Monday, 1 September 2014

Et tu, Douglas? The noble art of back stabbing

The morning of March the 15th 44BC, was much like any other spring day in Rome. The sun shone brightly on the cobbled streets and red topped roofs of the city and as gladiators practised and parried inside the great Colosseum and the Vestal Virgins went about their nonsense, few could have suspected that a violent act of tyrannicide would soon play out in the capital.

Since being named "Dictator Perpetuo", Julius Caesar had increasingly lost touch with the concerns of the common slaves and citizens of his great Empire and had taken to strutting about the place with new chum, the "Vince Cable like", Lucius Cornelius Balbus. Much disliked by the General's core supporters, Balbus was from a different party of knights altogether who had, up until this point, had very little influence or power in Rome. 

The new coalition had alienated most of Caesar's former allies and while the great man had got away with crossing the Rubicon, many remained furious that he had crossed it in the first place.

Just after lunch, that fateful day, Caesar decided to take in a spot of Gladiatorial combat at the Theatre of Pompey but before he even had a chance to buy his popcorn, he was stabbed repeatedly by his own back-benchers and with a cry of "Ista quidem vis est?" breathed his last. Shakespeare later imagined that the final assailant in this bloodied assault was his 'close friend' Brutus, at the sight of whom Caesar reportedly enquired: "Et tu, Brute?"

Some two thousand years later, in the streets of Frinton and Clacton a latter day insurrection of possibly far greater consequence is afoot. Douglas Carswell, may carry a leaflet where Marcus Junius Brutus carried a knife, but his endeavour is no less thankless or noble for it. Douglas is, as so many others have already pointed out, a man of considerable honour and charm; possessed of a great intellect, a subtle wit and an enormous sense of fun, he has a habit of roaring with laughter at himself and is famously one of the most 'ordinary' people at Westminster. Some have wrongly labelled him weird and eccentric; from my perspective he is anything but. One doubts that the good people of Frinton and Clacton could find a man more worthy of representing them.  

Liked and admired across the political spectrum, Douglas follows in the great tradition of enigmatic Eurosceptics such as Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin or John Redwood. Normal men all, who for years have been warning about the dangers of the EU. 

You are no doubt aware, gentle reader, that I too have my doubts about Europe. Like many Englishmen, I like my bananas bent, my rulers more regal and my laws less metric than the EU allows and have dedicated my political life to preserving the integrity and charm of this delicate isle. I do however feel that this end can best be achieved by sitting on the government benches and choosing one's moment to whisper in the PM's ear, rather than skulking about the place with a lot of oddballs.

Douglas has stuck his neck out. He has ripped the toga of David's prevarication asunder and with Farage at his elbow, has plunged a dagger of intent into the heart of the coalition. Gruesome analogies aside, that is a rather noble thing to have done. 

There are some who suggest that Douglas, like Brutus before him, has miscalculated and that a swift and early victory in the by-election will be followed by pitiful humiliation at the general election. I am not one of them. Few politician rise above the fray of petty party politics and if anyone in the current crop can it is Douglas Carswell (and possibly "Rory" Stewart). I have little doubt that he will regain his seat in the short term.

Whether UKIP itself will be able to achieve momentum beyond a seaside town packed full of ill educated crackpots, yahoos and social misfits remains to be seen.

After Caesar's death, Brutus fled eastwards towards Macedonia. There his forces clashed with the avenging armies of Octavian and Mark Antony. Early triumph was followed swiftly by defeat at the Second Battle of Philippi. Realising that he had spent the latter part of his life on a fool's errand Brutus committed suicide. 

Plutarch tells us that his friend Antony covered the dead Senator's body in a purple garment as a sign of respect. His legacy rests on a single act of regicide and a throwaway line in an Elizabethan play. His career had peaked at just 43. 

Good luck Douglas. And a very happy 44th birthday in May.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Every creed has its "Cuckoo Faction": why UKIP are 'the new SDP'

All the great faiths (and political movements are in essence Godless faiths) have schisms from time to time.

In 1054 the medieval world was rent asunder when the Chalcedonian Church was hewn into the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic traditions over the urgent question as to whether the Eucharist bread should be leaven or not. While both sides could agree on the central tenets of Christianity, they could meet no accommodation on the issue of whether one's communion loaf should be risen or flat and the two factions split, never to be reconciled again. 

In the early 1980s, the Labour party leader Michael Foot, a Wadham man to his fingertips, attempted to turn his already somewhat Maoist party into something that would have made Trotsky blush. His election manifesto, which became known as "the longest suicide note in history", demanded (among other things) the re-nationalisation of the butter industry, the sale of the navy to the Russians, the construction of a Soviet theme park at Buckingham Palace and the abolition of the blue and white themes on the Union Jack. 

Foot's foolish and ill-timed document did not chime well with the electorate and drove the four remaining sensible MPs in his party to form "The SDP" whose bright moment in the sun I shall return to in a moment.

While one might shy from comparing UKIP to the Eastern Orthodox Church of the mid-eleventh century and the eminently likeable Mr Farage to the tiresome 'Mr' Foot, the schism which has occurred in The Conservative Movement is very much in the grand tradition of such estrangements. Here the question is not one of 'baked dough' or 'red flags', but far more important questions such as: "should Brussels be allowed to dictate the size of our sprouts?" Or "Should our "civil liberties" drive on the left (as they always have done) or the 'human right' (as the legal oafs in Strasbourg would wish us to do)". 

One does not need to be Archimedes of Syracuse to work out that the "Kippers" are in essence a refugee wing of the Tory party and specifically the "Redwood wing" of John Major's administration ca. 1996. There is something rather noble about these people and one is often put in mind of the anti-appeasers of the 1930s, who saw the tide turning in favour of Nazi Germany and boldly decided to make a stand. It is my conviction that we should seek not to drive them from the high altar of Tory Euroscepticism, but accommodate them and where our interests meet perhaps even indulge them.

Indeed one might argue that Nigel Farage's party is in many ways a right wing equivalent of the 1980s SDP. Just as Labour and the Liberals were forced to rethink who they were by what was then considered to be a fresh and unstoppable movement, so UKIP are now making us rethink our party and what we stand for. Do we wish to push forward into Europe and put ourselves at the centre of that strange, mystifying, dark and perilous continent? Or do we wish to pull back, disconnect and have nothing more to do with those garlic munching buffoons? 

In recent weeks the media has sought to focus on the 'loons', 'racists' and 'nutters' in UKIP; the sort of slightly misguided chumps who suggest that 'Sharia Law' is about to be introduced in our primary schools or that the EU is run by a vast Lizard army. And yes of course anyone who has met or spoken to "Kippers" will be very much aware that such views are widely held across all sections of the party, but to suggest that tiresome elements are exclusive to UKIP would be utter nonsense. Every creed has its cuckoo faction. One needs only think of the increasingly unhinged "Owen" Jones. Or the "Vince" Cable wing of the Liberal Democrats. Or the SNP - which like a Vulcan bomber seems increasingly to be 'all wing'.

In the 1987 election the SDP failed to live up to their early promise and merged into the Liberal Democrat and "New Labour" movements. David Owen's party had served its purpose, run its course and had its day. It is quite possible that a similar fate awaits UKIP at the General Election next year. In the meantime Mr Farage has tapped into a large reservoir of Conservative discontent. We would do well to drink from it occasionally, or our temporary Conservative schism might end in an Avignon Papacy.

And that would  be a disaster.