The curious thing about the beached whale is that despite its predicament, and despite its impending demise, it usually shows no obvious sign of panic.
So it’s quite an achievement for Ken Clarke simultaneously to remind us of a beached whale, and yet clearly to be in a panic. His recent rant against the sceptics was a marvel. An EU referendum was “a total irrelevance”. It was “only of interest to a few right-wing journalists and extreme nationalist politicians”. Those who want a referendum are “frenzied eurosceptics”.
As Dan Hannan pointed out in a recent Tweet, Ken is identifying some 80% of his fellow-citizens as “extremists”. I am reminded of the fond mother who watched her teenage son marching with the cadets, and later boasted to her friends that he was “the only one in step”. The fact is that Ken is part of a small, rump minority of €uro-luvvies who still think that they’re the only ones in step.
Of course Ken is a wonderfully avuncular figure. A man of the people, full of bonhomie. Shod in suede, pint in hand, fag ash down the ample front of his cardigan. But sadly out-of-touch on the EU.
He’s like one of those Russian Kommissars in 1987. The system which had dominated their whole lives, and to which they had devoted their loyalty and their career, was falling apart around them. It was broken not by foreign invasion, nor entirely by internal uprising, but more by the dead-weight of its internal inconsistencies. So it is with societies designed from first principles, rather than painstakingly built up from the wisdom of their forebears. And so it is with the EU.
How must Ken feel as the €uro crashes and burns? As the sceptics, dismissed for years as Little Englanders, xenophobes, ignorant, backward-looking folk unable to grasp the zeitgeist and to engage with the great developments of the 21st Century, are utterly and gloriously vindicated? It’s just rather sad that Ken, like Nick Clegg and the other true believers, can’t have the good grace to admit they were wrong, and to start again.
Ken has clearly been shaken by calls from both the Labour and Conservative parties for an EU In/Out referendum. Rumour has it they’re coming from George Osborne’s office, and they resonate with large parts of the Tory parliamentary party, anxious for their seats. On the Labour side, Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson have speculated openly about such a referendum From Ken’s perspective, it’s a challenge. These calls can only get louder as the parties seek to out-bid each other on the issue. Against the back-drop of the EU’s slow motion train crash, it’s an idea whose time has come.
To paraphrase Matthew Arnold, “The sea of €uro-faith was once, too, at the full, and round our shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now we only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”. Perhaps the beached whale was an entirely appropriate metaphor. Poor old Ken is left stranded on the shingle as the tide of europhoria ebbs.