Conservatives' insular agenda risks setting little Britain on path to irrelevance

Kevin Rafferty says newly elected government must resist the calls for disengagement in Europe

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 12:26pm

The sight of a Spitfire flanked by two Hurricane fighters flying low over London this week undoubtedly stirred hearts and led to the shedding of more than a few tears at the bittersweet memories of victory over the Nazi menace 70 years ago.

But rather than wallow or weep over the past, it would be better to learn the lessons and work to secure a better future. Looking at political and economic developments over the past weeks, it is hard to be optimistic for the world.

Britain's war leader Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the rest, a view surely vindicated by the UK general election.

Britain's overwhelmingly Conservative press crowed that David Cameron had come home with a resounding victory over the opposition parties, pundits and pollsters alike, as his party won an overall majority of 331 in the 650-seat Parliament.

The winning Conservatives gained the votes of just 36.9 per cent of the 66.1 per cent of the eligible voters who turned out. The support of some 24 per cent of the 46.5 million registered voters is hardly a landslide of popular support for Cameron.

In Scotland, the nationalists won a landslide with 56 of the 59 seats, although they achieved only 4.7 per cent of the UK popular vote, and only 50 per cent of Scotland's popular vote, such is the distortion of the British first-past-the-post system in a multiparty set-up.

Immediately after victory, Cameron promised that he would govern as "a party of one nation". Cock-a-hoop Conservatives are celebrating their "mandate", including renegotiating the UK's membership in the European Union.

One problem is that Cameron risks being driven by right-wing "Little England" members in Parliament.

A sign of the times is that the new government is showing its antipathy towards European Union obligations. Home Secretary Theresa May ruled out Britain taking a quota of migrant refugees rescued from the Mediterranean, claiming that such a scheme would only encourage more to flee.

The new government has hinted that its referendum on EU membership may be brought forward to next year.

Former Times journalist Michael Gove, who is justice secretary, is preparing to repeal the Human Rights Act, which enshrines Britain's acceptance of the European Convention of Human Rights, which itself reflects the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The European convention falls under the Council of Europe, a 47-nation body also including Russia.

Conservatives object to European Johnnies, and particularly Jeans, Johans and Juanitas, pushing Brits around and European judges telling them what they can do in their own country. Some of them claim that the Human Rights Act is a "villains' charter", giving too many rights to criminals.

But not so fast: scrapping the act might be illegal and would be ineffective without pulling out of the European convention. The Scottish Nationalists will fight fiercely both for human rights and for remaining in the EU, so Cameron might have to choose between presiding over a united kingdom or being premier of little England.

This pell-mell Conservative agenda assumes that the UK is united and alone in the world to do what it likes, a classic case of how to lose friends and alienate people. Important allies like Germany are increasingly resentful of British attitudes: they want the UK in the EU, but not at any price.

Sensible Conservatives would seek alliances with other leaders suspicious of the march of Eurocracy and offer positive solutions to enhance national dignity within a globalising EU. Britain is a small country, but not one like oil-rich Norway or Switzerland - and those countries maintain EU privileges by being nice to Brussels, not by picking fights on every occasion.

That is why the sight of the Spitfire and Hurricanes over London brought tears to my eyes. Remember the myth of Britain's "finest hour" confronting the Nazis, a myth because there were many others, from India, Australia, the French resistance, plus generous pricey help from the US, supporting plucky Britain.

How did Britain become so lonely? By pursuing policies of disengagement with Europe in the 1930s, ignoring the Nazi threat and cutting defence spending, precisely the road map that the Conservatives are starting to follow in a much more perilous world.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood out against the trend of narrowing nationalism. Like other Western leaders, she shunned the parade of Russian military might to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. But, the next day, she went to Moscow to join Russian President Vladimir Putin in laying wreaths at the tomb of the unknown soldier in tribute to the victims of Nazism. She did not mince words in warning Putin of the dangers of Russian action in Ukraine.

It was a lesson of strong engagement that might be profitably studied in little insular countries, from the UK to Japan.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator