by Ben Wellings
Something unusual is happening in Britain: people are actually interested in the elections to the European Parliament to be held at the end of May.
This is not least due to the leaders’ debates between Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems and Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) held in the past week.
Since elections to the European Parliament were first decided by universal suffrage in 1979 voter turnout has consistently trended downwards from a starting point of 62 per cent to 43 per cent Europe-wide in the last elections in 2009. In the United Kingdom, turnout has never climbed above 39 per cent.
But a lot has changed in the EU since 2009 and these may be the first elections where turnout does not continue to fall across Europe. Paradoxically, this could be due to the mobilisation of Eurosceptic voters seeking to register a protest against the pace and direction of European integration.
The reasons for this Eurosceptic mobilisation vary from country to country, but in the United Kingdom the elections can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the much-anticipated referendum on UK membership of the EU. But to use the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘the United Kingdom’ might be to obscure an important though often overlooked aspect of this Eurosceptic surge: England.
Euroscepticism in England currently has two political homes. The first is the right wing of the Conservative Party, where one third of MPs voted against a three-line whip in 2011 demanding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The other home is the relatively new party UKIP, a formerly single issue party that has broadened its appeal in recent years and has seen dramatic success at European and local elections in England.
Both parties are notionally British or UK-wide. In reality, both parties are in electoral terms confined almost entirely to England. Without admitting it openly, UKIP in particular appears to be tapping into a mood of politicised Englishness that speaks the language of aggrieved populism, a nation betrayed by its political elite and one that has lost control of its systems of governance, be they at Westminster or Brussels.
In this way the content of the debates between Clegg and Farage illuminated a striking contrast. The locus of nationalist politics in the UK has shifted from Northern Ireland. It is now most obvious in Scotland, but it is growing in England too. And the contrast between the debate in Scotland and England is even more striking. What appears to be emerging in Scotland as we approach its independence referendum in September is some sort of enhanced autonomy for the northern kingdom negotiated after the referendum, whatever the result.
There is even talk of a ‘post-sovereign Scotland’ that is neither completely under the rule of Westminster, nor completely independent. What the clashes between Clegg and Farage have shown is that in England the issue is good old-fashioned sovereignty: who is ultimately in political control and the integrity of borders.
Eurosceptics are often portrayed as being overly negative and stuck in the past (what alternative do they propose?). English nationalism is often seen as regressive, nasty and narrow-minded (isn’t Britishness more inclusive?). This, of course, is a simplification, but you could be forgiven for thinking this when looking at UKIP, a party often derided as ‘the British National Party in blazers’. Situated on the populist right of British politics, UKIP has strived over the past ten years to distance itself from the far-right British National Party (BNP), not always with success.
UKIP has, however, been successful in two main ways: linking fears about immigration to membership of the EU and in the persona of its current leader Nigel Farage. Farage projects an image of the City gent, but one who indulges in activities that are simultaneously and transgressively English: he drinks pints, smokes and speaks out against the EU. Nick Clegg smokes too but off-camera as it is bad for the image.)
Part of Farage’s and UKIP’s appeal is its amateurism. But as another populist politician, Pauline Hanson found, this can be a double-edged sword: it may win you votes amongst the disaffected, but your political opponents are indeed professionals with all the advantages that specialisation offers. UKIP is still hampered by the amateur organisation of their party.
Farage’s admiration of Vladimir Putin may not have come as much of a surprise for Marta Andreasen and Mike Nattrass who resigned from the party in 2013 citing Farage’s ‘Stalinist’ and ‘totalitarian’ leadership style. Admiration for Putin may sound daring and transgressive but it will only confirm the opinions of those in Britain who refer to him as ‘Nigel Falange’, after the Spanish Fascist party of the 1930s. Similarly, a UKIP’s councillor’s recent claim that flooding during the northern winter was a punishment for the government’s support for gay marriage challenges the party’s credibility.
This being said, polling showed that Farage had ‘won’ the first debate. But the debates are a win for both leaders of these ‘minor’ parties. The Lib Dems need to rebuild ahead of 2015 election after a difficult time as junior partner in government. UKIP needs to consolidate gains from 2009 and 2013 and establish themselves as the ‘fourth party’ in English politics. What the debates really reveal is England as a political community, and one flirting dangerously with exit from the EU as it finds its political voice.
Dr Ben Wellings is a lecturer in European studies in the Monash European and EU Centre at Monash University.
This article also appeared on The Drum.
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