Most people find that it suits their book
To be a bit cleverer than they look.
You’ll find that the easiest method by far
Is to seem a bit stupider than you are.
This wise message doesn’t seem to have reached the United States, the land irony forgot. With their politicians, at least on the Republican side, what you see is what you get. So, for example, George W Bush, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump really are as mind-bogglingly stupid as they seem. At least that’s the way it looks from here. And I’m pretty sure we’re not wrong.
On this side of the pond, where irony rules, Hein’s idea was taken to heart long ago. The obvious example is Boris Johnson, a highly intelligent man who rose to prominence by pretending to be a clown. And then there’s David Cameron. Not a clown, certainly – unlike Boris, he’s not funny and doesn’t try to be. But neither, I suspect, is he either as amiable or as shallow as he appears.
He’s the canniest player of the politics game around. Either that or he has the best coaches and advisers. At times – last May’s General Election, for example – he can seem lucky. But then, as the great golfer Arnold Palmer observed: “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” Palmer and the PM both have a record of snatching victory from the jaws of threatened defeat.
This time, though, Cameron may have painted himself into a corner. It’s a corner several of his predecessors have found themselves in. Most notably John Major, but to varying degrees every Conservative leader since Ted Heath. It is, of course, the corner marked “Europe”.
Cameron, a confirmed pro-European, had no need to promise a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU – except to get the turbulent anti-Europeans in his own party off his back. And, perhaps, to fend off the threat of UKIP.
Lately, his staff have been talking up prospects of that vote coming as soon as June to capitalise on the supposed success of his efforts in negotiating European “reform”. But what exactly will that reform be? And how popular will it prove?
The peril for Cameron is that it will look like a damp squib at best – from whichever way it is observed. To many the attempt to reserve a “brake” on benefits to foreign workers will seem merely petty and mean. A bid to make Europe nastier, not better.
Others will share the view, put about by more than one national paper, that Cameron’s attempts to do a deal with Brussels are “pathetic”.
That turns out, unsurprisingly, to be the word used by UKIP’s Nigel Farage. A man who will need to find another job if Britain does indeed exit the EU. And who may, incidentally, be another who has taken Piet Hein’s advice to heart. Or not.
Cameron – and, arguably, Britain – could be in trouble if too many people take those papers too seriously.
One, the Daily Express, led at the weekend with the extraordinary claim: “92% want to quit the EU”. That wasn’t quite the 92 per cent of actual voters which really would add up to bother for Cameron. It was in fact the rather more predictable view of those who took part in “an exclusive online poll” on the Express website. That is, those who have been targeted by what the same article admits has been the paper’s “five-year crusade to get us out of the EU”. Hardly unbiased opinion, then. And hardly a random sample.
So should Cameron be worried? Either by the dithering polls or by the dithering of his pal Johnson, who seems to be trying to jockey himself into a position to inherit?
The PM is certainly in a dilemma – one of his own making. If he calls the referendum for June and wins, he’ll only have done what he said all along he would do. If he calls it and loses, his premiership will be as good as over. Among other things.
If he delays, it will look horribly like the self-dug pit Gordon Brown found himself in after appearing to change his mind about holding a snap General Election in 2007. Apparently unnerved by opinion polls, Brown soldiered on in No 10, but his premiership was in trouble from then on.
The risk Cameron faces now is not unlike the one he triumphed over at the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. Maybe he’ll pull it off again.
Now, as then, it is not only his future, but that of the whole country that is in the balance. Now, as then, it will ultimately be decided by people who can’t possibly know or understand all the issues involved.
Is Britain better off – economically, socially, politically or in any other way – in or out of Europe? After a lifetime’s support for Europe, I’m no longer sure.
The unelected bankers of Brussels? Or the unelected bankers pulling the strings in London? Devil? Deep blue sea?