic Nigel Lawson, on Newsnight in 2012, ridiculing the awarding of the EU with the Nobel Peace Prize for having overseen the longest period of peace in Europe for two hundred years. Lawson claimed the EU had nothing to do with this and that it was Nato that had kept the peace. He also stated that people wouldn’t go to war without the EU because “people are more intelligent now.” This point was astonishing in refuting all the history books of two hundred years’ of bloody European conflict. It was not large, powerful, competing nations in close proximity with divergent histories, cultures, values and national interests that caused all the conflict. It simply boiled down to intelligence, and a lack of it.
Pro-EU supporters would also claim with some justification that Nato was designed for external threats (the Warsaw Pact) not internal discord between members, and that military alliances make war less likely but political integration makes it impossible. They would argue too that all the alliances of Europe at the turn of the 20th Century didn’t stop it becoming the bloodiest century in human history, and that Nato has proved ineffective in deterring Russia’s ambitions in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
The self-serving nature of modern British Conservatism can also been seen in the distancing of senior conservative politicians from the Eurosceptic cause. Boris Johnson in his biography of Winston Churchill likened the EU to the nazification of Europe. Ridiculous or not, you could not get a stronger endorsement of the Eurosceptic cause than that, and yet at the very time to enact your political principles and beliefs; the very time to take your place in history and lead Britain away from this EU menace, Boris has shied away, eyeing personal political advancement, a leadership contest, or even an uncontested coronation as a greater prize. It is a far cry from “we’ll fight them on the beaches”. Boris would rather fight them at state banquets. Ditto Theresa May. Other cabinet ministers like Michael Gove are also struggling with their consciences of putting political conviction and belief ahead of personal advancement.
Rees-Mogg’s clever ‘thin gruel’ metaphor inadvertently shows that wherever Britain’s future and huge national interests lie, in or out of the EU, the Conservative Party puts its own interests first.