Calculated Ignorance

‘If international affairs are your bag, you might as well have voted for the Ba’ath Party as the Conservatives’

International Islam Israel Middle East The Outsider's Diary War on Terror

It is the beginning of this year and you are presented with a questionnaire about the new British government. It suggests that within three months of taking office, the new Deputy Prime Minster will declare the Iraq war “illegal”, while the new Prime Minister will not only argue for Turkish entry into the EU, but condemn opponents of this idea as “prejudiced”. What is more, he will go to Turkey and flatter his Islamist host by lying about Israel.

So, has the government (a) been created by a surprising electoral landslide for George Galloway’s Respect Party? Or maybe (b), it is a coalition of leftist and Islamists?

I’ve written here before about the strange erosion of differences between the three main parties — the way in which our politics has reached such a level of compliance that anything said by any of the three main parties can as well be said by any of the other two. But who would have thought that you could throw some of the wackier parties into the mix and get the same consensual results? If international affairs are your bag then you might as well have voted for the Ba’ath Party as the Conservatives.

Of all the curiosities of David Cameron, the most striking — even more so than his habit of speaking down to people — is the way in which he speaks with certainty about subjects that are new to him, such as international affairs.

Until recently, Cameron took no special interest in Israeli naval issues or suburban planning disputes in East Jerusalem. But now he knows all about them. As he boasted to the Financial Times recently, he even enjoys ignoring the advice of his own Foreign Office by calling East Jerusalem “occupied”. What larks. How brave — and how ignorant. I was in East Jerusalem the other day. It is no more “occupied” than Hackney. Indeed, a good deal less.

You used to hear Conservatives saying that when Cameron got into office we would see that his instincts were right. Yet it is becoming clear that not only are his instincts wrong, the things he believes to be facts are wrong. 

In a remarkably short time, he has managed to take on a set of opinions which, when combined with his extraordinarily patronising manner, has an effect that is increasingly startling.

Perhaps it is, dare I say it, the Etonian in him. But he speaks as one who has long surveyed the panoply of views before arriving at his mature and responsible stance. In Ankara, he said he would argue the case for Turkish entry into the EU by personally taking on, among others, those who “wilfully misunderstand Islam” and those he claims view current affairs “through the prism of a clash of civilisations”.

At no point in his career, so far as anyone knows, has Cameron taken any time to study either Islamic theology or Professor Samuel Huntington’s oft-misquoted thesis. Yet he talks of these, like everything else, not merely as though he is an expert, but with something rather close to ennui — as though the contrary theological positions to his own are recognised by all scholars as bunk. He speaks of those who “misinterpret” Islam as being a violent religion in the condescending manner of a scholarly Jesuit from the Pontifical Gregorian University encountering a modern convert to the Albigensian heresy.

Yet there are, pace our new PM, many good reasons to be opposed to Turkish entry. One is that Turkey is Islamising — which means it is going backwards. Many people may feel cautious about Europe being associated with that growing disaster. Other perfectly rational people might believe that Turkey, with third-world living standards across much of the country, will be a drain on the already exhausted economic resources of Europe. Others may feel they do not want up to 70 million Turkish migrants flowing freely into the rest of Europe. Or they might decide that the EU should not border Iraq, Syria or Iran. There might even be people out there who believe that Europe is recognisably a Judaeo-Christian achievement built in spite of Islam rather than because of it. And they want to keep it that way.

All of these things are possible and can be argued sanely and politely. But not for the Prime Minister. For him this is all just so much “prejudice”.

Does he believe it? Probably not. Does he understand the situation? Certainly not. But he has made a calculation. For him such positions are useful to take. They will, he will think, confound those people who believe it is actually the Tories who are “prejudiced”. He is using his party’s erstwhile opponents’ tools against them.

But this, after all, is a piddling little British electoral game. Turkey, Israel and the future of Europe and the Middle East, however, are not.