A questionnaire from the South East Region group of Conservative European MPs, individualised to me by name, popped through my front door yesterday. I didn't mind filling it in. If the Labour and LibDem people send me similar questionnaires, I'll fill those in too.
They wanted my views on European-related issues mainly, but the thing began with two general sections. The first was entitled What matters most to your family, and offered a range of statements to tick three of. Well, in my household 'my family' means me and Teddy Tinkoes, both oldies, and so I could selfishly say, and with a clear conscience:
Care and support for the elderly
Crime & anti-social behaviour
Then, What matters most for your country. I'm clear on that too:
The environment & climate change
The cost of living
After that, a section on Europe & Immigation. Immigation is a complex subject. I don't want to feel that my country is being swamped by foreigners, and its culture diluted out of existence. I don''t want to see the strife and intolerance of some foreign lands imported. On the other hand, I don't want Britain to be isolationist, a closed society, with defensive racialism and prejudice rampant. I want a society enriched and made vibrant by fresh modern ideas from outside. So on the whole I'm in favour of immigation, but sensibly controlled. I'm in favour of opt-outs that make this possible. I therefore found myself ticking the boxes as if I were responsible for current Conservative policy in this area.
Next up, Your views on the economy and other issues. This was a mixed bag of things to tick, including such statements as 'What happened in Greece could just as easily have happened here', and 'Gay couples should have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to marry', and 'Educational standards have been steadily improving in Britain over recent years'. I was moderately in agreement with the Greece statement, and wholeheartedly in agreement with the gay couples statement, but slightly doubtful about the educational improvements. But you were stuck with what they put to you. There were several issues I'd have liked to comment on, but couldn't.
Then, Other important issues. Another mixed bag, in which you had to say where you stood on pairs of statements such as 'I look forward to the future with optimism' and 'I look forward to the future with anxiety'. With much optimism in my case, but then that's how I'm made.
Finally, Priorities for the South East. Hmmm. Some are saying that the South East is now regarded as a separate nation in its own right. Having recently seen the rest of the country, I disagree. The questions to comment on were: 'Re-negotiating the UK's relationship with the EU is important for the South East region's economy, people's job security and inward investment?' I mildly disagreed: the South East will always do well. It's the other parts of the country that need EU investment. (Sorry, Folkestone and Hastings) Next: 'Which Party Leader do you think most closely represents your view about what the South East Region's relationship with Europe should be?' I ticked the 'Cameron' box. (Sorry, Mr Farage) Lastly a question with a free choice of answer, on which other issues I would like my Conservative MEP to tackle on my behalf. I put:
Better consumer protection
That's something the EU is quite good at, and it will benefit us all.
Then a section About you. A tickbox to confirm it really was Lucy Melford replying to the questionnaire, my age group, whether I had any children, my email address and my phone number. I gave replies on all those. It won't matter to me if there is any comeback. If they seriously want my further views, it's an opportunity to influence their thinking. If they don't, I'm not going to worry.
The thing is ready for posting back this afternoon in the envelope they provided. It's really nice to be part of the Big Society.
Changing gear, what must the rest of Europe think of this kind of consultation?
The British attitude toward Europe must seem puzzling to outsiders. A glance at a map suggests that the British Isles are most definitely part of continental Europe, and to deny it is like saying that Cuba or Jamaica aren't really Caribbean islands.
But that strip of sea between England and France makes all the difference. It's a psychological moat. Literally so, when taking to a ship was the only way to travel between the two shores. But it still is so, even in these days of easy flight and even easier fast ferries.
The Channel Tunnel has made no difference whatever. Kent has not turned into a department of France, nor has the rest of the country adopted the social rhythms and lifestyle of the continent, unless you consider the institution of self-conscious 'French markets' in town squares here and there as such an embrace. Rather, the Tunnel has become a control point in the National Border, bearing in mind that if necessary it could be flooded or otherwise blocked off should an invading menace gather on the continental side.
The British have retained their island mentality. This is still a place of refuge, where we are, and they are not.
My late brother once declared that 'Britain is the best country'. That was in the 1980s, perhaps not the finest decade in British history, although it was (for many, though not all) a boom time when economically things seemed good, when we had recently sent the 'Argies' packing out of the Falklands. National pride was riding high. So were house prices. Lots of people gloated. It all came to a shuddering stop in 1989 when the Recession cut in, and the sinister terms 'last in, first out' and 'negative equity' became current. A sharp reminder for some that you should never take on more debt than you can afford. Did we learn? The 2007 replay suggests not.
My brother's words were not just about gung-ho pride and a white-hot economy though. He meant the whole collection of things that make up what a country is all about. Its history and scenic beauty; its literature and music and pageantry. Britain has these in spades. Its freedom and tolerance and just laws - more debatable that, but certainly this country was not, and still is not, a police state with a slave judiciary, show trials and ghastly labour camps. Its artistic and design flair - great paintings, great sculpture, great buildings, great fashion, great expertise in putting on a show to remember. The British sense of humour. Fish and chips.
And more than anything else, the chance of every person to walk quietly down a country lane in pleasant weather, with just a cuckoo's call for company; to watch the trout take flies in a river so clear that you can see the pebbles at the bottom; to enjoy the lush greenness of a peaceful village green, with that special smell of newly-mown grass; and to feel mellow and contented sitting outside a very old pub, with a ploughman's lunch, while the church clock chimes the hour. No mosquitos, no earthquakes, no disturbance of any kind.
That's what he meant.
And the current Conservative logo, the spreading green-leaved oak tree, hooks into that.
How different from the strident 'torch' logo of an earlier era. And how different from the formal and carefully symmetrical European flag:
The Conservative logo is really quite cunning. It has a simplicity that suggests their policies are natural and easy to digest. The sketch-like fluidity of the design is a gesture against formality and burocracy. The greenness of the tree suggests that the welfare of the environment is uppermost in the minds of Conservative policy-makers. The shadow thrown by the tree suggests shade and shelter, an umbrella, a protection from rain or enemy missiles. And the fruit of the oak tree, the acorn, is a metaphor for ideas, or savings, that grow.
Oak trees epitomise most of the English countyside, and recall Robin Hood and other myths dear to the traditionalist. The future King Charles II (reckoned to be a goodie) hid in an oak tree, to escape the nasty Roundhead forces (the baddies) who were searching for him. The village oak has always been the tree under which the folk of Merry England enacted its annual ceremonies of good luck and fertility, and settled its disputes. It was also the favourite place for lovers to keep their trysts. The logo therefore speaks not only of the land and its people, but of the deep satisfactions of English life as lived in the counties. It certainly has relevance and resonance in a Sussex village like mine. But it's not a logo that most big-city dwellers would think relevant to their needs. Nor would it speak to the Welsh or the Scottish, who, as nations in their own right, have symbols of their own.
If you think that I'm a closet Conservative because my Dad was a Conservative, you'd be wrong. For thirty-odd years I decided to vote Liberal (and then LibDem), and have in most elections given them my support, not the Conservatives. I even gave Labour my vote in 1997, not something I say with much pride nowadays.
The trouble with the Conservatives was that although they spoke to the individualism in me, and usually governed with conviction (some would say perverse stubbornness), there was sleaze, and too much in their programme that I didn't care for. With Labour it was the opposite: they had a good programme, but were soft on putting it into effect, didn't pay attention to the consequences of sloppy laws and laissez-faire government, and failed to make me feel that I personally mattered. The LibDems were a reasonable compromise in most respects, with decent people at the top. But you have to understand that reasonableness and likeability are secondary to being effective in power. Running a country is a dirty job. When it comes to it, the voting public wants a government that can hack it. For decades they had more faith in the two main parties, unattractive though they both were, than in the nice LibDems.
It's a bit different now. A handful of LibDem people in the Coalition Cabinet have shown they can do the job. The problem is however that they seem like Conservatives. As the next General Election approaches, they will have to somehow differentiate themselves from that oak tree party, so that if one votes LibDem it will be for a party that stands for something that isn't Conservative at all. That'll be a hard accomplishment.
But I think the Coalition will have a lasting influence. It has proved that two parties can share power, albeit with one of them holding most of the reins. It has proved that despite the apparent handicap of having to compromise, things can get done. And if things buck up (as they seem to be doing) I may be minded to vote for that oak tree next time.