Now that the war is over, we've still Europe to fight

THOSE OF us who just cannot get worked up over beef can breathe a sigh of relief this morning. War's off this week. Grumbling peace is restored to the menu. Paris tried to pull a fast one and failed. This was a small skirmish, not many dead. Tony Blair's luck held. The Prime Minister may have had the grace to look just a bit uneasy as he carried off the Motes and Beams Award for Double Standards, accusing William Hague of pursuing cheap headlines while ending up with the one headline he wanted - unanimous support among the Commission's scientists for overturning the French ban.

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor