The raucous Europhobic Tory press and their pitch to mould the new conservatismby John Lloyd / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
A poll commissioned by the French Geopolitique institute earlier this month showed that roughly 60 per cent of French voters did not want to switch from the franc to the euro-or indeed any other currency. This was reported as being a shock for the country’s main political parties, all of which support monetary union. (These parties had commissioned their own polls, showing that their supporters, or the citizenry, were pleased to exchange the franc fort for the euro fort.)
The Geopolitique poll revealed that French sentiments on European matters are closer to those of the British than we might think, given the respective positions of the two countries’ political elites. Yet not only does the French president feel free to take a strongly communautaire position; the French media feel free to ignore the evidence of their audience’s scepticism in favour of an almost uniformly pro-integrationist discourse.
This must be remembered when we consider the campaign presently being run by right wing newspapers in Britain against the EU. They are fighting dirty: in a de haut en bas piece in the Sunday Times (12th May), Robert Harris said that there was “something rather ugly here.” Indeed there is. The Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun have in Richard Littlejohn, Peter Hitchens and Trevor Kavanagh commentators who are professionally (and at least in the first two cases personally) dedicated to a journalism of outrage, hyperbole and abuse. This, mixed with their journalistic skill and experience, produces a high octane prose of great power. All three journalists cut their teeth as tabloid labour reporters-a rough trade in the 1970s and 1980s, which honed their talent for confrontation and taught them lessons in the often brutish encounters with trade union officials and members.
Their targets are now across the channel. These people can occasionally be heard on the Today programme, expressing puzzlement as to why they should be savaged so by the British papers. Or they can be found in nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street, disgracefully refusing to join in the chorus of hop off froggy which swells from the miasmic swamps along the Thames where these newspapers are housed. When the Daily Express can-casually-call Helmut Kohl a fat old hypocrite, it becomes clear that any instinct grounded in fairness, or balance, or even simple good manners, no longer operates. We are in a fantasy euro-game of Dungeons and Dragons.
But these newspapers are probably playing it on a solid board. There is little reason to believe that European issues are popular in Britain; and none to believe that a poll on swapping sterling for the euro would turn out to be more in the euro’s favour than that taken by Geopolitique. British tabloids did not become the most demotic and popular national press in the world by consistently mistaking the views of their readers; none the less, they are far from merely reflecting their views either: they are also in the business of shaping and aggravating them.
On Europe, this is likely to continue. The Times and the Daily Telegraph intone a more fastidious descant-but it is not seriously out of tune with the dominant chords being struck by their brassier sisters. The coalition between a right wing press seeking a cause for new conservatism and Conservative MPs with soaring ambition is producing a media platform for those who will contend the Conservative party leadership if the next election ends in defeat.
This is undoubtedly a falling off-in intellectual terms-from the media preparation for Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to the premiership. Then, the ground for neo-liberal economics was prepared by commentators such as Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times and Peter Jay in The Times. While the rougher trade was handled by labour correspondents reporting a piling of rubbish on the pavements and of bodies in the morgues, they were at least reporting (even if also exaggerating) real events. Now, we have the monster Europe heaving its distended body on to the virgin Britannia-an immorality play to which scenes can be added at will and on the merest sliver of a fact, or none at all.
It is a curious paradox: the tabloids are right to identify the issue of European integration as an unpopular one-even if they do it in a manner which is revolting. It is revolting because of the gross- ness of their insults and the mendacity of much of what they write; yet the vehemence of their language betrays an agenda other than merely circulation boosting at the expense of Frenchy the Frog or Heinrich the Hun.
They wish to create, and thus imprison, a new Tory party. They are looking for a political vehicle which would be hostile to the huge changes involved in further European integration while remaining faithful to traditional political and social institutions. Sooner or later, this right wing press will reach the same position as that of Pat Buchanan in the US (although it will be tempered by the constraints of a nation more dependent on foreign trade and investment than the US). The realignment of British politics will thus take place on ground mapped out by the enterprising, foul-mouthed, gross and popular British tabloids.