Hugo Rifkind

Of course the old Tory hatreds are back. That’s referendums for you

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Of course it’s vicious. It was always going to be. Sure, they’ve spent decades living peacefully side by side, but so did the Hutu and Tutsi. So did the Alawites and Sunnis, and so did every manner of former Yugoslavian. In politics, old hatreds do not die. They merely keep mum, so as to get selected and maybe become a junior minister.

You will not find me dwelling upon the row in cabinet, this week, about whether pro-Brexit ministers are allowed to see government papers related to the EU referendum. Personally, I’d pay good money not to see government papers related to the EU referendum. I consider it a very real sign of sickness to want to. Although it was good to see Lord Mandelson weighing in, wasn’t it? Made me properly nostalgic. Because that’s what you want in an argument. An interjection from Lord Mandelson. You might as well try to calm two fighting dogs by throwing them a cat.

More interesting than this spat is the relish — indeed, near relief — with which it is being conducted. Dimly, within the furthest reaches of their angry minds, pro-Brexit members of the government know that they cannot shout at the Prime Minister and hope to keep their jobs, not even if they’re shouting about Europe. They can, however, shout at the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. And so they do, thanking God they can.

They have never really been on the same side, the two types of Tories. They have merely rubbed along. The Eurocides (for the broader ‘Eurosceptic’ no longer seems specific enough) have kept the faith, like a caste within. They have known each other by a special sense, eyes meeting across rooms, probably a bit like gaydar. For them, the wider party — at least in Parliament — has long been packed with wets and cowards. Weekenders. Part-timers. People who don’t really mean it, and never have. People who will have their backs against the wall come the revolution, and rightly, but who for now provide a useful cover.


For the rest, that lot have always been regarded as nuts. Really, truly, properly nuts. It is important, says David Cameron, that government remains ‘a harmonious, mutually respectful team’. And what he really means by that is, ‘You’re going to hide the way you’re nuts, and I’m going to hide the way I think you’re nuts.’ Their eyes also meet across rooms. And when they do this they roll at the spectacle of everybody else. Secretly, they regard fellow Tories who want to leave the EU in much the same way that Blairites regard actual socialists. As an embarrassment, in other words. Yes, they’re in touch with the foot soldiers, and that’s jolly helpful, but they’re also just a bit too much like the foot soldiers. They’re not grown-ups. They’re not sound. You couldn’t put them actually in charge of things. It would be awful. You wouldn’t even trust them with scissors.

Nobody says any of this stuff, but every-body knows. Eurocides are sick of being called cranks, but their fury about this makes them crankier still. For too long, they have been patted on the head (often the bald head) by people who claim to be on their team, but who also do a little vomit in their own mouths every time they think of people like them actually running the country. And they know. And the very notion that all this rage and disdain isn’t going to erupt into open fury by June is, not to put too fine a point on it, quite unlikely.

You don’t get moderates in a referendum. That’s the lesson of Scotland. Technically, the ‘out’ side of the Tories is a broad church, with a span wide enough to include Iain Duncan Smith (Lord Headbanger), Michael Gove (regarded as sound, and thus worrying people) and Boris Johnson (who might as well have flipped a coin). The ‘in’ side, all the more so, has everybody from Ken Clarke (who may or may not still want us to join the euro) to Cameron himself (who probably wouldn’t shed much of a tear if a circle of star-shaped cavities opened up around Brussels, in the manner of the EU flag, and the entire place fell into a sinkhole). Yet a referendum makes you one thing or the other. This tribe or that.

The same is true, of course, for the public at large. Scotland also taught me that referendums are godawful things, and henceforth in life I shall be against them on principle wherever possible. Politics is at its best when it is diffuse, complex and ever so slightly intangible. Make it bold, stark and binary, I now realise, and new divisions take root. Things swiftly grow bitter. When each side includes half of everybody, collateral offence is far too easy. By June, you will be brutalised. As will I. As I was.

Only with the Tories, though, are these new hatreds going to map so precisely on to old ones. Sure, they’ll try. They’ll all fight, and then half of them will call for civility. Then there will be a fight between those calling for civility and those who scorn it, and even the former group probably won’t be civil about it. And even once this wholly unnecessary referendum is done with, the Conservative party will be riven by hatred, tribalism and distrust for a generation at least. Even more than it already was. Which still, admittedly, won’t be quite as much as the other lot.


 

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Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Frank

    I am sorry, but this article is dreadful. If Cameron would be happy for Brussels to vanish into a sink hole, why is he defending the indefensible and making false claims about having “reformed” the EU? He has managed to destroy whatever other “legacy” he might have had when he slides into retirement and indeed may even be sacked immediately after the referendum whatever the outcome.
    The point about real politics is that it is sometimes nasty and tribal. Referenda occur when politicians either haven’t got the stomach to make a difficult decision, or because politicians want to get democratic backing for a particular outcome. The current position is that we have had a Parliament of decreasing importance ever since 1975 when we joined the EU (ditto all the great other arms of state now superseded by the relevant EU institutions), so our political parties have withered, both at grassroots level and in terms of the quality of our MPs at Westminster. This is hardly surprising, but it has reduced democratic accountability to worrying levels – this is what the referendum is about, rather than a means of pricking a tory problem.
    I get the appeal of the EU if you live in Luxembourg, or Malta, or Austria, or Sweden (and Scotland) since you live in a place without a big enough population to provide enough adequate politicians and civil servants (yet to be re-recruited in the UK!); but the same is not true of Britain, France, or Germany. The remain side have yet to explain why Britain should submit itself to the continued rule by the EU Commission and European Parliament.
    As for Tory tribal wars, these actually go back to Maggie’s defenestration, but the EU divisions are more than just a tribal dispute.

    • There is a job vacancy coming up around the time Cameron’s current contract ends, its called the EU President.

      • Frank

        Why would they appoint someone who would need protecting from his own nation?

      • Bertie

        Tony Bliar surely already lined up that one – so he and his missoise, Cruella de vil, can pilfer even more money for their dishonestly attained hoard.

    • martinbaines

      The appeal of the EU for someone in a large country is not that different from a small one – you think a mechanism whereby you share and resolve disputes with your neighbours and treat them as equals is better than one where you treat them as the opposition not to be trusted.

      On a personal level I value things the Eurocides hate – free movement of people (which I have exercised) and a mechanism by which national governments can be overruled by a larger legal framework. The latter would be less of an issue if we ditched absolute parliamentary sovereignty and had properly entrenched rights, but there is no sign of that happening. To put it bluntly, there are times I trust the ECJ and ECHR (although that is not part of the EU despite the deliberate confusion often being made by Outties), more than I trust a Parliament that only marginally reflects my views (and probably is similar for the vast majority of the population for whom party bundles of policies do no really reflect their opinions). Absolute Parliamentary sovereignty may have been revolutionary in the 17th Century, today it is a source of oppression. Being in the EU alone does not solve the problem but it is part of an architecture by which governments are held in check. IDS may hate a legal advisor telling him “sorry sir that is not allowed under EU rules”, I rather approve that that happens sometimes.

      I am even on the right economically – I dislike regulation, and clearly there is case to be made that the EU by instinct makes too much, but you know what? So does Westminster and, more importantly, the civil service bubble that writes most legislation. In recent years the EU has been resisting needless regulation our “something must be done” brigade have been proposing. In things as varied as production of unpasteurised cheese, e-cigs or telecoms interconnection rules, the EU has been the body opposing restrictive regulation from the UK, not the other way round. Above all that, if we are condemned to regulation, then much better it is the same as our biggest trading partners, that they are obliged to recognise our certifications as valid and that there is a binding mechanism to challenge others who are not applying the rules to keep a fair playing field. Leave the EU and we may decide unilaterally to adopt the same regulations (as Leavers claim it is all about international standards anyway), but that is not the big part of – what matters is the other part, that our certifications are recognised and that there is a way to challenge. Without that recognition, our business will still have extra costs of multiple validations – just as they do if they want to trade in the US, where often we share the same paper standards but in reality their certification bodies treat them very differently. Leaving the EU would add regulatory burden to UK business, not reduce it.

      Now none of that will convince a hard core Leaver – they have different criteria by which they evaluate, but perhaps it might at least make some realise there is another view that is not based on negatives or fear.

      • Marvin

        There are so many things you don’t agree with about the EU, BUT! like a frightened rabbit and your mental disability to see what the “leap in the dark” could mean whereby a politician with a spine and a bit of intelligence would learn the art of making deals with threats regarding the single market where they would lose a heck of a lot more than we would.

        • martinbaines

          How do you know “there are so many things [I] don’t agree about the EU”? In my comment I say mainly what I like about it with a small reservation about its regulatory instinct, which I also caveat by saying that is a problem with being outside too.

          Instead you jump straight to an insult – both to me and by the language you use of people with mental challenges. This is a problem on both sides of the debate, in that with a few (sadly very few) exceptions, there is an assumption someone disagreeing with you is somehow lacking mental capabilities, or worse down right evil. It is perfectly possible to agree on facts while disagreeing on interpretations.

          Frankly you should be ashamed of your language, and should open your mind to other world views.

        • martinbaines

          How do you know “there are so many things [I] don’t agree about the EU”? In my comment I say mainly what I like about it with a small reservation about its regulatory instinct, which I also caveat by saying that is a problem with being outside too.

          Instead you jump straight to an insult – both to me and by the language you use of people with mental challenges. This is a problem on both sides of the debate, in that with a few (sadly very few) exceptions, there is an assumption someone disagreeing with you is somehow lacking mental capabilities, or worse down right evil. It is perfectly possible to agree on facts while disagreeing on interpretations.

          Frankly you should be ashamed of your language, and should open your mind to other world views.

          • Marvin

            I have re-read your comment, and there are a few things that you mention may be slightly not totally right, but you accept in opposition to some things done by the UK. Just one thing then, how many of the 72 objections from the UK that have been voiced in the EU in the last decade were out voted 27-0? Now that is a great result for someone like yourself.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Parliament only partially reflects my views too – but it’s far closer to home than the European Parliament, I can vote directly for someone to represent my (modestly sized) constituency – though FPTP needs reforming – and far beyond any other consideration, it’s the talking shop for my country – not lots of other countries, many of which have little in common with us politically, culturally, and most of all in terms of history. One does not cast aside so casually the accumulated baggage of a thousand years, or the sense of nationhood that goes with it.
        “Being in the EU alone does not solve the problem but it is part of an architecture by which governments are held in check. IDS may hate a legal advisor telling him “sorry sir that is not allowed under EU rules”, I rather approve that that happens sometimes.”
        I find this extraordinary. I want my government to be held in check by me and my fellow voters – not by people in Helsinki, Palermo or Bucharest, let alone (if some people had their way) Turkey…
        Presumably you are an internationalist. I’m a nationalist, an English one, and very glad about that. I too am “on the right economically” but in the end it really isn’t all about money.

        • martinbaines

          I am very much a non nationalist not an internationalist (as that presupposes nations having a special position). I prefer a small state and the powers it has to be held in check rather than given full power over everything. Democracy is an important part of the matrix of institutions and accountability, but by no means the sole thing necessary – tyranny of a majority is still tyranny. Also, quite frankly I have more faith in some people in Helsinki or Palermo or Bucharest, than some people in Hull, Peterborough or Bristol. I also am just as likely to disagree with other people in all those places. I want decisions to be made as close as possible to me (or even better by me), but where they need to be common I see no more issue with working with people elsewhere in Europe in a formal structure than elsewhere on the same island..

          In historical context, the idea a completely sovereign nation state only goes back to a compromise arranged to end the wars of religions in Europe. England is no more a magic special entity than Wessex or Mercia were, and the UK certainly isn’t. Historically, the most peaceful times and best times to live have been under loose multicultural empires – although it is best to avoid being around at the creation or fall of those empires. The EU is the nearest we have so so far to a loose multicutural system of organisation that does not depend on the benevolence of a single emperor and although it has many failings (which incidentally so do individual nation states) it has done a pretty good job of managing a single, fair space for people to live in.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            I agree entirely with your “small state” and “tyranny of the majority” concerns, but do not understand how you can reconcile these with a European super-state bureaucracy in which those folk from Palermo or Bucharest might have a say (via the bureaucrats) in anything that affects your life in England.
            England is not “magic”: it’s simply history that the political entity of England superceded the lesser states of Mercia & Wessex (etc) and has survived to the present day as a distinct identity – unlike practically everywhere else in the EU….
            Your “loose multicultural empire” sounds like Victorian England, when individual Englishmen experienced very much less state interference – and more individual freedom.
            I disagree that the EU has done a “pretty good job” and indeed various chickens are coming home to roost.

  • bobby_r

    This article adds nothing to the debate, it’s just smug twaddle.

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