On 30th September 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew into Hendon Airport on return from his mission to forge an understanding with Hitler. Waving his now infamous piece of paper, he announced “peace for our time”.
History derides his effort nowadays: at the time, the reception was rapturous. People wanted peace.
The man who later emerged as this country’s great war leader, Winston Churchill, is often characterised as being against Chamberlain’s efforts, but that’s wrong. To be sure, he was against appeasement, spending much of the thirties demanding that the UK protect itself against the growing threat of Germany’s rearmament. But he was no warmonger: in 1954 when others complained about fruitless negotiations (“jawing”), he famously responded: “Better jaw-jaw than war-war”.
As it happens, in 1938 Chamberlain was consciously quoting Disraeli who, back in 1878, had similarly returned from the Congress of Berlin declaring that he had achieved “peace for our time”. For his time, perhaps he had: but we were at war with Germany by 1914.
Alas, peace-mongers and negotiators gain little credit: as David Cameron has found this past week. The PM lost a lot of sleep to meetings with his European counterparts, returning to the UK with a somewhat stage-managed and triumphalist announcement of the concessions he had gained at Brussels. Opponents greeted the achievement he claimed with derision. Six members of his cabinet promptly stabbed him in the back – or, rather, in the front – and vowed to campaign against him, before Boris Johnson finally and unimpressively ended his wobbling and also came out against.
So we face the prospect of the ruling Tory government tearing itself apart, at the same time as the Labour opposition is also ready to implode. That can’t be good for our democracy. This isn’t a piece about whether Britain should or shouldn’t remain in the EU: it’s more about human, political and collective behaviour.
It’s always easier to sound and look tough if you are expressing the stroppy or antagonistic view. Take Donald Trump, a candidate for the US presidency so extreme that Sarah Palin appears sane and measured by contrast. For the Democrats, the quieter, more thoughtful approach of Hilary Clinton is at risk of being eclipsed by the more vociferous self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Saunders.
The UK faces a similar dilemma. Tony Blair gained his 1997 landslide by seizing the political centre-ground. Cameron’s two administrations have won by re-colonising that middle territory. As Blair fought his critics on the left, Cameron is constantly fighting off carping from the right of his party.
Has Cameron done a Chamberlain? Will we look back after the referendum, let alone years hence, and deride the deal he brokered in Brussels last weekend? Has he, as his opponents suggest, sold us down the river and achieved next to nothing for the UK, merely some vague promises?
Or was it real diplomacy and statesmanship?
I am by nature a conciliator, preferring consensus to conflict. Negotiation isn’t appeasement or betrayal. The civilised way to behave, it calls for incomparably more persistence and determination than does the aggressive roar of rejection. The hard-line approach is more generally, though not exclusively, a male one, involving a fair bit of macho posturing.
The voice of intransigence and defiance is invariably the louder: testosterone-fuelled, it sounds tough and stimulates stronger media headlines. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Cameron’s six rebellious ministers, among the least likeable of his cabinet, find themselves perforce lining up alongside Nigel Farage and George Galloway – and now Boris.
In other words, bullies bluster, while the courageous compromise.
|Sovereignty: real issue or mere smokescreen?
I fear the bullies will dominate as politicians on both sides of the argument invent scare-stories to promote their view. There is a danger for this country if the referendum campaign doesn’t move beyond sound-bites about “sovereignty” and “Brussels red tape” to reasoned debate. It’s just too easy to portray those who occupy the middle ground, who are prepared to negotiate, compromise and moderate their demands as wishy-washy and ineffectual.
Yet, without an intelligent debate, we may end by casting a vote that we’ll regret for decades.