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By Dave’s friends shall we know him?

Posted on 23 June 2009 | 11:06am

No doubt what the Westminster bubble, politicians and media alike, saw as the main political event yesterday, with hour after hour of live coverage on the election for the new Speaker, and reams about John Bercow in the papers today.

Well done to him, and good luck. Move fast, I say.

But if his (nominally so) Party wins the next election, then I think a far more significant political event took place yesterday, with potentially far greater consequences than Speaker Bercow’s presence in the Commons chair.

I refer to David Cameron’s unveiling of the new ‘Conservatives and Reformists’ grouping in the European Parliament, which cuts him adrift from other right of centre parties, like those headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy of France. It is one of those decisions that may well appeal to a certain constituency, internally, while in Opposition, but which in government could easily come back to haunt him.

In an increasingly interdependent world, how countries wield influence within the various international groupings dictates much more than it used to their ability to shape their own domestic agenda, and to meet domestic and foreign policy objectives.

It is worth taking a look at Cameron’s new team. It contains 25 UK Tory MEPs, and one Ulster Unionist. Fifteen MEPs from Poland’s Law and Justice Party. Nine from the Czech Republic’s Civic Democrats. Then one each from Belgium, Holland, Finland, Hungary and Latvia.

It has been interesting to hear Cameron, William Hague and others trying to defend some of the far-right tinges of their new Polish colleagues, just as I look forward to hearing their defence of Latvia’s Fatherland and Freedom Party, and its honouring of Latvia’s Waffen SS veterans.

The move is a victory for Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who has been campaigning for this departure from the mainstream for some time. Mr Hannan  wants the UK out of the EU altogether, and has become something of a minor star in right-wing US circles because he attacks the NHS as a ‘mistake’. By Dave’s friends do we know him?

What happened yesterday confirmed Cameron’s desire to move the Tories from the mainstream of European debate to somewhere between Euro-scepticism and extremism. I’d have thought that was every bit as important as the choice of Speaker. He may not be terribly happy that John Bercow now occupies the chair. But he will be very pleased that all the fuss and ballyhoo about that reduced his Euro-adventures to minor broadsheet coverage when its actual significance merits far more attention and debate.

** Some of you seemed a little shocked yesterday by my view that having Old Etonians (or Etonions as I typoed them) as PM, Speaker and London Mayor would not be a good thing. The reason I am on the left of politics is a basic belief in equality of opportunity. Eton sits at the top of a self-perpetuating system of privilege that acts as a barrier to that. Discuss.

** Also worth discussing — President Sarkozy’s address to the French Parliament yesterday. First, because he changed the Constitution to do so, overturning a 134 year ban on Presidents addressing Parliament. Second, because his main point seemed to be an attack on the rights of French Muslim women to wear full veils and face coverings. Serious issue for such an event; or pointless talking point that risks stigmatising Muslims?

  • gk

    By Dave’s friends shall we know him?

    Well I suppose it worked for Tony Blair: George Bush, Berlusconi, you.

    Says it all, really.

  • Jeffrey Peel

    Must say I tend to agree with you about the EPP thing – I’m just not sure it has been thought through. In a similar way to the Conservatives not being able to run the Party very well (because of the leadership spending like crazies without any apparent approval process) the same thing has happened here in terms of the EPP. No real thinking has been applied – it’s a policy that has just, well, stuck.

    Now I realise that you don’t have the Tories’ interests at heart. You’re not a Tory. But I think the EPP decision – like others – will result in the Party biting itself on the arse (again).

  • Adam Wilkinson

    Cameron is an idiot for leaving the EPP and if the Tories are so angry about John Bercow becoming speaker then perhaps they should have thought twice before ousting Michael Martin.

  • Malcolm Hill

    I watched some of the live coverage yesterday. Have to say it added to my feeling they are out of touch. Mps scurrying in and out to talk to the cameras, and so animated, like it was the centre of the universe. All those two-faced tributes as well. Wouldn’t Cameron have been better saying ‘I didn’t vote for you, but I wish you well’ rather than all that tennis stuff, and pretending they were pals??

  • Marie Christine

    Sarko and the veils — serious issue? Maybe. Was he doing it for that? Probably not. Surely he could have had something more important for such a historic event. At least he is not Berlusconi though.

  • Cassie

    I tend to agree about Eton and private schools, but it is really depressing that in the south in particular, so many parents think they cannot get a good education unless they buy it for their children. I am about the last in my circle of friends to have held out. I am glad I have because my daughters are doing well, but the myths I have to hear from my friends make them friends no more

  • Andrew Spencer

    The new grouping is an anti-federalist one: something which sets it apart from all the other groups in Europe. That take the Conservatives out of what you call the “mainstream of European debate” but it does place them squarely within a large body of public opinion within the EU which is not happy with the centralising tendancies of the EU which mainstream European politicians of all strands appear to go along with.

    It is about time that some politicians spoke up for this entirely legitimate point of view: until now there has never been anything like an opposition in the European Parliament. I would have thought that pro-Europeans of all parts of the political spectrum would have welcomed the opportunity to debate: instead both the EPP and the pro-European left have sought to strangle this movement at birth. It doesn’t exactly speak very highly for their democratic ideals does it?

    It is unfortunate that some of the people the Tories have teemed up with have some wacky and unpleasant views on certain subjects, but all the EP groupings have their odd elements and it reflects the massive diversity of politics across the 27 states of the EU: one of the reasons we sceptics think the whole project can never work!

    It would be nice to see the pro-Europeans actually engage with a questioning of the pace of integration, but instead they just rely on playing the man and not the ball: quelle suprise!

  • Kathie

    I have always gone by the rule that when I see a question as a headline in the Daily Mail – such as Are Working Women Turning Our Children Into Aliens? – the answer is always going to be no. I have never found this to fail. Hence, without even reading your blog, I can tell you that no, by Dave’s friends we shall not know him. Glad to be of help.

  • botogol

    Sarkozy is being brave enough to stand up for human principles of decency, respect and equality. Perhaps he has a “basic belief in the equality of opportunity”. You don’t get equality of opportunity from behind a burkha. Discuss.

  • Alex

    “Some of you seemed a little shocked yesterday by my view that having Old Etonians (or Etonions as I typoed them) as PM, Speaker and London Mayor would not be a good thing. The reason I am on the left of politics is a basic belief in equality of opportunity. Eton sits at the top of a self-perpetuating system of privilege that acts as a barrier to that. Discuss.”

    Where they went to school at the age of 11 or 13 (almost certainly selected by their parents) is a very poor parameter for making a decision about a 67 year old. If that person had shown themselves to be an arrogant, aloof bully then you ight have a point, which in this particular instanc was not the case. If there is a “self-perpetuating system of privilege” in this country, that derives from wealth, but since the post of Speaker is by election and not auction, such considerations do not apply.

    The fact that you objected to this particular old Etonian, who was in fact one of the poll tax rebels in the Thatcher government, shows that you (and I suspect, many MP’s) have allowed petty prejudices to cloud your judgement.

    If we all behaved the same way rather than recognising people for their talents, your Cambridge degree would have put you in the gutter.

  • Mark \’Elvis\’ Wright

    Class is less easy to define these days. I don’t think anybody really cares where somebody is schooled, what their parents do for a living, or how much land their family own. In this target driven world, the electorate are interested in results and how those results will affect them.

    I don’t consider the Etonian issue to be of great relevance to our modern politics. If Labour were to focus on this issue it would be to their detriment at the polling booth. Edward Timpson’s election in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election demonstrated that campaigning on grounds of class is a turn off for the electorate.

    Eton may well sit at the top of the tree when it comes to systems of privilege but show me a group of people who don’t pull a few strings for their mates if they can? Whilst some opportunities are undeniably more forthcoming if you are from a certain school or family it is worth noting that to NOT be a part of that circle is no longer the barrier that it once was.

    Our society has changed and diversified to such a degree that it is simply no longer possible to run our country as a mirror image of an old boys public school. And lest we forget, all the people mentioned in AC’s blog have been elected and not selected.

    Since 1997 we’ve seen a move away from the ‘old school’ in all areas of our society. Regional accents, once unheard of on national BBC, are now common and, perhaps more important, unremarkable. Our government is now peppered with people from all backgrounds. In every aspect of our society the diversity of this country is better represented.

    Could it improve? Sure.

    But if we are to enter a period where former public schoolboys are to once again take the top jobs for a while we should defeat them on the arguments and nothing else. In striving for greater equality Labour must be careful not to fall back on the short-hand class-war dogmas of the past.

    Maybe we should devise a catchy phrase in order to remind ourselves?

    We could paraphrase a former political titan whose name escapes me at present, “We don’t do class.”

    Sounds good to me.

  • ollie

    “Well I suppose it worked for Tony Blair: George Bush, Berlusconi, you.”

    Lol – nicely put. It is a bit rich, isn’t it, a guy like Campbell calling other people “extremists”, and “privileged”. Ho ho ho.

    “Equality of opportunity” is the most devalued slogan in politics – it simply has no meaning, unless you believe in more and more state provision. The results of the ever-increasing state teat is there for all of us to see – a country with no money – and by the way, INCREASES inequality.

    I say this to all of the so-called Lefties I ever meet – GROW UP!!

  • Craig, Oxfordshire

    Yes – by Dave’s friends we will know him. It isn’t just Hannan.

    Cameron is a dangeroous, dangerous man for Britain. His stance towards the EU is a barely-concealed Howard + Hague-ism. Dan Hannan is a joke – the Right feted him after that 6th-form-level insult-a-thon he threw at Brown in the EU parliament but then backtracked furiously after his hilarious attack on the NHS on the Hannity show. Lest we forget, it wasn’t that long ago either that little Georgie Osbourne was pronouncing his considered support for John McCain, claiming he was the only right man to lead America.

    Our diplomatic grip on the World looks much, much weaker under Cameron. It’s one of the few things we can still lay claim to – we punch way above our weight internationally because up to this point we’ve understood international politics.

    Cameron is determined to lose all that in his populist and amateurish drive towards isolationism.

    But guess what – not one media outlet seems to want to push him on any of this – preferring to concentrate on the extremes of the debate and the loons in the new EU grouping. That’s interesting to a point – but no-one outside UKIP really cares.

    Alastair – I’d give Cameron 5 minutes in a televised debate with you before he did his red-neck + red-face thing; avoiding the question and getting jolly annoyed with you because he couldn’t answer a single question.

    Go on – challenge him!

  • Lou Rossati

    As a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, the entire concept of women covering their heads/faces is anathema to me, when the root of it is religious mysogeny.

    On the other hand, I also believe that all women (and men, of course) should be free to choose their belief system and their mode of dress (public decency notwithstanding!). I do know Muslim women who quite categorically state that it is THEIR choice to wear a veil and they do not feel forced into to it by male family members or peer pressure.

    I understand those who argue that if a non-Muslim woman went to a strict Muslim country such as Iran, she would be forced to cover her head. Therefore, when Muslims move to the UK, they should follow our cultural norms. However, there are many UK-born Muslim women who choose to cover themselves – so does that make it a ‘cultural norm’? And where does that argument stop? Hassidic Jews? Catholic nuns? Buddhist monks?

    Perhaps the answer is that, in a country whose entire history is based on absorbing people from different cultures, we should all just mind our own business and let Muslims live their lives in peace and merely expect them to offer the same courtesy.

  • christine higginbottom

    Dear Alastair,

    My son, Peter has just telephoned me to say a package has arrived at his day centre (New Directions), in Blackpool.

    It is your gift to the centres Summer Fayre, and I have had tears of joy in knowing you have recognised all the members and staff there.

    Thank you very much indeed.

    Our labour MP, Gordon Marsden will be meeting with Blackpool Council soon on our behalf, and we hope our day centre will be saved.

    Thank you so much, Christine.

  • Joanne Sheppard

    Veils: whenever I hear someone talking about the Muslim veil as a tool of oppression and destroyer of women’s rights, my point would always be that forcing a woman NOT to wear a veil if she wants to is just as oppressive and just as much an attack on women’s rights as forcing them to cover their faces for religious reasons.

    If Sarkozy wants to ban Muslim veils, does that mean he’s also going to ban all other items of clothing that cover a large part of one’s face or conceal one’s identity? I’m just considering the many times I’ve gone out wearing (to conceal a hangover or a bad hair day or to shield my ludicrously pale complexion from midday sun) a cap and a huge pair of black sunglasses, leaving very little of my face exposed. I’m guessing Sarkozy doesn’t object to this, so I can only conclude that his objections to the veil hinge around a) his own Islamophobia or b) his suspicions that veiled women are being *forced* to cover their heads or faces. If it’s A, then it’s utterly unacceptable, if it’s B, then it’s an ignorant generalisation.

  • Joanne Sheppard

    @Lou Rossati

    Excellent points, and well made.

    My argument to anyone who remarks that if European non-Muslim women are expected to follow Iran’s cultural norms by covering their heads, Muslim women should expect to follow our cultural norms by abandoning the veil is this: by forcing someone to adopt a particular style of dress, we are in no way following a European cultural norm. It’s a cultural norm in most of Europe for people to wear whatever they bloody well like. By removing the freedom of women to dress as they please, we would have more in common with Iran than we would with Europe.

  • James

    Ah, and we agree, on the old Etonianism, and on the relative significance of the new Euro-grouping. Unusual..

  • Em

    You finally mentioned Muslim women. SQUEE!

    Sarkozy is 100% right on the burka. Western feminists should step up to the plate on this one instead of indulging in Western guilt-ridden relativism. All this talk of “choice” amounts to a moral and ideological vacuum. How much “choice” of thought does a slave has?

    Interestingly enough, before the ban on veils in French schools, a secret poll revealed that 75% of girls who wore the veil at school would have preferred not to wear it.

    In social contexts, it isn’t difficult to imagine that a woman feeling her culture is under siege or that her form of dress is contentious, that she would consciously or unconsciously believe that she has made a choice. Defensiveness is a natural psychological reaction. That being said, hijabs and burkas are worlds away from one another and Sarkozy was talking about burkas.

    In Canada, First Nations sometimes make demands on legislatures for certain laws to be passed or abolished, actions which are simultaneously denounced by women within those communities. Our colonial past does not, our mistakes at home and abroad do not relieve us of responsibility. Au contraire. the difficulty of the task, its labyrinthine moral traps should not deter us. This is the world we live in and we must face it.

    Anyway, I’ve only ever seen one woman wearing a burka in Toronto on the subway I was standing in front of her husband and gave him the stare of death for a the entire subway ride, a good ten minutes. The man didn’t what to do with himself. Did that help his assimilation, no? For ten minutes though, he stood in front of a woman who wasn’t sacred of him and he didn’t like that one bit.

    Anybody who will contend that burka isn’t designed to eradicate a woman’s identity thinks the rest of us are fools.

  • Katharine T.

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    Pretty much sums it up.

  • CPW

    “equality of opportunity” is tantamount to giving the lame and crippled a shot at the 100m at the Olympics. They still come last, you unthinking drivel monger.

    And railing at public schools while avowing such a belief is tantamount to baulking at the cracker because you were the last to cream it.

  • william beeby

    I was against the Iraq war at the time and still am.It has caused me , or was the first thing anyway, to move away from New Labour.I think it is now essential that the long promised enquiry should be held in public as much as is possible and under oath.It is historically important and this bad episode in our past will not go away and will be detrimental to our interests for years to come.

    Tony Blair is abviuosly not relishing the prospect but so be it, that is democracy and accountability.He would not listen at the time and we should know why.Bush and Blair have now gone but the damage lives on and will take years to put right, so we need to know the whole truth.Lib Dems have been good on this issue.

  • Helen Wickens

    People should have freedom of choice to dress and wear what they like, it’s like prescribing everyone to wear bikinis. It’s irritating, ridiculous and shows lack of respect and racism in my view. The world is increasingly shallow and image-obsessed already, and this is another example of people misunderstanding that a person’s value lies in the humanity and morals and not in the bloody clothes on their back for goodness sake!

  • gary Enefer

    David Cameron’s unveiling of the ‘Conservative and Reformists’ groupings
    smacks of breakaway Fascism?

    ‘ The European Union (EU) is a union of twenty-seven independent states based on the European Communities and founded to enhance political,economic and social co-operation.'(source EU).

    The eight breakaway countries do include the Polish’ anti gay’ Law and Justice Party.

    Why can’t the 27 countries stick to the plan and unite?

    Angela Merkel ,the German Conservative Chancellor, is the world’s leading centre right figure and is heading for a smooth re-election in the Autumn .She disagrees with David Cameron’s move,especially as he was discussing ” joint EU ventures” with her this Spring. I hope Ms Merkel is right when she warned the eight countries could find themselves ”marginalised”.

  • Jane A

    The most interesting thing I read about Bercow today was that his wife is a Labour supporter.

    Re Dave and Europe (where he probably has a few houses he neglected to count), I think this factionalism shows up the inherent risk in him gaining power. He isn’t a statesman. He isn’t robust, and he doesn’t have the gravitas to punch his weight in amongst the EU leaders.

    The fact that he has probably alienated a bunch of them already with his bijou Latvian Appreciation Society doesn’t bode well.

  • Judith Gardiner

    With regard to the Burka – I’m sure well meaning liberals in the 19th and early 20th century were saying similar things about Chinese footbinding – its their choice, why should we comment on soneone else’s culture, women should be able to wear that they want and do what they like with their own bodies yadda yadda. To my mind its the same issue about hobbling and limiting women’s ability to engage with the world and about imposing male views of the dangers of their sexuality – which doesn’t say much for men either. I’m also concerned about the impact of this creeping fundamentalism on other women in the public space – not just Muslim girls who may not wish to spend their lives in sacks, but other women in areas like mine in Tower Hamlets who it is assumed are fair game for sexist comments and treatment and worse because they do not fit the prescribed model of female submission or dare to exercise political leadership. I speak as one who knows…. Would you want your daughter to restrict herself in this way?

  • KJ O

    I too am on the left of politics and too believe in equality of opportunity. Obviously Eton is a barrier to that, but it’s too lazy to therefore be anti-etonions, rather than anti the establishment. As my mum used to say when I swore – it isn’t worthy of someone of your intellect