Leading Article: The Tories' puerile propaganda demeans us all

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The Independent Online
Like a gang of Fifties schoolboys sniggering over a pornographic magazine, the "ideas merchants" of Conservative Central Office must have flicked through their dog-eared stock of anti-European images. The weird fantasy they came up with was published yesterday - a Teutonic giant. There, in the Tory ads, was a gross, balefully grinning Helmut Kohl, the Federal Chancellor. He balanced a diminutive Tony Blair on his knee and the copy asked - sensitive and sophisticated, you will agree - who was going to be "man" enough to take on the Prussian Goliath. What a farrago. What a welter of sexual innuendo, Germanophobia and nationalist posturing.

As a piece of political imagining, Edwina Currie's judgement was spot on. "Puerile," she said; she might have added, this is the politics of little English boys in short trousers. But this stunt is not to be written off as just another jolly jape. How a political party goes about getting elected, or re-elected, is not a private matter. Images stick. What is said and done in Britain registers abroad, in banks and stock exchanges as well as foreign offices and party headquarters. People in other countries might confuse the outpourings of a desperate party with the general views of British people and in that way Tory tactical opportunism taints us all.

As for the "dummy", Tony Blair can take care of himself. However he is portrayed, big or small, he has the hustings on which to speak and a publicity machine to amplify his voice. If he has any sense he will not stoop to the Tories' level, but in the face of the provocation of their advertisement showing him as a diminutive puppet sitting on Chancellor Kohl's knee, he has every right to respond in kind. Perhaps this Tory ploy will inject something into Labour's campaign that has hitherto been missing - anger.

But for the German leader, there is no ready come-back. The Federal Republic's embassy in London is polite, far too polite. In Bonn they prefer the "cool" line, dismissing both tabloid and Tory attacks on Germany as mere eccentricities. Yet they too ought to be angry. That the Christian Social Union or the Christian Democrats would ever portray a foreign leader in their electoral posters and advertisements is inconceivable. And that point can be generalised. In what other Western country would a contender for national office coldly and deliberately insult the head of state of a friendly neighbour?

The point is not that the Christian Democrats and the Conservatives are both right-of-centre parties and have in the past co-operated in the European Parliament; nor even that it is barely four weeks since the Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind was in Bonn addressing the CDU's think-tank as if talking to kindred spirits. All that says is the latter-day Tory party has no manners; it is the impolite party.

What is going on here is the substitution of stereotype for argument, propaganda for reasoned discussion. The Conservatives do have substantive differences with the CDU and its leader, Chancellor Kohl. John Major et al disagree with his views on the development of the European Union. All that is understood. But it should lead to engagement, debate, the exchange of perspectives, not to personalisation of the kind represented by this advertisement. Such failure to argue is a mark of the Conservatives' political decadence. (Perhaps it also demonstrates their conviction that they have indeed lost the election. For what party, knowing it might within weeks have to engage with Chancellor Kohl across negotiating tables in Maastricht and Amsterdam, would insult him in this way?)

You do not have to be a Freudian to read into this portrayal of the Chancellor and the German nation elements of some primitive fear in Tory guts about being swallowed up. The Tories, an analyst fresh from reading the Grimm Brothers might say, fear becoming the giant's supper. They focus their anxieties on a superhuman figure ... but too much of that and we could sound like Leo Abse. More prosaically and more dangerously, what this advertisement bears witness to is the Conservatives' failure to emancipate themselves from the clinging mud of wartime history. Here are echoes of that old, British military identity which is such a ready source of assurance for those who fear the present. Put a Pickelhaube on Helmut Kohl's head (something readers of the advertisement are clearly being invited to do) and everything falls into place. He'll eat your babies and, given half a chance, shoot Edith Cavell. Britain triumphed against the Hun, against Hitler and will triumph again against Helmut!

This is the thought process of people who, at some level, fear themselves. They certainly do not trust in the capacity of Britain to meet the diplomatic, financial and commercial challenges of the next few years. There is something unmanly about all this, using that word in its old-fashioned sense.

Conservatives, in extremis, have behaved badly before. The great Churchill, in 1945, was not above hysterically warning that Clement Attlee would head a Gestapo if Labour were elected. Conservative high command condoned if it did not itself instigate the notorious forged Zinoviev letter in 1924. A crudely executed newspaper advertisement hardly compares, except that never before would the Conservatives have so exposed their weakness. Would Margaret Thatcher ever have approved a public display of insecurity? Whatever she might have said in private about the Germans, she would surely never have exposed her party to the charge that the Tory posture on Europe is one of fear as well as loathing.