Looking Back In Anger – Or Forward In Hope?

It is the curse of the Conservative Party that they are condemned to fight for ideas just as they become indefensible. By always looking back, they are rarely able to claim the credit for bold new ideas, or for leading the country to a new dawn.

Consider Europe. Treaties signed by Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major have linked our future inextricably with Europe – and a good thing too, I would say. But instead of celebrating these achievements, the Tories have no choice but to rant and rail against Europe, isolating themselves and looking rather foolish.

The recent phoney beef war illustrated the Tories’ ‘Look Back in Anger’ mentality beautifully. Compare the facts with Tory fiction:

Since the world-wide ban on British beef was lifted on 1st August this year, 18 governments have agreed to lift the ban on British beef. This includes 13 of our 15 European partners. Two EU countries have not lifted the ban – France and Germany. And we can take them to the European Court of Justice to enforce our rights.

Just in case you’re wondering, the other five countries which have accepted British beef are Cyprus, Mauritius, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. Perhaps you’d like to hazard a guess as to how much difference this will make to our farmers. The reality is that EU countries make up over 90% of our traditional beef market.

Where would we be if we followed Mr Hague and his friends? They would like us out of the EU altogether; they want us to return to the good old days, when our major trading partners were our Commonwealth allies and other English-speaking nations. So let’s look at the facts: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, America, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Singapore all still ban our beef. And what legal remedy do we have against them? None.

Sensible people would say that our ability to take the French (and Germans) to Court if they flout European rules is a useful weapon to have. Mr Hague, however, thinks the European Court is too strong, and would like to weaken it.

At the European Elections William Hague and his party made much of their proposals for a “more flexible” European Union featuring a pick-and-mix approach to Brussels regulations. So he thinks France should be able to ban British beef legally. I wonder what our farmers would make of that proposal?

Mr Hague’s solution to the beef issue, of course, is an illegal ban on French beef entering Britain. The costs of such action against other EU states have been highlighted recently by a House of Lords ruling that Britain must pay £80 million compensation to (mostly Spanish) fishing companies who lost out because of an Act of Parliament passed by the Conservatives in the 1980s which was in breach of European law. The Merchant Shipping Act 1988 was a crass attempt to deal with “quota-hopping” fishermen from overseas, based on knee-jerk anti-European sentiment rather than any considered long-term thinking. Any illegal ban on French meat would open us up to similar claims. There is, sadly, no evidence that the Conservatives have learned anything from their mistakes in the past.

The same curse afflicts the local Tories here in Rayleigh. Just as the rest of the world is waking up to the fact that the day of the car is over, our Conservative councillors have taken to championing the internal combustion engine as if it had just been invented. Rayleigh’s town centre was gradually being choked by an ever-increasing number of cars. Liberal Democrat councillors at Town, District and County level got together and did something about it. We realised that we could not just carry on as before. Not everyone approves of all we have done. But whenever you change things, whatever you change, there will always be people who dislike the new landscape, the different ideas, the changed way of doing things. It is to these people that the Tories look for their natural support.

But the world is changing. Resisting closer links with Europe is like resisting the tides – and Canute was wise enough to know that even a King could not do that. Pretending that Rayleigh will only survive if we encourage more and more cars to crowd into the town centre is just as daft.

Rayleigh is gradually recovering from the years of battering it received at the hands of a succession of Conservative governments who claimed to support small businesses, but who piled on red-tape and taxes. The renewal of the Town Centre will contribute to that recovery, and Liberal Democrats are proud of their achievement.

If the curse of the Tories is that they are condemned to fight old battles rather than new, perhaps it is the curse of the Liberal Democrats always to be thinking further ahead than most people can be bothered to look, and being prepared to grasp nettles before they choke us all to death.