Lisbon, chaos theory and poppies

The Tories have deluded themselves that Britain can enjoy trading advantages without the drawbacks o

I am no great admirer of the European Union, but I have always thought we should stay with it and make the best of it. The Conservatives' position has always struck me as entirely incoherent, and their muddle has emerged again over the Lisbon treaty. We want a free trade area, the Tories say, but not loss of sovereignty. They don't seem to grasp that free trade won't last without rules to prevent member countries taking unfair advantage - by, for example, giving workers inferior conditions or adopting lower standards of environmental protection. Free trade entails supranational regulation.

From the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, Europe has moved inexorably towards closer political and economic union, as the community's architects envisaged and as the practicalities of maintaining a free trade area dictate. Yet Tory governments first tried to get us in during the 1960s, succeeded in the 1970s, and surrendered significant sovereignty in 1986, signing the Single European Act. Though Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath were always dedicated Europeans, most Tories have deluded themselves that Britain can enjoy trading advantages without the drawbacks of reduced sovereignty. They should have heeded Anthony Eden who, when Britain's involvement was first mooted in the 1950s, said this was "something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do".

If our national sovereignty is so precious to the Tories, they should advocate withdrawal. And far from opposing the Lisbon treaty, they should welcome it. It provides, for the first time, a procedure whereby member states can get out.

Where are the prefabs?

The Tories have also got into a muddle over ­education. They propose to follow a Swedish model (introduced by a right-wing government, not the sainted social democrats) where­by parents and others can set up schools using state funds. This sounds an extraordinarily expensive way of running an education system. Where, for example, will the buildings come from? The Financial Times, quoting Conservative Party and construction industry sources, reports the answer: "disused church halls, com­mercial properties and prefabricated buildings". An "opposition figure" explains that "what makes a school effective is teaching", not buildings. Yet I haven't noticed many prefabs at St Paul's, Eton or Winchester, and the Independent Schools Council boasts that fee-charging schools spent nearly £300m on buildings in 2007-08, which is about 50 per cent more per pupil than the government spent that year in its flagship school-building programme. Why aren't fee-paying parents, who include many Tory MPs, demanding that ­independent schools cease their profligacy?

Defenders of our ancient liberties

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan could be justified, I thought, only if Tony Blair and George W Bush truly intended to reduce those countries to permanent chaos and violent anarchy, making them magnets for troublemaking misfits throughout the Middle East (and perhaps some in Europe, too). Threats to the stability of western allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates would thus be diverted in a geopolitical version of what local councils do when they tip all problem families on to a single housing estate where they can rob and assault each other, leaving everybody else at peace. So far, this cunning strategy seems to have worked quite well, though not for Pakistan.

Now Kim Howells, a former minister, reveals a further dimension to the masterplan. We should bring home our troops, he writes in the Guardian, but, he adds, "life inside the UK would have to change". There would be "more intrusive surveillance in certain communities", with "more police officers on the streets". So we must choose between being liberal abroad or liberal at home. I hadn't thought of Blair and Bush as defenders of our ancient liberties, but that was clearly part of their calculation. How silly of us all not to see it like that.

Do I have to wear one?

Can something be done about "poppy fascism", as Jon Snow dubbed it a few years ago? This year it was worse than ever, with poppies worn by everybody on TV from about mid-October and football clubs pressured to stitch them on players' shirts. I have nothing against remembering dead servicemen and women, or against contributing to funds for those disabled in battle, though I can't help thinking their needs should be met wholly by the state that sent them to fight. But with papers such as the Mail and Telegraph now so insistent on poppy wearing, I have become uncomfortable about displaying one. It suggests conformism, uncritical patriotism and acceptance of military values.

The only satisfactory solution is for somebody to start a rival commemorative and fund-raising day, also in early November, for those civilians who died or suffered disabling injuries at the hands of American and British troops. A symbol based on a white shroud might be appropriate. A bit of competition would do the poppy fanatics no harm at all.

Rugby's Achilles heel

Forgive this dedicated rugby union follower for boasting that his team, Leicester Tigers, beat South Africa, the world champions, the day before England lost to Australia. The Tigers, hit by injury and the loss of six players to England, fielded what was barely a second team. Have they found exciting young players ready soon to restore England's fortunes? Not quite. Their team included a Samoan, an Italian, an Irishman, a Welshman, a South African, an Argentinian, an Australian and three New Zealanders. As in football, the strength of top rugby clubs largely explains the national team's weakness.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End