David Cameron's damaging association with a Polish extremist
Michal Kaminski, the Polish leader of the Conservatives' European Parliament bloc, has some embarrassing views on Jews and gays
The controversial Polish politician Michal Kaminski is currently doing more than Gordon Brown to disrupt David Cameron's procession to power next year.
Kaminski is the hard-right MEP who now leads the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) bloc in the European Parliament with the blessing of the British Conservative leader, whose party is a member of the group.
As a result, Cameron is being held up to ridicule among foreign policy advisors in the Obama White House. A Democratic Party source is quoted in the New Statesman today saying: "There are concerns about Cameron among top members of the team."
This follows extraordinarily undiplomatic comments made last week by the respected US foreign policy expert David Rothkopf, who wrote on his blog: "I used to think David Cameron was just an empty suit. But it is increasingly clear that the former PR guy... ought to be ditched at the altar both by the British people and by the Obama administration."
Rothkopf, a former under-secretary for international trade during Bill Clinton's era, was referring specifically to Cameron's backing of Michal Kaminski to lead the right-wing bloc in Europe. Kaminski, said Rothkopf, was "a more suitable choice for support by the British National Party than by Conservatives". As a result, Cameron was "someone about whom the Obama administration ought to be very cautious. A pillar of leadership acumen he ain't."
Obama himself believes Cameron is all ‘sizzle’ and no substance
It gets worse. Today's New Statesman report also reveals that Obama himself believes Cameron is all "sizzle" and no substance. This was a verdict the President apparently reached after meeting the Tory leader a year ago. It was before the Kaminski issue emerged, but it did relate to Cameron's attitude to the EU which the president is said to regard - more so than the UK - as America's key ally.
So, who is this man Kaminski, still only 37 and making waves from Warsaw to Washington? An impressive public speaker, easily recognisable in his signature glasses, he is one of the rising stars of Poland's Law and Justice party. He was a successful spin doctor for the Kaczynski brothers, the identical twins who were Poland's president and prime minister until recently.
Another of Cameron's MEPs, Daniel Hannan, has said that Kaminski is "the closest thing to a British Tory outside the Carlton Club", and in many senses, he is a logical ally for them. First and foremost, he's a vehement eurosceptic. Then there's his back story: agitating against Communism as a teenager in the 1980s, Kaminski learnt English from listening, illicitly, to Margaret Thatcher on the World Service.
But his belief in the merits of the free market goes well beyond that of most people on the British right. When General Pinochet, an earlier follower of Milton Friedman and champion of neo-liberalism, was awaiting his extradition hearing at a Surrey mansion in 1999, Kaminski paid the ailing Chilean a visit, and presented his fellow Catholic with a steel collar embossed with an image of the Virgin.
His support for dictatorship aside, there are three major criticisms of Kaminski which support Rothkopf's line that he is a more natural political bedfellow for the BNP than for the Tories. These are homophobia, anti-semitism and neo-fascism.
First, homophobia. Poland is the world's most devoted Catholic country, where Pope John Paul II, originally Karol Wojtyla from Wadowice, is commemorated everywhere, where singing nuns make pilgrimages to show their devotion to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, and even some young, educated people still refer to homosexuality as "the gay disease".
Many Poles listen attentively to the Vatican, and supported Kaminski when he fronted a party campaign against the clause in the Lisbon Treaty which planned to make gay marriage a legal right. Kaminski has also criticised a former president for courting support from homosexual organisations. And on another occasion, when a TV presenter picked Kaminski up for his use of the word pedaly - which roughly translates as fags or queers, and is otherwise used as slang for paedophiles - Kaminski responded, "That's how people speak, what should I say? They are pedaly".
So, when it comes to attitudes to homosexuality, Cameron's new, caring, post-Clause 28 Conservatives are incompatible with their Polish counterparts.
As for anti-semitism, which has been raised by both the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, and the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, this is also something which, while decreasing, lingers in Polish society.
Radio Maryja, a fundamentalist Roman Catholic station with links to Law and Justice, broadcasts occasional anti-Jewish rants. And when a 2005 poll asked Poles what their attitude was towards Jews, 45 per cent claimed antipathy. When it comes to Kaminski, his defenders, such as Daniel Hannan, point out his strong pro-Israel record. But others say that he panders to the wrong crowd.
These accusations centre around Kaminski's stance on the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, when, under German occupation, hundreds of Jews from a town in northeastern Poland were massacred. The debate about the degree to which local Poles were responsible - there were also members of the SS involved - was reignited in 2000 when the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross came up with conclusive evidence which proved that Poles had beaten up, drowned and burnt the victims.
After that, the then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski issued a national apology and organised commemorations. But Kaminski said Kwasniewski shouldn't have done this. His argument was that responsibility for the atrocity should be individual rather than collective, but his stance undoubtedly put him on the unsavoury side of the deniers. These were the people who turned up to the Warsaw launch of Gross's next book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, and barracked the author with cries of "Lie!" and "Slander!"
Having spoken out against the BNP it is odd that Cameron should back Kaminski
Then there's the neo-fascist label, one which has followed Kaminski through his career. As a prematurely politicised teenager, he was a member of the National Revival of Poland. This, Hannan argues, was before the group changed from being a diverse anti-Communist resistance and became solely a gang of skinheads whose slogans range from 'Free David Irving' to 'Gas the Gays'. Still, there is a report of Kaminski going to Warsaw railway station and thrusting leaflets into the hands of Ukrainian workers, which accused them of taking jobs from Poles.
Having spoken out strongly against the BNP, and with his thoroughly modern attitude towards homosexuality, it seems bizarre to British politicians, left and right, that Cameron should back Kaminski - and especially bizarre to Edward McMillan-Scott, the Tory MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.
On July 14, McMillan-Scott decided - "even at the discomfiture of my own party" - to stand for the vice presidency of the European Parliament against Kaminski, the ECR group's choice. Cameron was furious and withdrew the party whip, effectively expelling a life-long Tory from the party for taking a stand against "the rise of disguised extremism in Europe".
As the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza wrote recently, "Kaminski isn't officially and completely an anti-semite or homophobe, but at some point he recognised that these things can help him politically."
Some Conservatives - not to mention US Democrats like David Rothkopf - are asking when David Cameron will be equally pragmatic, and seek to untie himself from an unfortunate association. If not for the sake of old-school Tories like McMillan-Scott, then at least for the sake of London’s relationship with Washington.