Brussels over Britain

Tory politicians' behaviour over the EU shows their contempt for ordinary people -- and their confid

At a time when many people can't find jobs, many others are struggling to pay the bills, and many more are slipping into an ocean of debt, the Conservative Party shows how much it's in touch with the electorate by having the same old fight about Europe.

While Britain sinks into poverty, it's time for the age-old EU hokey cokey. Are we in? Are we out? Are we going to shake it all about? Are we going to have a referendum, or just sit around talking about a referendum? More to the point, does anyone care? People are suffering out there, really suffering, and it's not going to stop anytime soon.

Go and look with your eyes. People can't afford to buy their shopping; they can't afford their electricity bills; people are going to die this winter because they're going to worry about leaving the heating on. And our political masters, with their subsidised bars and canteens and lovely second homes on expenses, are getting worried about our part in European integration. They're more concerned about Brussels than they are about Britain. What more evidence could there be of the contempt in which ordinary people are held by our political classes?

It's a bit of a spectator sport for everyone who isn't in the Conservative Party, a chance to sit back and enjoy watching them bruise each other and get all upset. It's tempting to just chuck the Tories in a room and marvel as they beat each other up. And yes, those of us on the so-called "political left" might raise a familiar smile at the infighting of the Tories. It's a much-worn stereotype that while the right patch over their differences, the left get mired in attacking each other.

Any of us who has, at one time or another, been involved in leftish causes will recognise the familiar scenario: after five hours of arguing over points of order and constitutional wrangling about who is going to be voted into the pencils and paperclips sub-committee, there are only three and half minutes left at the end to discuss how we're going to smash the state. Watching Tories squabbling over Europe is a reminder that they, too, can be irrationally bogged down with the same old arguments.

But no one should take any pleasure from Tory infighting over Europe. Labour shouldn't; their Coalition partners -- so often the human shield against the public when it comes to unpopular policies -- shouldn't; and we shouldn't, either. Because this resurfacing of the Europe question indicates that the Conservative Party is getting its feet under the table of Government and preparing for a second term in office.

They're not worried about electoral defeat in 2015, or the fact that their policies are going to make millions of us miserable and worse off: that they are already back to beating themselves up over Europe means they're pretty confident that they've sold their message and can get on with the business of being in charge -- where they belong, where they are entitled to be, and where they were born to be.

What that indicates is that the Conservative Party are confident about their administration and comfortable enough with it to have a punch-up in public. They believe they've sold the "we inherited this mess" trope successfully enough to the electorate, and are pressing ahead with their Small State, Big Society agenda safe in the knowledge that a large chunk of their potential voters will blame Gordon Brown for any hardship they are enduring right now, and will be enduring for some years to come.

The rift over Europe -- the faultline that runs through the Conservative Party and has done for so many years -- is not going to go away, but that it has popped up so soon in this administration could be an indication of strength rather than weakness. The economy may be spluttering, the dole queues may be lengthening, the struggle to pay the bills may be increasing, but the Tories are so confident that they're in charge, they're happy to play out the same old Europe pantomime. It should worry anyone who hopes for a change of government at the next general election.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood