Two conflicting forces have been at work in the British debate over the EU in the last 25 years, opening up a large space between what people wanted and what their government meant to deliver. But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The rise of the UK Independence Party has started to fill the empty space, creating an extraordinarily uncertain and fascinating backdrop to the 2014 European elections and the 2015 general election. The eventual result may well be that Britain leaves the European Union, but the process of withdrawal could be complex and messy, and its outcome ambiguous and incomplete. UKIP has been in existence for 20 years, but in some respects its work has only just begun.
The first of the two conflicting forces stemmed from the Single European Act of 1986 and later treaties that transferred “competences” from the nation states of Europe to EU institutions, above all to the European Commission in Brussels. This led to an anomalous situation in which every nation had two governments, one in its capital city and the other in Brussels, and the two governments vied with each other for power. As the nation states were unwilling to hand over the powers to tax and spend, the Brussels agenda was to grow the EU’s constitutional remit by introducing ever more rules and regulations. These were incorporated in the purportedly irreversible acquis communautaire. Meanwhile, European courts passed judgments that widened their own jurisdiction, obviously at the expense of the national legal systems.
The expansion of the acquis imposed extra burdens on finance and industry, and seriously undermined the efficiency of Europe’s economies, including Britain’s. Virtually every business faced additional costs that had no clear benefit to anyone, while many small businesses ceased to be viable because of one or another EU regulation. The EU’s popularity declined as its regulations proliferated. Opinion polls showed a steady erosion of public support for “the European construction”, so that by, say, 2005 and certainly by 2010 more people in the UK were against the EU than were for it. Resentment towards European integration was exacerbated by frankly silly verdicts from the European Court of Human Rights which, under the treaties, had to be accepted by Her Majesty’s Government.
The second of the two conflicting forces was that a majority of the British political elite became more comfortable with the European construction, and more eager to work within the EU framework. For them the transfer of competences was welcome and to be promoted. Close assimilation with the EU was most obvious within the Civil Service, as the UK and EU bureaucracies worked together on the drafting of new directives and regulations. These European “laws” were endorsed in the EU Council of Ministers and, over ever more areas of national life, our own Parliament could do nothing but rubber-stamp the Council’s decisions. It might have been expected that Britain’s parliamentarians would early have recognised the enormity of the constitutional hijack that was under way. Such figures as Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher did articulate great concern. However, the Conservative Party, the party that might have been expected to defend Britain’s traditions and institutions, actively participated in the hijack, and marginalised the efforts of Powell, Thatcher and numerous others to halt or reverse it.
At any rate, popular and elite perceptions of the EU ran in different directions in the 25 or so years that followed the Single European Act. Most British people were angered and alienated by the EU’s encroachment on their ways of life, whereas the majority of those involved in government felt increasingly at ease with or even applauded the expansion of “Europe”. The Europhile governing elite included politicians, civil servants and what might be termed “the clerisy”. (The term, originated by Coleridge, refers to state functionaries plus their affiliates, such as the heads of quangos, top academics and leading newspaper pundits.) Whereas opinion polls began to show a clear margin in favour of leaving the EU, the commitment of the established political parties to EU membership became more definite. In the 2010 general election all three of the “main” parties were in favour of continued EU membership, indifferent to the growing Euroscepticism of the British public.
The widening of the space between popular and elite opinion could not go on forever. UKIP’s spectacular recent achievement is to have met the demand for an anti-EU political vehicle. A string of by-election results since Corby in November 2012 and the recent English county council elections shows that it has captured the political loyalties of a significant proportion of the electorate. The European issue is not the only one that explains the shift to UKIP, but it is dominant in forging the party’s distinctiveness and its appeal. The extent of UKIP’s latest successes have been almost wholly unexpected by the clerisy and the commentariat. In the middle of last year not one of Britain’s political editors foresaw the imminent leap in UKIP support or anticipated that in early 2013 David Cameron would be under such pressure that he would feel obliged to promise an In/Out referendum on EU membership.
An extraordinary feature of the UKIP phenomenon is that, at a national level, the party operates on a budget less than the bonus of many City traders. Its membership subscriptions have for several years run at under £400,000. Electoral Commission statistics show that donations totalled £325,957 in 2011 and £314,410 in 2012. By contrast, in the last two years donations to the Conservatives came to about £14 million a year and to Labour about £12 million. UKIP has relied on hard work by local activist volunteers. The clerisy and the commentariat may mock, but the by-election campaigns since Corby show that the established parties cannot mobilise the same number of supporters at key electoral tests.
What now follows? Sooner or later a referendum on EU membership is inevitable, and current opinion polls suggest that the vote will be to leave the EU. UKIP is of course in favour of a referendum and wants it to be held as soon as possible. But a case can be made that the longer a referendum is delayed, the more decisive and better the result will be. The Conservatives are rattled, with the newspapers full of rumours of an electoral pact of some sort. But, by promising a referendum, Cameron has lost the best bargaining chip he might have offered to UKIP. It may now seem ancient history, but may we recall that before the 2010 general election there was talk of a deal? In that deal UKIP would not oppose Conservative candidates at all if Cameron agreed a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Circumstances have changed dramatically. In 2013 UKIP stood for hundreds more local government positions than before 2010, while Cameron has conceded an In/Out referendum.
It is difficult to see how a pact can be agreed between UKIP and any other party before the 2015 general election. As UKIP is in an immeasurably stronger position than in 2010, an alliance with another party makes sense only if the non-UKIP party accepts that it must stand down in several seats and make way for UKIP candidates. That is not going to happen. Anyhow UKIP leader Nigel Farage and David Cameron loathe each other, and have made no secret of their mutual distrust. The probability has to be that in 2015 UKIP will fight all three of the other parties. To the extent that UKIP and the Conservatives were to split each other’s votes, that would lead to Labour securing a large parliamentary majority. Since Ed Miliband has rejected the idea of an EU referendum, Cameron’s pledge of a referendum in 2017 would prove redundant whether or not it were “enshrined in law”.
From the standpoint of those committed to the UK’s exit from the EU, does that matter? The case for a referendum has long suffered from an obvious practical difficulty: how would events play out if a pro-Out vote in a referendum were recorded under a pro-In government? Given that UKIP is the only party that unreservedly backs withdrawal from the EU, and given also that UKIP may struggle to achieve substantial parliamentary representation in 2015, a no vote under a yes government is all too plausible.
Cameron plainly envisages that he will still be Prime Minister in 2017 and hence would be the man charged to implement the result of the referendum. He does not bother to hide his view the UK must remain inside the EU after a renegotiation, however trivial the benefits. How would UKIP’s rank and file feel if they had worked hard to obtain a “no to the EU” vote in a bitter and exhausting referendum campaign, only for Cameron and his associates to betray the vote? Alternatively, suppose that Cameron has been replaced by Miliband in 2015 and that Miliband has somehow been forced to hold an In/Out referendum against his own wishes. Suppose again that the referendum result is “no to the EU”. What is the betting that Miliband would treat the referendum result with contempt? Surely he would do everything in his power to ensure that the UK remained, for all intents and purposes, an EU member state subject to the single market’s acquis.
Most elements of the UK government machine want Britain to stay inside the EU. Someone has to write the speeches, draft the legislation, take the phone calls, organise official diaries and so on, and the ability of the civil service, the clerisy and the commentariat to frustrate the UK’s exit cannot be underestimated. If they want the UK in the EU, regardless of Daily Mail leaders and UKIP’s support in the C and D social groups, they can cause a lot of trouble. The claim that in contemporary Britain the democratic will can be obstructed so wilfully may seem far-fetched. But the handover of competences since 1986 has been largely the work of bureaucrats operating without effective democratic check. Thatcher herself complained that she had been misled by the Foreign Office about the true implications of the Single European Act. In 2003 Christopher Booker and Richard North published a book, The Great Deception, chronicling the lies, tricks and chicanery perpetrated by Europhile officialdom. Naive politicians and the general public were easily hoodwinked.
UKIP is forever being insulted. Michael Howard started it off in 2004, by saying that UKIP’s members could be called “cranks and gadflies” at the next general election. Cameron’s description in 2006 of UKIP as full of “loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists” was worse. Ken Clarke’s recent labelling of UKIP as “clowns” backfired almost immediately, not least because Clarke has been badly wrong for many years in his advocacy of UK adoption of the euro. But even journalists have had to get into the act. In the Daily Telegraph Bruce Anderson recently referred to UKIP as “a ragbag of rum coves”.
The established parties, the clerisy and the commentariat do not seem to understand why there is so much popular resentment. All too obviously, they despise many of their fellow citizens. Yes, there is something very “rum” about the developing relationship between Britain and the EU. Our nation is special, with precious traditions of freedom and the rule of law, and a remarkable history of almost 1,000 years of successful resistance to foreign invasion. Yet in the last 40 years Britain’s political leadership has handed over more than 20 “competences” — meaning in practice the government of our country — to an alien bureaucracy in a foreign land. That is what is so “rum” about modern British politics. Cannot Howard, Cameron, Clarke and indeed Bruce Anderson appreciate that something has gone very wrong? Can’t they see that millions of British people feel betrayed, and want to get back much that was right about Britain?
The difficulty for UKIP, and for the independence movement more generally, is that a referendum vote to leave the EU may be wasted if that vote is secured under a government led by politicians who belong to the Europhile establishment. The great majority of the British people do not want their country absorbed in a European superstate. Surely, that is a given for at least the next two generations. The popular will must be respected and ought ultimately to prevail, however pathetic the politicos in Westminster. The EU is failing and the failures will become more serious and conspicuous as the years go by. In that sense time is on UKIP’s side.
There is no need to hurry the agenda of withdrawal and to compromise with other parties for short-term political gain. The objective of full, unconditional independence for the UK does not need to be diluted. It will be better for the independence movement to gain strength, quality and credibility, perhaps over one or two decades, so that in due course a government genuinely committed to EU withdrawal achieves a clear mandate at a general election. In that way the democratic wish for our country to be sovereign and independent can override the Europhile elite.