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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

ukip: just a “one-man band”?

Five years ago, immediately after the 2014 European elections I wrote a piece for a small Italian political magazine of the Fondazione Critica Liberale and forgot about it. A piece in today's New York Times reminded me about it so I re-read it. Within limits (for "UKIP", read "Brexit Party") I think it's better now than it was then. It (obviously) failed to pick up up on Jeremy Corbyn you can sense the anxiety in my voice...


astrolabio ukip: just a “one-man band”?

paul tout

“…and always keep a-hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse”
From “Jim” by Hilaire Belloc

In his award-winning 3-part BBC series ‘The Power of Nightmares’ the documentary film maker Adam Curtis asserts from the outset that the picture of Al-Qaeda as America’s bogeyman is none other than a mirror image of that which exists in the minds of fundamentalist Islamists throughout the world who, perhaps rightly, see their values, mores and traditions threatened by the globalising onslaught of a diametrically-opposed “West” that is setting out to sweep away morals, theisms and barriers to “free” thought. The substitution of the (fallen) USSR with a new and more insidious enemy, is, he suggests, nothing other than a plot by western governments to maintain control over an increasingly fractious and individualistic populace.

How far can this model, which has its critics, help to explain the spread of what has been facilely-labeled and oversimplified as ‘xenophobia’ in the liberal European press and, in particular, account for the rising star of Nigel Farage and his United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)? Why has the European Union come to be seen as little more than a bogeyman by a substantial slice of the British populace (and, indeed, the British seen as a bogeyman by EU arch-integrationalists)? What is different in the UKIP 15 approach in the current political and economic situation to that exhibited by extreme right-wing parties (such as Nicholas Griffin’s British National Party and its earlier manifestation, the National Front) which, after a series of false dawns, failed to gain any parliamentary representation and whose single European MP, Griffin himself, was not re-elected in the recent poll? What does Farage want? What processes have allowed him to come to the fore? Do the British really want what they voted for or was the UKIP vote, not unlike that for Renzi in the opinion of many, merely a reflection of a lack (or the removal) of alternatives?

“There but for the grace of God…”

The manifest failure, post-2008, of the Euro currency (at least as far as its Mediterranean participants and Ireland were concerned) and southern European youth unemployment together with Italy’s catastrophic relative industrial decline and indebtedness have not gone un-noticed in Britain. They have in fact, been seen as a vindication of the UK’s less-than-hidden Euroscepticism and Gordon Brown’s only saving grace is painted as having been to keep the UK out of the Euro against the will of his then boss, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. The EU has ALWAYS had an image problem throughout northern Europe, at least since the 1986 expansion which took in Spain and Portugal and the undercurrent of anti-Latin sentiment has always been strong, not only in Britain. The dire economic straits in which the PIGS (even the acronym!?) found themselves was seen as a moral judgment on their economic and social rectitude, although perhaps more by the States who found themselves directly dealing with the mess, Germany to the fore, rather than by Britain which adopted a quasi-Latin quantitative easing with gusto and recommended it at every opportunity (and much to German annoyance).

Britain’s economic recovery, relative to the Eurozone members, albeit built on the sand of easy money, has only served to reinforce this opinion. French-led efforts to hobble the City of London and Britain’s financial services industry, a ludicrouslylarge 15% of GDP, via Brussels-imposed legislation, only served to stoke the tensions further.

Prior to this débâcle, while Spaniards, Italians and Greeks were perceived (and directly measured) as being happy to delegate decision-making to Brussels (seen as more honest and organised than their domestic politicians) the northern arc viewed a “swarthier” administration and body politic with suspicion, no more so (but not exclusively) than in Britain. Geography conspired too, and the British were not the only country to avail themselves of a Schengen Area opt-out, Ireland doing so as well.

Basic conceptions differ too, along with geography and the two parts have different judicial bases, with Europeans being seen as “subject” to Roman / Napoleonic law as against British “Common Law” which sets the citizen free and not subject to the authority of the State if the latter does not demonstrate his (or her) guilt; English Common Law adhering to the broad principle that everything is permitted unless specifically forbidden (the rest being regulated by the constraints of custom and manners). In contrast, the Napoleonic code loosely starts from the opposite premise and is utterly alien to the British mindset. It may seem to be nitpicking but the Anglo-Saxon premise against a “nanny” State was and remains strong, as evinced by the absence of an Identity Card (introduced and then abolished for both World Wars, and proposed once again by that man Blair but scrapped at the start of the current parliament), a citizen’s “residence” (other than for electoral, medical or communication purposes) or the need to carry some form of proof of identity, right down to the police not having a “right” to randomly stop motorists not actually committing an offence. The idea of unelected centres of power actually legislating is inconceivable. (Nota bene, the British monarch is, obviously, unelected as is the House of Lords but any laws are proposed by the elected government or by a private member of the House of Commons). As Farage would say (using his catch-phrase) the EU, indeed Europe itself, is, simply, “Baffling!” to the British, and vice versa.

This century has seen a fundamental change in the organization (‘The Common Market’) that British citizens chose to remain in by a large majority (67%) in 1975 (having joined in 1973). The Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and the various opt-outs 17 negotiated (Schengen, the Euro, et al) have reinforced the UK’s status as something of a sociopolitical ‘Galapagos’, isolated, but not completely so, (and, Farage would say, “not enough!”) from the changes going on apace within Europe. The most manifest change, electorally exploited to the full by UKIP, has been that of the net inward migration of EU citizens to the UK, perhaps as many as 2 million (and additional to those arriving from outside the EU, half as many again) which has seen the population rise more than 10% to almost 64 million in just 20 years.

That Britain as an economy has benefitted from this influx of young, largely single taxpayers without dependents, is almost undeniable but, in spite of this, the benefits accruing to individuals (and communities) with access to the ballot-box are far less clearcut if you don’t employ an Italian au pair or a pair of Spanish gardeners. Housing is in desperately short supply in the economically ‘hot’ parts of the south-east and England (as opposed to Great Britain) is rapidly becoming the EU’s most crowded country. While relatively low-paid work in these areas seems easy to come by (and youth unemployment is low by EU standards at 20%) the purchasing power of this segment of the population (but with a vote) has been static or declining for many years when housing costs are included. Farage knows this and has exploited it ruthlessly, snapping up the votes of people who, traditionally at least, would have voted Labour but see Miliband’s “soft” integrationist and pro-EU stance as being against their interests (which include easy access to a reasonably well-paid, low-skilled job with a decent disposable income, a family doctor and schools).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Although not completely mutually-exclusive, via family ties, the second group coalescing around the UKIP leader (but not his minions, it remains very much a one-man band, something it shares with Italy’s M5S) is very different. Older, wealthier and drawn from traditional Conservative (and conservative) ranks, these are people towards the end of their working careers or retired who are ill-at-ease with the rapid changes they have witnessed in British society including the admirable rise of ‘political correctness’, racial tolerance and inclusivity that have 18 marked the years since Tony Blair first came to power but which perhaps began with the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Now a threatened species, but, like-it-or-not, beacons of white British male political incorrectness, such as the BBC motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson, although periodically slapped-down by his bosses, are immensely popular. The chainsmoking, beer-swilling, wise-cracking Farage taps into this vein to great effect, occupying a similar ecological niche in humorously sailing close to the wind but, unlike Grillo, using measured tones and kind words whilst, at the same time, making his inner thoughts perfectly clear, at least to native speakers. He plays an ‘inclusiveness’ blinder too, with a German wife. (“Anti-German? Who me?”)

His chosen lieutenants, for the moment at least, lack this finesse and this has undoubtedly hobbled UKIP. Cameron and the Conservatives, however, cannot lean back and laugh at Labour and find themselves in a bind. The easiest solution would be to wheel out their old anti-EU, anti-European Commission, anti-gay marriage, anti-immigration sentiments that dominated party thinking until 1990 and reconquer that lost vote but at the same time they risk losing the votes they have gained from more conservative ethnic minorities and wealthy young people voting with their wallets, rather than their hearts. Anti-EU sentiment is not the only factor favouring the rise of the UKIP vote. ‘Islamaphobia’ which has waxed and waned in Britain following 9/11, rose again following the terrorist attacks on the London public transport network before falling once again. A series of recent high profile news stories on, among other things, the perceived Islamisation taking place in State-funded schools, the undeclared use of halal-slaughtered meat (in accordance with Islamic traditions) in schools, supermarkets and canteens, difficulties encountered in extraditing or expelling hardline muslim fundamentalists and violent criminals from the UK, (difficulties coincidentally attributed to EU rulings and its UK interpretation, the ‘Human Rights Act’) and a dreary, tragic series of ‘honour’ killings have all raised xenophobic fears and contributed to UKIP’s success.

What does Farage want? Can anyone ever truly read a politician’s mind? What would he settle for? He’s probably unsure himself. He currently presides, rather like Grillo, over an undisciplined and rag-tag ‘Barmy Army’ which may wither away as rapidly as it came to the fore. If anything the party apparatus is weaker, older and less solid than Grillo’s M5S and certainly less established than Le Pen’s Front National. For the moment Farage has successfully subsumed Griffin’s British National Party / National Front voters, telling them to put on a jacket and tie, cover their tattoos and let their hair grow a bit!

Is UKIP here to stay? It’s hard to say, but as a federalist consensus condenses along the middle Rhine it is increasingly putting legislative and philosophical water between itself and the isolated beasts on the ‘Galapagos’. How isolated that British position actually is will only become clear at the next French elections. One thing is sure however, that, like the grit in a clam, he’s an irritant in the UK’s body politic that is producing a hard, shiny (but largely white) pearl of Euroscepticism which the politicians of the main parties will have to take account of, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats being it’s most notable victim. The latter seem to have imploded utterly, compromised by decisions forced on them in coalition that have adversely affected students and young people (notably the rise in further education tuition fees to £9,000 per year) and, having lost the solid support they obtained in the big University cities in the last general election, seem destined to another period in the political wilderness that characterized Liberal fortunes for much of the 20th Century.

That said, the EU elections in Britain remain the non plus ultra of political protest voting. Just a week after the European elections Cameron halted the Farage bandwagon at Newark where the incumbent Conservative, Patrick Mercer, had resigned over ‘cash-for-questions’ impropriety and UKIP only managed to finish a solid second, well ahead of Labour. The May 25th surge was not maintained. It remains to be seen whether British voters who chose Farage to represent them in the EU Parliament want the same person running the country?!

Many die-hard Italian federalists I talk to, mostly nice people with nice jobs in the public sector, continue to paint British Euroscepticism as some sort of national defect and that an unbridled Europhilia should be the normal state of affairs. Both will have their expression, healthy or otherwise, in a debate about what the entire European Project involves. The Franco-German axis, with tacit Latin support, has made sure that the British have been manifestly unable to command the debate but the elections in May 2014 have left Euroscepticism in a healthier state than ever as the European Project has brought about mass migration as well as large-scale industrial relocation eastwards, putting pressure on blue collar purchasing power and creating mass youth unemployment in the south. Perhaps the REAL problem in Europe (and especially the EU) is the lack, thus far, of a democracy deficit, the democracy deficit illustrated by Ireland’s enforced re-vote on the Lisbon treaty or the suppression of the Dutch and French “No” votes on the European Constitution, in which the Superstate feels its peoples OUGHT to vote in a particular fashion. Perhaps the citizens of Europe, France and Britain in particular, not to mention the Greeks, need to be sent back to vote once again so that they come back with the “right answer”. I’m sure that, when sober, arch-federalist Jean-Claude Juncker would agree, especially with Farage, Grillo, Tsipras and Le Pen there to chase them back to the fold.

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