European Elections: Zero Hour

EU European Elections 2014

 

In less than twenty-four hours, the polls will close and British voters will render their verdict in the European elections – as best they can, given the negligible differences between the main political parties, the lack of debate about EU policy and the vast shortcomings of the media’s coverage throughout.

This blog would have relished the opportunity to provide coverage and commentary on the three main political parties, had they made any substantive policy proposals or generated interesting news of their own – but in terms of the European election in Britain, almost from the start, it has been UKIP driving the agenda and making the headlines.

Today has been another day of incessant attacks on UKIP and euroscepticism by the main political parties, the media and spontaneous social media efforts. The #WhyImVotingUKIP hashtag, announced by the party’s leadership in a naive bid to gain positive grassroots momentum, was immediately and predictably hijacked by anti-UKIP activists and self-proclaimed wits across the country, resulting in some occasionally amusing (but mostly tiresome and false) jibes at their expense.

UKIP’s support having remained solid despite the missteps of the past week and the concerted efforts of nearly every major media outlets to portray isolated, reprehensible racist and homophobic actions as being representative of the party as a whole, the final tranche of negative UKIP stories betrayed signs of desperation. Today’s burning new reasons not to vote UKIP ranged from cycling policy to the similarity between UKIP supporters and football hooligans.

More seriously, a UKIP candidate standing in the local council election in Lancashire was allegedly stabbed in the face by a neighbour as a result of his political views. A man has been arrested and bailed pending a police enquiry, but if it is determined that the attack was indeed politically motivated it should give serious pause to those who have so gleefully participated in the free-for-all effort to paint UKIP as the British Union of Fascists reborn and their supporters uniformly as hate-filled individuals deserving of public scorn and shaming.

Throughout the election campaign, this blog has been torn when considering the electoral options on the table. There is no easy, natural option for those with small-government or libertarian-leaning views, who are eurosceptic and in favour of nation state democracy but pro-immigration (in this blog’s view, an entirely consistent and strongly defensible worldview).

Those who still believe in the European project and want lots more – though such people are few and far between – have it easy. The Liberal Democrats will happily take their votes and translate them into continued and unquestioning rubber-stamping of European Union policies, borne out of the ingratiating desire to ‘harmonise’ with the rest of Europe and driven by their pessimistic assessment of Britain’s strength and place in the world. They will also happily patronise the more wavering pro-European with assurances that they too believe in EU ‘reform’, though the specifics of this reform remain forever unarticulated and unattempted.

Those who buy into Ed Miliband’s fuzzy socialist view of Britain and who couldn’t care less about European policy – the party certainly hasn’t offered any concrete ideas, just platitudes about “getting the best deal” and “bringing jobs and growth” to Britain – will always have a welcome home in the Labour Party.

The eurosceptics and the libertarians are left to choose between the Conservative Party (whose track record is long and verifiable, but decidedly mixed) and UKIP (who represent uncharted territory and unwelcome controversy but seem to hold closer to their convictions).

In truth, the Conservative Party has played the role of Lucy to the public’s Charlie Brown in their wavering policy toward the European Union, holding out the ball of an in/out or treaty ratification referendum to win eurosceptic votes only to yank it away and wrongfoot the gullible voters once safely returned to office:

Just kidding about that referendum.
Just kidding about that referendum.

 

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that many existing Conservative MEPs have worked effectively in the European Parliament to scupper some of the more damaging pieces of legislation, creating something of a much-needed opposition in an institution otherwise characterised by consensus and groupthink. Since Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the European Union is not on the cards, it is important (for those of a democratic mindset) that an effective rearguard action can be fought to defend British interests while a more comprehensive renegotiation with or withdrawal from the EU is completed.

The Conservative MEP and staunch eurosceptic Daniel Hannan reinforces the important point that the European election is not just a glorified opinion poll, and that the electorate’s verdict will have real-world consequences. But while this is true – and the new European Parliament will be making decisions long after the 2015 general election in Britain – the campaign has been fought along such determinedly domestic political lines that protest voting has been inadvertently encouraged from the start. And there is more than enough to protest.

The Telegraph’s Tim Stanley sums up some of the grievances:

London liberals believe that a) their liberalism is self-evidently smart and b) anyone who rejects it is a bigoted moron. For years, those who do not subscribe to London’s fashionable politics have had to put up with being told not only that they are wrong but also mentally deficient and prejudiced. Hence, the attacks on Farage as a racist fool inspire, if not sympathy, a recognition that this slight is daily inflicted upon almost everyone who lives outside the M25. By treating so many of their fellow Britons with contempt, the London establishment has built up a tide of bitterness against it. And, on Thursday, that tide will probably break against the shore.

Stanley goes on to add:

I’m probably a London liberal – but I’d be the first to say that we’ve got it coming and that it’s richly deserved.

This kicking is indeed coming – UKIP are still polling in first place, despite their recent missteps and the attacks from the establishment, as well as the uncovering of a decidedly nasty element of indeterminate size within the party.

But whether UKIP’s success is based on growing support for their policies or through being the main beneficiary of the protest vote (the truth lies somewhere in between), a good result for them will be a stunning rebuke to the main political parties – a rebuke too important to be dismissed as a simple act of blind protest.

National protest movements might capture 10 or 15 percent of the vote on a good day. An election result of 30 percent or more (as UKIP are predicted to achieve) isn’t evidence of a mere protest vote, or the electorate “letting off steam”. It’s a clear sign that a significant body of British public opinion is being ignored and not given a home within the three main political parties.

The rise of UKIP reflects the realisation among British voters that our democracy is becoming increasingly illusory. Regular elections may still take place and the campaigns may be boisterous as ever, but they are increasingly fought within a vanishingly small segment of the political spectrum, with an enormous degree of consensus among the ruling elite that has simply not been achieved among the population in general.

This spurning of popular opinion – on a range of issues from immigration to capital punishment – is epitomised by our politicians’ attitudes toward the European Union, with Britain being swept down the stream to ever-closer union without any public consultation since the referendum of 1975.

The point is not that the elites are always wrong – capital punishment is abhorrent and its reinstatement would be hugely regressive, while the idea that one additional immigrant automatically means one less job for a British worker is laughably misguided, for example – but at some point they must make the effort to change the hearts and minds of the people, rather than high-handedly overriding or ignoring them. Yet high-handed presumption seems to be all that the main parties now know and practice.

Suppose that an alien, familiar with and supportive of the concept of democracy but ignorant of modern British and European history, were to land on Earth in the midst of this election campaign. They would ascertain that Britain joined what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973, following a campaign based largely on joining a free trade group. But they would then be aghast to see that organisation – with no new referendum through which the people gave their consent – grow into a political union negotiating its own trade deals, decreeing its own understanding of human rights, making its own foreign policy pronouncements and acting independently on the world stage on behalf of all, but with the consent of none.

The remarkable fact is that more people are not outraged at this betrayal by the political class – but the betrayal has taken place very slowly, with degrees of sovereignty handed over to the EU in imperceptible stages, until – like the frog placed in cold water and slowly boiled alive without ever realising the danger – Britain finds herself so enmeshed within the developed European institutions that any renegotiation or withdrawal becomes an inevitably traumatic prospect.

A British exit from the European Union – or a wholesale renegotiation of the terms of Britain’ membership – could have a net positive effect or a negative overall effect on Britain, depending on the terms under which they took place. This European election campaign – since it was never going to be about EU policy – was a golden opportunity to have this debate and consider the various proposals for renegotiation or exit and submit them to scrutiny. But instead it was spent making headlines out of gaffes and missteps, and throwing the kitchen sink at the one party whose views lie outside the pro-European consensus.

And yet the reviled anti-establishment party remains on course to win.

When Britain voted to remain within the EU in 1975, the late Tony Benn – then Secretary of State for Industry and leading figure from the No campaign – had these magnanimous words to say in the hour of defeat:

When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum.

Today, the British people will speak and deliver their verdict on 39 years of ever-closer union without consultation, but no one will tremble before our decision. The party PR machines will whir into action, the spin doctors will get to work and a herculean exercise in groupthink will take place until the establishment convince themselves – and many of us – that the result is an aberration, a blip, a flash in the pan which can be explained away with talking points until normal business can quietly resume.

No, they will not tremble or humble themselves. We do that now.

 

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