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
Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser