European Movement UK

Britain's future is with Europe! Join the debate and put your opinion forward!

by Giles Goodall and Petros Fassoulas, European Movement.

UKIP’s relative success in the English local elections and South Shields by-election this week has met with predictable reactions across the political spectrum: from copycat politics and jealousy on the Tory right, to handwringing and disappointment on the centre left. But while UKIP has succeeded in hoovering up disenchanted Tories by the thousand, its appeal is clearly much broader. In fact, the rise of UKIP’s populist anti-politics replicates a pattern played out across Europe since the crisis hit, from the Danish People’s Party to Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Ironically, with UKIP, Britain may now be joining the European mainstream.

Early indications show that while most UKIP support was lent by former Tories, sizeable chunks came from working class Labour and ‘none of the above’ ex-Lib Dems too. Their strong showing in South Shields shows that UKIP are far broader than a bunch of “retired half colonels, living on the edge of Salisbury Plain,” as Nigel Farage himself put it. Professor John Curtice reports that Farage’s motley crew have done particularly well in areas with fewer graduates than average, more pensioners and more people with a strong religious identity.

All this makes UKIP far harder to pin down than its hallmark anti-Europeanism would suggest. Doubtless, immigration was a strong motivator, and some may have turned to the party in opposition to David Cameron’s pragmatism on issues like equal marriage. But it’s likely that Farage’s own brand of policy-lite pub talk has attracted at least as much support. Like Boris Johnson, his carefully crafted image as an anti-politician is the key to his success – and policies his weakest card. The fact that his “policies” rarely get confronted and scrutinised by the other parties and he and his party were ignored for far too long by the political elites gave him an open terrain to develop and spread his message unchallenged.

Throw in a few more ingredients – economic pessimism, an unloved coalition and an underwhelming opposition – and the scenario played out this week looks more like what has been happening across Europe. After Grillo, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the True Finns and the Dutch Freedom Party, UKIP is the latest in a line of European populist parties to taste electoral success. Led by charisma, unburdened by the responsibilities of government and driven by economic insecurity, they are the easy option for the angry, the fearful and the dispossessed.

The result possess a challenge for mainstream parties in the UK (and across Europe) to stop playing politics on issues like immigration, Europe, unemployment. It signals the time to take on those that employ populist messages to exploit people’s anxieties. Rather than dancing on UKIP’s tune, all 3 parties must draw a line in the sand and start pushing back, straight into UKIP’s fog-infused territory of opportunism, myths and scaremongering.

Electoral success for mainstream parties does not reside in copying UKIP’s discourse. Lest we forget that 75% of those that showed up to vote did not find an appeal in UKIP’s opportunism and divisive rhetoric. Not to mention all those that did not even go to cast their vote in the ballot box. There is a sizeable majority in the middle of the political spectrum that desires responsible, honest policies. They are thirsty for answers to the global economic crisis and their everyday problems. But when they go up to the well and they find it dry of water, they will drink mud.

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  1. My impression is that high rates of immigration has been a major factor in the rise of UKIIP There has been a consistent refusal by the liberal elite to recognise the costs of mass immigration to certain sectors of society. Downward pressure on unskilled wage rates, crowded primary schools and increased demand for housing are most suffered by lower income groups.

    The elites who benefit from lower wages refuse to recognise the costs of immigration. For them immigration represents “fears ” or “concerns”. They choose to socialise with people very like themselves but scream “racist” if lower income whites mutter about too many foreigners.

    I urge you to read David Goodhart’s excellent book on immigration ” the British dream”. I think it helps explain why large sections of the British population no longer trust the elite.

  2. UKIP has simply bypassed the political establishment in the UK which has been tarnished in the last fifteen years or so (as indeed has been the case in the EU itself and several other European countries) by corruption, broken promises, and a refusal to listen to ordinary people. Any thinking person knows UKIP can only ever be a spoiling force. But bear in mind that before this surge in support, in 2010 they took approximately 900,000 votes and are estimated to have cost the Conservatives 21 seats and with it an absolute majority. With that in mind, together with the entirely likely scenario of them winning the EP elections in 2014, imagine the panic of the established parties when they are desperately scrabbling for the UKIP votes in 2015.

    It would take a very brave (or foolish) person who would now place a bet against all of the established parties guaranteeing a referendum in statute on UK membership of the EU before the next general election. With polls showing 82% of the electorate wanting such a referendum, voting NO in a Parliamentary motion condemns the neigh sayers and means they will have to campaign for the EU in the general election and explaining why the 82% are not allowed to have their say. This would be a very bad move if you want to get votes in the UK. In these circumstances “all 3 parties must draw a line in the sand and start pushing back” can only be a vain hope.

    Once the enabling legislation has been passed the matter will be out of the hands of the political elite and back to the people. With the polls showing a consistent majority in favour of leaving, at the very least there will have to be a considerable change in the relationship between the UK and the EU if the UK is to remain in the Union.

    The next question would be, in how many other countries would the electorates decide they (as distinct to the establishments) want a say ? That has always been the problem hasn’t it, if you build a political construct without clear popular support you have just a house of cards and it only needs one card to fall.

    Ultimately I suppose you have to ask yourself, if you don’t support the idea of a referendum on EU membership (with a clear understanding that ultimately it will lead to a greater degree of integration than is currently the case) in all countries, is that because you think you do not have the support of the people?

  3. @Iwantout
    Ed Milliband would be extremely foolish to concede a referendum whatever the political pressure. The political problems of refusing a referendum would be dwarfed by the problems which would arise if he conceded one. Such a referendum would be almost impossible to win given the growing euroscepticism in the UK.

    If he held one and lost he would then face political pressure to negotiate withdrawal. Such withdrawal negotiations would be complex and time-consuming. His whole administration would have to be focused on the negotiations whilst he would face a barrage of criticism from the sceptics that he has conceded too much and from the pro-Europeans that he is negotiating withdrawal.

    UK withdrawal is getting closer but it is not that close!

  4. @Martin
    As the 2015 election approaches the pressure for a referendum will only intensify, especially if (as seems probable) Cameron’s attempts to negotiate a new deal for Britain fall short of expectations. In this scenario, it would be very difficult for a party to win the 2015 election without having given some sort of referendum pledge.

    I don’t think Milliband should be afraid of a referendum. If (as probable) Britain votes to leave, withdrawal negotiations would last a maximum of two years (Article 50 of the Treaty) and Labour would benefit from a surge of support which would go some way towards cleansing the sins of the Blair/Brown years. Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian makes a good case for an immediate referendum – Cameron would do well to read it and appreciate the advantage his party would gain regardless of the outcome. UK withdrawal is closer than you imagine.

  5. On three occasions – and for extended periods of time – between its defeat by the Amercian Colonists at Yorktown in 1781 and the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Britain failed to engage effectively with European affairs to protect and advance its interests. On each occasion it was finally compelled to intervene in defence of its interests and forced to expend blood and treasure. On each occasion the expenditure of blood and treasure was considerable and took place over an extended period. The scale of expenditure and the duration over which it occurred were directly related to its initial lack of preparedness and the time required to assemble the eventually victorious alliance of nations.

    And history, as is its wont, has a habit of repeating itself. Since the inception of the association of sovereign nations bound by treaties that has become the EU, Britain, initially, remained aloof and then, eventually, entered in to a semi-detached relationship. Since then it has never intervened or engaged in a consistent strategic and proactive manner to protect and advance its interests. Its approach, consistently, has been defensive and reactive. It has allowed the traditional French-German axis to drive the evolution of the union. It, therefore, should not be surprising that the constantly evolving shape and functions of the Union have provoked disappointment, opposition, resentment and ridicule among large swathes of the British public.

    Constructive engagement would have been not only in Britain’s interests, but also in the interests of the Union. And it is not that Britain lacked (or lacks) prospective allies. The Dutch, the Flemish Belgians, the Luxembourgers, the Scandinavians, the Austrians and many of the Eastern European Member States would have welcomed – and would continue to welcome – effective British engagement. Given the current critical political, economic and financial state of the Union, Germany (with many of these countries in its orbit) is reaching out to Britain to engage. When Europe is in trouble, Britain will be in trouble – even if its initial atavistic instinct is to seek to distance itself. In a geopolitically bipolar (USA & China) world and an emerging multipolar global economy (witness the shift from G8 to G20), Britian’s future lies within an EU that can punch its weight in global economic terms.

    Objectively, it may be contended that Britain (with a seriously unbalanced economy bumping along the bottom, growing inequality – accentuated by an increasing north/south divide – and, with a large public debt and fiscal deficit, in hock to the international capital market) has little to offer and would be best served by getting its own house in order. But this would be entirely self-defeating and counter-productive. Britain has much to offer in terms of enhancing democratic governance and legitimacy and of moving the EU to achieve a sustainable position on the balance between the state and markets and on where the boundaries between the state and markets should lie. And this would be in Britain’s interests as much as those of the Union as a whole. It will not be able to surmount the economic challenges it faces on its own. (It is little recognised in Britain, but its approach to energy market liberalisation and regulation – idiosyncratic and dysfunctional as it is in many respects – has been adapted and adopted throughout the EU.)

    However, in the current climate of public opinion in Britain it is almost impossible to make this case. None of the three established parties has a shred of credibility in this area and much of the coverage in the media is almost uniformly eurosceptic – if not virulently europhobic. This case may be put only when the issue of British membership is finally put to the people. Only then will the three established parties take their responsibilities to British citizens seriously.

    Therefore I fully support Nigel Farage’s generally merry and rambunctious, if sometimes angry and disgusted, band of nostalgic reactionaries. His most effective weapon is ridicule – and this is what the three established parties and the EU elites thoroughly deserve. It looks like he and his merry band will bring matters to a head.

  6. @Paul Hunt
    A very interesting post.
    But I think you downplay the key and unique element of the EU which is the creation of European citizenship and European identity.. it is the crucial acceptance of that feature which distinguishes true believers in the EU.

    I cannot accept it. I feel uneasy if jobs in United Kingdom go to Polish workers rather than British workers. I understand why employers may prefer cheerful and hard-working Poles to idle British workers but I still feel guilty. They may be chavs but they are still my tribe.

  7. @Martin Buckley,

    I have some sympathy for your refusal to accept it – i.e., European citizenship and European identity, but my focus is on what would make it acceptable to a majority of citizens because Europe has to cohere to survive and prosper in the emerging global context. Punching above one’s weight or free-riding are no longer viable options.

    At the core, for me, is the long English (and, later, British) struggle for full democratic governance from the Magna Carta through to universal suffrage in the early decades of the last century. It is rarely expressed, but on occasion I have encountered what I believe is a deep-seated and understandable British reaction to EU institutions, in particular, the Commission: “We didn’t vote them in; and we can’t vote them out.”

    The fundamental challenge is to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU’s institutions and to demonstrate the benefits of this increase to the British public. Because of the drip-feed of poison about the EU from most of the media, very few British citizens have any idea of the extent to which the EU has taken on board the economic reforms pioneered by Tory governments since the early 1980s and further developed by subsequent Labour governments. The northern and central Member States want Britain more engaged to counter and reform the corporatism, cosy corruption and misgovernance of the southern Member States, but Britain also has a duty to reform itself and drive more reform in these increasibgly smug and complacent northern and central Member States.

  8. @Paul Hunt
    I have some respect for the sentiments – it is the classic European perspective that you can hear in the European Parliament from Martin Schultz et al. And I accept the illogicality of the British position which refuses to take the European Parliament seriously and then complains about lack of democracy. But it is not a perspective I share.

    I think there is too little in common between the peoples of Europe for them to develop a shared demos which would allow democracy to flourish. We speak different languages, we read different newspapers and we watch different television programs. I have as much in common with a Bulgarian as I do with someone from Chile or Argentina and much less in common than I have with someone from the US or Canada.

    The only thing we have in common apart from geographical proximity is our ancient fear of Islam, our shared memory of battles against the Turks or the Moors and our fear of Barbary pirates. But that is not something much use now!

    Nation states have a sense of togetherness based on shared history; Europe does not.
    In difficult times without the sense of togetherness Europe fragments into its tribes. I observe that although Greece has been a member of the EU for over 30 years and has been the beneficiary of EU generosity throughout the whole period it’s Europeanism seems skin deep, The portrayal of the German Chancellor by the Greek media should make even optimists like you wonder about the possibility of true European democracy.

  9. @Martin Buckley,

    I sense that we probably will have to agree to disagree. You raise a number of issues whose resolution could lead to a number of plausible outcomes. As I have indicated previously Britain shares an enormous amount with many northern and central European Member States. English is becoming – and to a considerable extent has become – the ‘lingua franca’ of the EU. Raising the prosperity of all Member States subject to the rule of law and democratic governance is both a laudable and necessary objective. And it is not a question of ‘either/or’. Witness PM Cameron seeking to advance progress on an EU-US free trade deal this week.

    However, what has become increasingly clear as the current economic and financial crisis rumbles on is the extent to which effective democratic governance and the rule of law have not been embedded sufficiently in the southern Member States (or in Ireland). That is a work in progress, but it will have to be completed before the democratic legitimacy of the EU’s institutions can be enhanced.

  10. @Paul Hunt
    I suppose I am more pessimistic than you about the ability to create social cohesion and a relatively uncorrupt political system. I think we in the UK should not take for granted either of those features. My impression is that in most countries those features are not present. Politicians view office as a way of benefiting their clans, bribery and corruption is endemic and there is a lack of social cohesion with the rich having little concern for the poor and happy to avoid paying taxes..

    It seems to me that many internationally minded idealists underestimate the difficulty of creating the social and political culture which exists in certain nation states of North West Europe. We let into our countries large numbers of people from very different political cultures and have been happy to extend the EU to include countries without long-standing democratic and uncorrupt politics.

    Your comment about embedding democratic governance in Southern Europe read as if written by the British Colonial Office circa 1960. You can impose systems but cultures including political cultures seem very long lived and difficult to change.

  11. @Martin Buckley,

    It’s difficult to disagree with what you’ve outlined. But, though I probably should know better, I’m not ready yet to resign myself to pessimism. Thank you for this exchange of views.

  12. @Paul Hunt

    Put it into perspective – we have a democratic Germany, a free Poland and no military threats from the east. The present problems pale into insignificance compared with the horrors that continental Europe has faced in the past..

    Best wishes – I enjoyed the exchange

    Martin Buckley .

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