Stephen Whittaker, a Party member from Greater Manchester currently studying abroad for the year, reflects on recent events in Europe for ConservativeHome.
Three General Strikes in as many months. Wildcat transport strikes. Unions brow-beating the government into submission. Dying industries propped up by taxpayers’ money even though the writing is on the wall.
Now is the Winter of our Discontent.
Or rather, it is not. Here in Belgium it is regarded as normal, even proper.
Belgium, or more accurately Wallonia (the Francophone area) is every Tory’s nightmare. It is a fundamentally illiberal mess, governed in the loosest sense of the word by the PS and the CDH-in other words, unreconstructed Socialists in tandem with ultra-corporatist Christian Democrats, practicing statism and patronage politics. They preach that they have created “The European Social Model”, and publicly disparage our values as heartless, ruthless capitalism.
This “social model” is perhaps one of the greatest lies of our time. In Liège, a city of 400,000 people, unemployment is around 22%; in nearby Charleroi, even higher. The trains run on time- from crumbling concrete sheds of stations. The stations of Brussels are filled with the unemployed, the out-of-luck and the down-and-out in numbers unseen in the UK. Much of this is a result of the collapse of the major heavy industries a decade ago- but rather than invest in infrastructure, money has been ploughed into higher benefit payments and new industry and services left to rot.
In the polytechnic I teach at, years of propaganda have taken their toll. The pupils believe this system is almost perfect. They are taught that in Britain the unemployed receive no help, and in one case I was told they are left to die! Their belief in the EU as "the Great Benefactor" is unquestioning: until they asked about my political beliefs, they had never met a Eurosceptic before, much less one who had a convincing anti-EU argument.
And if anything is wrong with Europe, it is laid at our feet. Every Briton is assumed to be in bed with Tony Blair and Lady Thatcher, many Belgians being ignorant of the enormous difference between them.
In the past weeks we have seen this infamous “Social Model” rear its head again with the cowing of the French government by the unions, whose “Workers of the world unite!” rhetoric has been shown to really be an “I’m Alright, Jack” attitude to the unemployed and disenfranchised of the poverty-stricken suburbs, in favour of vested interests. Across the Alps, Romano Prodi’s coalition won not only on a timid reform package which will be quickly scuppered by his hard-Left allies, but also on a platform of repealing labour reforms, the one area where Berlusconi made a difference.
As we modernise and change, we do have to accept that Mrs. Thatcher is a figure of the past, just as we would with any other past politician. Yet we must never forget that long before David Cameron’s reforms, it was she who modernised our Party, our nation, and whose name is a synonym for reform and modernisation in so many countries.
Let’s just hope that Belgium, Italy and France become as concerned with reform as the Conservative Party is, and has been.