David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the EU Council building in Brussels on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Behind the gun-slinging sceptic act, Cameron is a good European. Will he dare show it in public?

The Prime Minister can see the strategic as well as the economic logic that keeps Britain in Europe.

The European Union looks more attractive when the alternative is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It isn’t a choice Britain has to make, which is one reason our Eurosceptics get away with fantastical depictions of Brussels as a conspiracy against democracy.

That is plainly not the view of many Ukrainians. President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an  EU Association Agreement last November was the spur to the demonstrations that resulted last week in violent regime change. It isn’t clear what the nature of the new government in Kiev will be, nor whether it can represent those Ukrainians whose cultural allegiances steer them towards Moscow.

This is no fairy tale of pro-western democrats unseating easterly despotism. Yet it is also naive to pretend that Ukraine isn’t the rope in a strategic tug of war between an alliance of European democracies that respect the rule of law and Russia, which doesn’t. Ukraine’s insurgent administration will be bailed out by the EU or it will fail and Moscow will arrange for a client successor.

The first senior foreign dignitary to arrive in Kiev after Yanukovych’s fall was Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. Other nations might be proud that one of their compatriots led this vanguard mission. We barely noticed.

The top foreign-policy post in Brussels was granted to Britain’s nominee in 2009 in recognition of the country’s status as one of the Union’s big diplomatic beasts. It was also an investment by other EU members in Britain’s enduring participation in the project and an acknowledgment that refusal to join the single currency needn’t herald London’s relegation to second-tier status.

That spirit that has been repaid with a surge in national exceptionalism. Since 2010, the UK’s European policy has been dictated by Conservative MPs who are repelled by continental power-sharing, even when it has the effect of amplifying Britain’s voice in the world. The idea of cross-border collaboration as a source of strategic strength is fundamental to most member states’ understanding of what the EU is for and alien to British discussion of the topic.

On the eastern side of the continent, the attraction is obvious. EU membership brought prosperity, stability and security to former communist states. Their absorption in a few short years of European law was an act of collective bureaucratic heroism.

Britain’s stance as an eager advocate of enlargement created stores of diplomatic goodwill in the new member states. Those have since been depleted by Conservative ministers fomenting public fear of a welfare-snaffling eastern invasion, which is unfortunate given David Cameron’s inevitable reliance on countries such as Poland and Romania should his plans for EU reform ever come to a summit vote.

On that front, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic capital is currently all being spent on Germany. No butter was spared in the buttering up of Angela Merkel during her visit to the UK on 27 February. Downing Street has been talking up areas where the German Chancellor might be amenable to the kind of changes Cameron proposes, but those barely count as hors d’oeuvre on the menu of items from which Tory backbenchers expect their leader to order his new relationship with Brussels. There is no chance of Merkel or any other EU leader satisfying their appetite. The German chancellor doesn’t want Britain to leave the EU and will strive to help Cameron as long as doing so matches her own and her country’s interests. What she won’t do is sabotage other European alliances or alienate her domestic audience trying to appease Tory hardliners who she knows cannot be appeased and whose influence over British policy she finds exasperating.

Besides, Cameron may not be Prime Minister after May 2015. In private, German officials note that Merkel has no incentive to get too involved in a British “renegotiation” that becomes obsolete if Downing Street ends up under new management.

Beneath all of these tactical considerations is the bigger problem that Merkel has faith in a European project that transcends mercantile economics, while Cameron’s arms are twisted behind his back by people who believe Britain is traduced every time the EU’s ambitions stray beyond trade.

In practice, the Prime Minister, like all his recent predecessors, can see the strategic as well as the economic logic that keeps Britain in Europe. Also like his predecessors, he hides that insight from the public. As recently as December 2013, Cameron signed up to defence co-operation measures that risked being spun as community-spirited European integration. So he felt obliged to boast on the sidelines of the summit that he had rejected an EU army, for which no one had called, and preserved the primacy of Nato as the west’s foremost military alliance, which had never been in doubt.

The butchery of straw men has become a feature of British briefing in Brussels. It perpetuates the myth that Europeanism is something that other countries do to us if we drop our guard. Or, as Cameron put it with facile concision last June: “In this town you have to be ready for an ambush at any time and that means lock and load.”

But the PM cannot play the good European in private and the gun-slinging sceptic in public for much longer. It is weak diplomacy and self-defeating politics. Britain doesn’t want to lose strategic influence in Europe and for the foreseeable future, the EU is the club where mid-sized European democracies agglomerate into a global power. Angela Merkel knows it. Vladimir Putin knows it. A penniless mob of angry Ukrainians knows it. David Cameron knows it too: he just hopes to get through an election campaign without being forced to say it out loud.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times