It’s a year in which the world is gripped by uncertainty fuelled by an unstable Europe. A powerful German nation begins the relentless spread of its domination across the continent. A Conservative Prime Minister, following the grand Tory tradition of ‘Splendid Isolation’, returns from negotiations to rapturous popular support and a largely congratulatory press. He proudly announces to have won a great victory for British interests, although time would quickly prove how shallow this victory was.
I’m referring, of course, to 1938, Neville Chamberlain and the famously un-prophetic “peace in our time” speech. I was reminded of this regrettable chapter of British history this morning as the Eurosceptic press heaped praise for David Cameron’s surprise exit from the EU summit.
I must admit, aside from the hero’s welcome, the similarities between then and now are weak. Europe is probably more closely united than any other point in history, for one thing. There is no Fourth Reich and Angela Merkel is obviously not ‘die Fuhrer’. The comparison between Chamberlain and Cameron isn’t even fair – at least, the former came back from his negotiations with something.
I’d also like to point out that I’m not the first person to make the spurious connection. That dishonour goes to Tory backbenchers, who, in advance of the summit, urged Cameron to show the “bulldog spirit” and complained, “We’ve had enough of reading of British prime ministers coming back from a summit with a kind of Chamberlain-esque piece of paper”.
Ironically, these are the same people now enthusiastically cheering Dave – who’s come back with less a piece of paper and more a red card with ‘NON’ stamped boldly on it.
Why then do I mention the archetypal appeaser? I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that the PM failed absolutely in his aims. He contributed nothing to further the rescue of the Eurozone, he didn’t receive any safeguards for the City, and his veto did nothing to stop the closer integration of the Eurozone. As Kevin Bacon’s character says in A Few Good Men: “these are the facts, and they are undisputed”.
That most the press (and likely the public) think this somehow translates into a Good Thing reflects the great British tradition of seeing retreat as victory.
In the minds of many Conservatives, we’re still living in 1938: there’s some sort of trouble going on across the Channel and the best way to deal with it is to turn away, tuck behind the proverbial walls of Fortress Britannia and leave Johnny European to get on with it. Their mess, their problem.
This explains why leading articles in the right-wing papers are so enthusiastic in their acclaim. As far as these Little Englander’s are concerned, David Cameron, by walking away friendless and empty-handed, genuinely was acting in England’s best interests. ‘To be left alone’ is the means and the end in itself.
And so, the Daily Mail hurrahs:
“Today the Mail salutes Mr Cameron for his courageous leadership and resolve in standing up to Angela Merkel and, in particular, to the preposterous Nicolas Sarkozy…”
The Telegraph intones:
“Mr Cameron was, therefore, pushed into a corner – and refused to buckle under. This brave and bold decision should immeasurably strengthen his domestic position, unite his party behind him and begin to provide the clarity regarding the nature of our relationship with Europe that has long been lacking.”
The Daily Express rants:
“Well Mr Cameron can rest assured that back in his own country many people – including readers of the Daily express – will be queueing up to shake his hand. For his conduct of these negotiations has been admirable.”
The Sun boasts:
“WE asked David Cameron to act like Churchill and stand up for Britain. And he did.”
“If so-called isolation means independence, is that a bad thing?”
And the Times asserts:
“Yet, for all its complexity and its potentially momentous consequences, there is a simple question that can be posed. Did the Prime Minister do the right thing? And a simple answer that can be given: ‘Yes.'”
With so much fuss being made by so many for so little (to paraphrase Churchill), I imagine if Cameron ever did succeed in actually repatriating some powers, the leader writers of these papers would dispense with the usual breathless verbiage and simply staple a jizz-drenched tissue on to the front pages.
In terms of ensuring an informed electorate, it’s a shame so many British papers possess this dogmatic “By Jingo, Alone!” mentality but it’s pure incompetence to portray a major historic event in such a blinkered and fawning manner.
David Cameron went to Europe carrying the hopes and fears of a proud yet struggling nation. He returned with less than nothing and is hailed a hero. I know we Brits can’t help but support the underdog – but why celebrate the loser?
[Update: the extent of Cameron’s failure is spelt out by Faisal Islam in his article: “Ten Curiosities about David Cameron’s Veto”]