Monday, April 26, 2004

Aaah! The Murdoch Press!

William Ree-Mogg (aka Baron Rees-Mogg, editor of the Times from 1961-81) has contributed a fantastically superstitious opinion piece about Tony Blair's "historic" U-turn.

Is this "historic" in the sense that it has demonstrated once and for all that the British people shouldn't trust their government (following the Labour manifesto promise not to introduce university tuition fees and the promise for "Education, Education, Education", before introducing tuition fees and then top up fees, then mindlessly altering the A-level system to make those exams even more meaningless)?

No, instead Rees-Mogg claims that April 20th - the date the U-Turn on the Referendum on the European Constitution was announced - has and will have historic resonance thanks to other events that fell on that day in history.

The argument runs like this: Charles I was executed on 30th January; 30th January was the date Hitler came to power. "That is a sinister pair of events." The event Rees-Mogg comes up with for 20th April is the French declaration of war on Austria in 1792. His interpretation of this event is its most benign - that it marked a period of immense change for Europe and Britain that can still be felt to this day. Not, in other words, that 20th April 1792 marked 23 years of death and destruction, and is thus hardly a date to celebrate. Rees-Mogg also fails to note the most famous thing to happen on an April 20th - the birth of Adolf Hitler in 1889.

"Perhaps," Rees-Mogg argues, "some future British government will make April 20 a national holiday in honour of Tony Blair?s great U-turn. It could be called a National Day of Independence... The decision... has altogether changed British politics, European politics and the future shape of the European Union."

Yes, Blair's decision has ensured that Britain will lose, probably forever, its chance of leading Europe from its heart. It has ruined all the efforts made by everyone who has tried to involve the UK more closely over the last forty years. When the Referendum takes place, and the British Public vote to reject the Constitution, it will be taken by the Eurosceptics as a sign that the UK should withdraw even further. It will constantly be brought up as "proof" that Britain wants nothing to do with the rest of Europe. It will isolate us within our own continent, and push us ever closer to the rambling right-wing behemoth that is the United States. Great. Well done, Tony.

As frequently happens with the Eurosceptics, Rees-Mogg uses the tactic of deliberately misconstruing the aims of the pro-Europeans: "Tony Blair often talks about Britain being at the heart of Europe; a glance at the map shows that we are not, and never have been." Very clever. By the same logic, Gibraltar belongs to Spain and the Falklands should be renamed the Maldives and given to Argentina - something tells me that most Eurosceptics would not be too happy about that... (This argument also ignores the many centuries during which the English monarch also claimed the title "King/Queen of France", and during which England ruled large swathes of France, but logic and historical awareness is never as important as sweeping statements, let's face it.)

By Rees-Mogg's own superstitious attempt to attribute greater significance to coincidences of dates, April 20th is hardly a particularly auspicious or promising one for Europe. 1792 sees two decades of war; 1889 sees the birth of one of history's greatest murderers; 2004 sees Tony Blair announce a referendum on the European Constitution, effectively ruling out Britain from closer involvement, and thus ending the prime hope of those who originally planned the European Economic Community following the Second World War that Britain would play a major role.

Rees-Mogg blunders on, making sense in some regards (as should surely only be expected by a former editor of what was, during his tenure, still one of the most respected newspapers in the world) but allowing unadulterated xenophobia to taint the heart of his analysis: "everything in politics has a price. In this case the price is one that people such as myself are not only willing but eager to pay: it is the collapse of Mr Blair's whole European policy. The referendum cannot be won; therefore the constitution cannot be ratified; therefore the proposed Franco-German bureaucratic integration of Europe will be repudiated by the one power in Europe strong enough to do so."

For "Franco-German bureaucratic integration of Europe", read "integration of Europe". "Bureaucracy" is always considered an evil, but is a necessary part of any political organisation, and the EU is not nearly so bad when it comes to this as is often made out - certainly if one considers how bloated is the bureaucracy of Whitehall. These days, closer European integration is being called for more by the smaller nations - the big three of France, Germany and Britain all have their doubts. France and Germany certainly are highly sceptical about closer integration - hence their continued flaunting of various EU financial agreements.

But to acknowledge that Britain is actually largely in agreement with her most powerful immediate neighbours would be to reject the on-going Eurosceptic myth that the EU is a) a French ploy to get us back for all those times we beat them in wars and stuff ; b) a German attempt to rebuild either the Holy Roman Empire or the Hitler's Reich ; c) a Catholic conspiracy to undo the Church of England. All patently nonsense, but all still believed by a lot of otherwise very intelligent people.

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