Go to continental Europe and you’ll find that most people have a pretty good idea of what the British are about. The barriers of old have all but broken down. Whereas once a trip to our closest continental neighbour would have taken hours and a lot of waiting around at check-in, you can now be in Paris in the blink of an eyelid. The facility of movement across borders has torn apart our notion of geography and cable tv has given us access to cultures and languages that were once only the province of war films. This flattening out of cultural differences should be even more apparent in the world of politics, yet sometimes it feels as if Britain and the continent were drifting apart.
On Wednesday a British politician caused a storm after launching into a vicious tirade against the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuoy. Europe’s UKIP [United Kingdom Independence Party] leader Nigel Farage, a former city trader with a reputation for bullishness, pounced on the leader of the 27 European countries, saying he had “the charisma of a damp rag” and the appearance of a “low grade bank clerk.” As if buoyed up by his own verbal acrobatics, he proceeded to question Rompuoy’s authority saying that he came from a “non-country. “Who are you, he bellowed. I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you.”
The Punch and Judy of British politics is nothing new. Complaining about a bruised upper lip in the House of Commons is a bit like complaining that people keep grabbing your legs in a game of rugby. The rough and tumble of politics is part and parcel of the political process. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s achievements in the first few months of office were ridiculed by the leader of the Liberal Democrats. “The house has noticed the Prime Minster’s remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean,” said Vince Cable to the roars of laughter of the House of Commons. The culture is that you can give as good as you get, and the more personal the attack the better. Since politicians have made a choice to enter into the public domain, they should expect to live life under a magnifying glass. But the question remains as to how much the public actually need to know and whether this laboratorial vivisection is a sign of a flourishing democracy or a culture of bullying and intimidation.
Most British politicians when making their case in Europe are distinctly within the flourishing democracy camp and go one step further in believing that it is a feature on which they have monopoly. “Oh I know democracy is not popular with you lot,” retorted Farage when MEPs started to jeer at his criticism of Van Rompuoy. It is not the first time that a British politician has felt in a position to give his European counterparts a lesson on democracy. “I am a passionate pro-European,” declared Blair to the jeers and heckles of MEPs during a speech heralding the British rotating Presidency in 2005 . “I was wondering whether it would be a lively forum”, he continued – and finishing in condescending tone: “It’s called a democracy and long may it be so.” This particularly British stamp of confidence could be said to stem from the spectre of British imperialism and more recently with the “special relationship” with the US as demonstrated in the close ties between Tony Blair and George W Bush. This generational privileged status has given the UK carte blanche when it comes to negotiating on the world stage. The sparring match between Tony Blair and Jacques Chiric in 2002 on farm subsidies became a cause celebre of British power brokering to the irritation of the other members. Mr. Chirac accused the British Prime Minister of being “very rude” and said he had never been talked to like that in all his life, whilst Downing St. admitted a “vigorous exchange.”
The credit crunch and the collapse of the banking sector has however shuffled the pack. The success of the Anglo-Saxon free market model had always dealt British figures in industry and public office the best hand. Since Margaret Thatcher, politicians could parade as the architects of the rules which others could ignore at their own peril. Europe’s social model under both left and right wing governments had resulted in widespread unemployment and stagnation compared to Britain’s thriving economy led by the bankers. A culture of risk was declared forward looking and London was hailed as the financial centre of the world, ahead of Wall Street. Descartes’ “je pense, donc je suis” had long been replaced by the consumerist “I shop, therefore I am.” The wisdom of this free market system was only undermined when it started to crack at its very foundations. What was once viewed as French and German sour grapes now ironically held currency.
Farage’s attack on Rompuoy did hint at this British trait of patronizing its European cousins but it begs the question how much longer Britain can afford to be so direct. In fairness, it could be said that former metals trader Nigel Farage was only voicing what everyone else was thinking. Here is a man that very few had heard of outside of certain inner circles in Brussels, who was to be in charge of the wellbeing of some 500 million citizens. He is paid more than Obama and yet he appears to be largely unaccountable. What are this man’s strengths and weaknesses and is he the man to call in an emergency? He’s certainly not the man to stop traffic.
But in choosing such a leader, Europe made a clear statement of intent. Here was a consensus seeker who would attempt to bring harmony between the interests of the 27 member block, which could eventually extend to have a border with Iraq. A political heavyweight such as Tony Blair could only exacerbate tensions. This was not a choice about the cult of personality and this is where Farage has simply missed the point. Wanting the truth is one thing but bullying it out of someone is something different altogether. Whether this is a symptom of a clash of culture or simply the arrogant swagger of a delusional politician is hard to tell. But as well as asking deep and probing questions about Europe, Mr. Farage would do well to have a long look in the mirror and ask some hard questions about his own role in the world.