Cameron’s ransom

What the row about the Conservatives’ European allies reveals about their party

Illustration by Steve O’Brien

The Economist | Oct 29th 2009

THE lands between the Baltic and Black seas endured a 20th century of almost unimaginable horror: it brought war, genocide, famine, invasion, occupation, fascism, communism, economic turmoil and corruption. The politics and parties that emerged have been warped and confused by that awful past. They cannot fairly be judged by the standards of long-established democracies. But that does not mean, as Britain’s Conservatives almost seem to think, that they cannot be judged at all.

Earlier this year, David Cameron fulfilled a pledge to pull his Conservative members of the European Parliament out of the European People’s Party (EPP), the block to which they formerly belonged. Instead the Tory MEPs now form the core of a cobbled-together new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). One of their new partners is a mainstream centre-right party from the Czech Republic. But some of the others are less respectable. They include the Law and Justice Party of Poland, and in particular Michal Kaminski, a controversial MEP who has made remarks about homosexuals, and about a wartime massacre of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne (a town he once represented in the Polish parliament), which many find alarming.

Another new ally (though it has only one MEP) is “For Fatherland and Freedom”, a nationalist party from Latvia. Some of its members support and attend an annual parade that honours those who, during the second world war, served in the two Latvian divisions of the Waffen-SS. There are other dubious, if less incendiary, members of the new group too.

Responding to the comment and criticism that this alliance has provoked, the Tories have offered several rebuttals. One is that Mr Kaminski and the Latvians have been grossly and intentionally misrepresented. Latvia’s wartime history, they say, and that of its SS divisions, is complex; the parades in question commemorate resistance to the Soviets rather than Nazism. But these events are, at the least, misguided and offensive, and it is painful to see squirming senior Tories trying to argue otherwise. As for Mr Kaminski, he now disavows, denies or attempts to finesse many of the previous actions and comments attributed to him. But even his denials contain suspicious self-contradictions, as well as disturbing moral distinctions (between Polish murderers and Nazi ones) and equations (between pogroms and some Jews’ alleged collaboration with the Soviets). At best he is a distastefully cynical demagogue. True, there are viler and more extreme politicians in both these countries. That is scant consolation.

Another Tory riposte is that weirdos and eccentrics can also be found in other European blocks, all of which are necessarily broad and eclectic coalitions. Perhaps; but the ECR is a group that the Tories have themselves convened and control—and of which, with their support, Mr Kaminski is now head. A third plea is that it is the job of politics and politicians to coax and moderate people such as Mr Kaminski through incentives and persuasion. True again; but there must be a limit to the application of that argument—and some of these new partners lie on the wrong side of it.

None of these justifications takes account of the institutional, as opposed to reputational, cost of these new friendships. The Tories have renounced the parties of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel (both in the EPP) in favour of a marginal, weak and incoherent new caucus. Their prospects of influencing European deliberations, on matters that they care about such as hedge-fund regulation, have dwindled. They have alienated and baffled other European conservatives. By abdicating the centre of European politics for the fringe, the Tories have convinced many in Europe that they can legitimately be ignored.

There is, however, one explanation for the manoeuvre, offered in private by some close to Mr Cameron, that makes a bit of sense. Unfortunately, while it helps to rationalise his approach to the European Parliament, it also suggests a much bigger worry.

Dave’s dangerous gambit

Mr Cameron made his pledge to pull out of the EPP during his bid for the Tory leadership in 2005. He needed to placate the wing of his party that still sees Europe as a Franco-German federalist conspiracy, and the EPP as part of it. The defence is that by making the pledge and, eventually, by keeping it he convinced his party not only to make him its leader, but also to swallow the reforms and reversals he subsequently imposed. Without the pledge, this case runs, and the faith and loyalty it bought on the Tory right, Mr Cameron would have found it much tougher to win support for his stance on the NHS and civil partnerships, for his refusal to promise tax cuts or for his changes to the way the Tories select their parliamentary candidates. In other words, this one Eurosceptic policy enabled him to pursue others that are liberal and sensible. It allowed him to mould the party into the one that, in a way that would once have seemed improbable, stood to applaud the attack on poverty in his conference speech.

Seeing the move as a ransom paid to his party may be the best excuse for the moral compromises and apparent political myopia it involved. The switch and the credit it earned may even make it easier for Mr Cameron to take a relatively sane position on the Lisbon treaty if, as expected, it goes into force soon. But if this interpretation—charitable but plausible—mitigates the foolishness of Mr Cameron’s past decisions, it also raises an awkward question about his future.

It is this: if this shoddy, shaming alliance is the price he was obliged to pay his party for the changes needed to make it seem modern and compassionate, what sort of party is it that Mr Cameron leads? What else will its members demand, and what else—when his popularity and authority wane—will he be obliged to give them, after he becomes prime minister?

Category: Bagehot columns on politics