David Cameron. Photo: Wikimedia
Show Hide image

Cameron's tough stance on Juncker: who's it for?

The Prime Minister's hardline attitude is now more about impressing British voters than winning the battle over the top EU post. 

Although it seems ill-fated, David Cameron’s hardline stance against the selection of Jean Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission is proving a success with British voters.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s likely doomed doggedness is being viewed as a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The latest Populus poll for the FT revealed that 43 per cent of Brits feel that the Prime Minister is “right in any case” to try and block the federalist Luxembourger, while just 14 per cent say he is right only if he succeeds.

It is interesting that even when unlikely to win out, a tough stance by the nation’s leader towards Johnny Foreigner is favoured by the electorate.

More than that, Cameron’s attitude remains popular even though it has provoked extreme frustration and dismay among our continental neighbours.

Make no mistake, however: this public support for the Prime Minister is not based on widespread British attitudes about the EU or increased integration.

Rather, Brits' reaction to Cameron's stance against Juncker taking the top EU post tells us more about oursevles and what we desire from and like about domestic politics.

We like strength in our leaders, which in turn projects the strength of our small island nation on the world stage. A hangover from post-Colonialism? Maybe.

It is good news for Cameron, whose gamble to stick out the fight even with defeat in sight has paid off. There are two chief benefits for the Prime Minister in maintaining this pose. Firstly, it projects robust leadership, at a time when such qualities seem deeply lacking at the top of British politics.

The Prime Minister's hardline stance will also prove useful in conveying the impression of him as a deeply principled individual who will keep fighting for what he believes in even as he goes down in flames.

We have seen a similar phenomenon in Russia in recent months, where the leader's aggressive foreign policy, perceived strength, and supposedly "principled" stance on the protection of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers abroad, gave him a strong boost domestically.

While the international community heaped criticism on Russian President Vladimir Putin following the annexation of Crimea and his handling of the Ukraine crisis, Russians at home loved it.

Last month Putin’s popularity hit a six-year high according to the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. His approval rating rose to 85 per cent, up from 64 per cent in May 2013.

Pundits have noted that the only time Putin enjoyed higher domestic approval ratings (hitting an astonishing 90 per cent) was after the 2008 war with Georgia - again projecting Russian strength.

It just goes to show, the old axiom that all foreign policy is domestic policy still holds true.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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