So much fuss for a foodstuff we have been eating less and less of for the last decade. The Sunday roast, over-priced, badly reared and with a tendency to attract food scandals, has become a rarity in British homes. Few of us go "out for a roast" the way we pop out for an Italian, a curry or a Chinese. Nothing became beef like its decline, however: while eating less of it than ever, we have gorged ourselves on the fervent defence of the interests of beef farmers.
Is it not deeply, typically, perversely British that something so marginal to our existence should thrive as a symbol of embattled patriotism? The swords were cardboard, the battle cries a sham. Really, this spat was part of a longer, bloodier and far more important campaign : the Wars of European Integration. Every EU decision is now enlisted in Britain as a casus belli. The outburst of national pride in beef was only the cover for a more profound grievance, like the Boston Tea Party.
How to conduct our relations with Europe, where to be close and where distant from the patterns set by the Franco-German Alliance of the 1990s, is the real argument at the heart of British politics. Everything else is sound and fury, fog and mirrors. The two main parties are far closer in their approach to most key issues than they can readily admit without contravening the unwritten law of ritual querulousness.
Only on the matter of what constitutes the national interest and how closely or not this can be identified with a Europe committed to deepening its ties through economic and monetary union, do the twain truly divide. The stakes for both Government and Opposition are high, the risks deep. Mr Hague's problem is that he is constantly under pressure from his visceral Eurosceptics to harden his line against the EU towards withdrawal. Ken Clarke has likened this process to feeding crocodiles, because however much you give them, they always return, smacking their lips for more. Even worse, when the keeper stops feeding them they have an unfriendly tendency to start snapping at the hand that fed them.
The trouble for Mr Blair is that his recent tack towards outright endorsement of membership of the single currency keeps being confounded by events in Europe. The CBI, meeting in Birmingham today, is concerned that the Government is losing its nerve on the Euro, talking brave but acting scared. The only surprise is that the CBI should be surprised by this development. Of course Mr Blair is scared: he'd be mad not to be. The referendum on the Euro has the potential to destabilise an otherwise invincible Government. He is painfully aware that the power to shape British sensibilities towards participation in the single currency is not solely his to wield. The EU is well capable of embarking on a course or courses of action that will make it harder for Mr Blair to sell deeper integration to a suspicious British electorate.
Nor will he be so busy celebrating the victory for British cows in Brussels that he will not have noticed the weekend Mori poll showing a swing back to 51 per cent against membership of the EU. No one beyond the wilder shores of Bill Cash takes these findings as an endorsement for a position of withdrawal. What they do show, however, is that any turbulence in the EU affecting Britain tends to produce a strong reaction against any deeper involvement - for which read the single currency.
William Hague produced a strong poll showing last week when respondents were asked which party leader they deemed the more patriotic. This was all the more noticeable when one considers how badly the Tory leader did in every other category. One imagined a faithful retainer bringing the bad news heaped high on a silver platter: `Sorry, they think you're out of touch, arrogant, incompetent, immature and generally pretty hopeless." In the other hand, he holds a solitary scrap of paper: "But they do think you're patriotic."
It is easy, too easy, for pro-European Blairites to dismiss patriotism as an old-fashioned virtue, wholly out of keeping with rebranded New Britain. Patriotism is not the sort of thing the centre-left traditionally feels comfortable with. We are temperamentally immune to the getting mawkish over our dirge-like national anthem, or displaying the Union Jack any more prominently about our person than the Reebok logo.
But that does not mean that patriotism is a negligible force in political life. It all depends on the mood of the moment, and Mr Hague has shown that he can be adept at exploiting such a moment when it arises. Mr Blair's emollience and pragmatism look good when the European winds are set fair: they can easily appear as weakness when things are more turbulent.
I don't buy the argument that Mr Hague has been weakened by the ruling in Britain's favour. It has not cancelled out frustration with the protectionism of the French, nor has it mitigated a widespread sense of outrage. Metropolitan centre-lefties must be wary of dismissing as irrelevant instincts and grievances that they do not hold themselves.
The sheer, raw enthusiasm with which England - in particular southern England - responded to calls to ban French produce and indulge in some bloody-rare stroppiness was a sign of an inchoate but powerful sense of grievance. It comes of living with the prospect of a great shift in the UK's circumstances without the Governmentcoming clean about when, and on what grounds, the decision will be taken.
The war that will continue to rage in British politics is between two words: Mr Hague's accusation that the Government is "spineless" and Mr Blair's riposte that the Conservative party is "irresponsible" in its approach to Europe. Like a lot of crass contrasts, it harbours a kernel of truth. Yes, Mr Hague is playing a potentially dangerous game by feeding increasingly nationalistic language to his crocodiles. But the Government has its own sets of snapping jaws to avoid. "When it comes to the crunch," whispers the voice of beefy old England in Mr Blair's ear, "will you put your country's interest or the wider European interest first?"
Mr Blair's argument will be that there is no clash between the two; Mr Hague's, that there all too often is. It will not win the bald patriot the General Election, but then his only plan for this hurdle is to survive it with a few more seats and his leadership intact. His eyes are already focussed elsewhere: on the Euro-referendum, the real battle for the future of Britain.Reuse content