by James Bartholomeusz. Originally published on 2014/03/31
One of Europe’s strongest nations and yet the continent’s historic outlier, the UK’s relations with the Union have distinctly cooled in the last decade. With the possibility of ‘Brexit’ looming in 2017, what will happen in this May’s elections?
It is not an exaggeration to say that British politics currently finds itself in an unprecedented state. Six years after a comprehensive bailout of its financial sector, it has been rocked by a chain of subsequent domestic crises – over parliamentary expenses, race-related police misconduct and systemic spying on civilians by the security services. And now, on top of all this, it is on the verge of being constitutionally rent apart by two referenda: one, later this year, to decide whether Scotland becomes an independent state; the other, set for 2017, with the power to remove the UK from the European Union entirely.
Less stark but also unusual, the country is presently governed by its first coalition government since 1974, a particularly rarity in Britain due to its first-past-the-post electoral system. The general election of 2010 saw the dismissal of Gordon Brown’s beleaguered Labour Party, but no clear alternative was selected in its place. Partly due to the public’s general disillusionment with politicians and partly due to the rise of new political forces, Conservative leader David Cameron was unable to persuade voters that his party should be trusted with full power; he eventually did become prime minister, but only after a week of coalition negotiations with the third-place Liberal Democrats. Against many predictions, the government now looks to hold together until the next general election in 2015, though it is hardly popular: the continued lack of a secure and strong economic recovery, a series of uncoordinated attempts to re-shake already struggling public services, and the lack of a clear vision for the country are not winning features at a time of austerity.
Unsurprisingly, distaste with mainstream politics at a time of crisis has bolstered the support for alternative parties. The greatest beneficiary has been the hard-Right eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by former stockbroker Nigel Farage, who has somehow succeeded in portraying himself as a brave opponent to the discredited establishment rather than its ultimate insider. UKIP was founded in 1991 as a single-issue campaign against the European Union but has only achieved real prominence within the last parliament. It is the British variant of the Right-wing populism which has seized the continent since the beginning of the global economic crisis, and currently holds 9 out of 73 British seats in the European Parliament.
Farage is a demagogue, a chauvinist and an economic illiterate, but none of this matters too much if such fringe figures are viewed in isolation. What is more worrying is the way in which the government has allowed its agenda on Europe to be dictated by fear of UKIP. The Prime Minister has shown a lack of statesmanship in his continental negotiations, having repeatedly played lightly with sincere attempts by other leaders to engage the UK in determining the future of Europe. Insecure in his position as party leader and beholden to a key interest group of rebelling Right-wing backbenchers and members, he has adopted more and more Eurosceptic stances over the last few years in attempt to retain dissipating support, culminating in a pledge for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017.
Neither has the Labour opposition dealt with the issue much better. Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister from the party’s landslide victory in 1997 until 2007, was strongly pro-European, to the extent that Brown – then second-in-command – was forced to veto Britain entering into the currency union. Under Brown’s premiership, and with a growing sense that intra-European migration had disproportionately affected the UK, Labour struggled to reconcile its internationalism and support for continental social democracy with the perception that its working-class support base was slipping away to the Right. The party’s new leader, Ed Miliband, has also encountered this problem, and so has remained woefully quiet on the influence of UKIP. Only the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, deeply unpopular and with little to lose, has found the courage to speak out about the travesty of a British departure from the Union.
British uncertainty about its role in Europe is nothing new. As an island on the northern fringe, and from 1527 onwards a Protestant one on an enduringly Catholic continent, the early-modern period saw Britain establishing itself as a step apart from its European neighbours. The prevailing foreign policy perspective of the country’s establishment throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries was of so-called ‘splendid isolation’, leaving the continent to its own affairs and conflicts whilst developing the UK’s global maritime (and later colonial) empire. Only at certain flashpoints were there seen to be causes for major intervention, most famously in the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars.
Yet this isolation has always been something of an illusion. Particularly towards the later 19th Century, the race to control the greatest proportion of the planet’s surface entangled Britain more with the fates of its fellow European nations. The same alliance system which was ostensibly to keep the balance power ended up imploding as it dragged Europe, and the rest of the world, into war in 1914. Although Britain remained relatively removed from the instability which swept over the continent in the first part of the 20th Century, it could not escape the Great Depression or its outworkings, fascism and resurgent Soviet communism. The Second World War and the post-war reconstruction and integration efforts saw the UK finally accepting its role as a fully responsible European nation.
Why, now, has this been lost? Britain is certainly not the only member-state to doubt the efficacy of the EU as it stands, but it is the only one for which the great achievement of union has lost its value to the extent that it is seriously contemplating exit. This puts May’s European elections in a particularly curious context for the country. For British Eurosceptics, aware that this might well be the last round of these elections the UK sees, they are merely a stepping-stone to the 2017 referendum – that will be the main fight for (or rather against) Britain’s EU membership, and so the selection of MEPs this year is a bureaucratic gesture before the main contest really begins. UKIP dictates the agenda so completely on Europe that it need not even increase its seat share (although it may well do); it can rely on Conservative and Labour candidates, in various degrees of discomfort, to cater to its anti-Europe message.
Which leaves a final question: where are the British Europhiles? Where are those political figures – not only Liberal Democrats or Blairites but Conservatives in the venerable tradition of Winston Churchill and Edward Heath – who are willing to make the multifarious economic, social, political and military case for the UK’s active involvement in the EU? It seems that, for the time being, the United Kingdom will be continuing down its road of European exceptionalism – stopping at the ballot box this May on the way.