After 5 long years of recession (which included a change in Westminster from a Labour to the first coalition government since WWII of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats), dissatisfaction with politics is high, populism thrives and identity politics is ripe - not only in Scotland that may leave the UK after the referendum this summer.
Britain’s political parties are divided in their positions on EU membership and the free movement of people. It is now one of the clearest cleavages between the political right and left. It is a struggle for the meaning of sovereignty and identity that we have seen in many European countries; yet its potency is particularly high on this island and may push the country out of the Union in three years’ time.
Of course, the EU has always been an ambiguous topic in British politics, which is illustrated by the pick-and-mix nature of its membership. Both the Conservative Party with its social conservatism on the one hand and business-friendliness on the other, and the Labour Party, more socially progressive but concerned with protecting the interests of British workers, have always been split on the issue. Forty years ago, it was the Labour Party that advocated a withdrawal from the European Community, opposing the Conservatives’ advocacy of it. Sure, Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech in 1988 illustrates that the UK was always more outspoken than other countries about putting its self-interest first, keen on the economic benefits of the single market, suspicious of the political union that accompanied it. With Tony Blair, New Labour committed itself firmly to the EU, and decided not to impose any significant transitional arrangements on the free movement of people from the new member states that joined in 2004. A wave of immigration from these countries - especially Poland - followed. It was economically hugely beneficial, yet accompanied by a rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments in the popular discourse.
In a parallel development, New Labour turned the party that had traditionally defended the state and the working class, into a party that subscribed to neoliberal ideas, curtailed civic liberties, and continued the transformation from the ‘Keynesian Welfare State’ to the ‘Schumpertarian Workfare State’ that Thatcher had started. Many disappointed voters turned to the Liberal Democrats, for many a protest party on the left, which led to the historical election of 2010 in which the ‘third party’ became the kingmaker and joined a coalition with the Conservatives despite huge political differences. Four years later, the Lib Dems are now seen as having subscribed to the same neoliberal consensus given the coalition government’s record of austerity, privatisations and marketisation.
Hence, many Britons feel - perhaps not unjustly - a lack of differentiation between the main parties in terms of traditional left/right cleavages. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and arguably the nasty political effects of the recession, have strengthened an old and a new divide: immigration and Europe. For UKIP these two ‘problems’ are connected. It is not the qualified immigrants from Asia who are targeted, but the Eastern and Southern European immigrants who are associated with ‘welfare tourism’ and ‘stealing British jobs’. Being a member of the EU is equated with ‘no control over our borders’. Hence, the logic of UKIP and many members of the Conservatives goes, the only way to ‘become a sovereign country again’ is to leave the EU. While the Prime Minister has continuously voiced his support for membership, he has attached conditions to it. He wants to reform the EU, renegotiate the UK’s membership, and then hold an ‘In/Out’ referendum in 2017. Some of the changes he demands are minor, others - especially those that require Treaty change - far fetched. In an interview a few days ago, for instance, David Cameron said that he does not want the principle of ‘ever closer union’ to apply to Britain anymore - a Treaty change that is highly unlikely to be confirmed by the other Member States. As is his demand to restrict the free movement of people, one of the founding principles of the Union.
These demands exemplify Cameron’s strategy: he says Britain should stay in the EU - in an EU that will give in to his demands! He is obviously trying to create a win-win situation for himself and his party. As the EU will not give in to all of his demands, he can remain an advocate of the principles of the single market, and a critic of the EU’s “overbearing influence”. If there will be an referendum on EU membership in 2017, Cameron wants to ensure that he will be the winner - not matter what the result will be. This is a risky strategy and a weak commitment to the EU. Although Labour’s leader Ed Miliband said last year that the previous Labour government ‘got it wrong’ on immigration when not imposing transitional arrangements on the free movement of workers from the new member states, the party seems to have decided now to stand firmly behind Britain’s EU membership, yet it has been more reluctant that the other two parties on the left, the Lib Dems and the Green Party, to speak out for it.
The Lib Dems, who have been stuck on an unpopularity record high since 2010, have come out in the run-up to the European Election as firmly committed to EU membership. Nick Clegg, the party’s leader, has even taken on Nigel Farage in two TV debates on the issue - and was declared the loser. Farage with his bluntness, charisma and well-rehearsed slogans has become a regular in TV discussions and news programs. Undoubtedly, the rise of UKIP is a rise of Farage - despite rather than because of the rest of his party that regularly gets into the news for racist, islamophobic and homophobic comments that Farage is busy downplaying. Farage is not Marine Le Pen, but some UKIP candidates seem to be closer to the Front National’s positions than their leader makes like them to be. Arguably more helpful for Farage is the support of the powerful right-wing populist press that spreads his messages across the country on a daily basis.
So, yes, the pressure UKIP’s popularity is exerting on the Conservative Party has been a major contributor to the deepening of the left/right divide on Europe. Yet, the cleavage appears to be deeper than that. The recession has made Britain a more insecure country - insecure about its place in the world, about its identity. The younger generation - which is more likely to lean towards the left-wing parties - sits more comfortably with the thought of a globalised world order of interdependent countries that benefit more from transnational cooperation, especially when it comes to the big issues of our time: climate change, resource depletion, unreliable financial markets, etc. But this is not just a cleavage between young and old. It is a cleavage between those who are looking backwards and those who are looking ahead and accept the reality of a future Britain that is not a global player in its own right. If Scotland leaves the UK, which would result in a shift of voting weight towards the right, this preoccupation with the search for Britain’s identity may intensify further and in the worst case even push the country out of the EU - out of insecurity rather than conviction.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe's website
- Dossier of May : Challenges to the Left-Right cleavage in Europe
- Budge, I., McKay, D., Newton, K. and Bartle, J. (2013) The New British Politics, Routledge, Abingdon (OX).
- Smith, J. (2012) ‘The European dividing line in party politics’, International Affairs 88(6): 1277-1295
On the internet
- BBC News, ‘Miliband shifts immigration policy, saying Labour ‘got it wrong’’, 22nd June 2012
- BBC News, ‘Britain and the EU: A long and rocky relationship’, 1st April 2014
- BBC News, ‘UK split on EU referendum - BBC poll’, 4th April 2014
- BBC News, ‘EU election: Tory, Labour, UKIP and Lib Dem on Europe’, 13th April 2014
- Breed, D. (2013) ‘Euroscepticism in Britain: Social movement or contentious politics?’, Praxis: Politics in Action 1(1): 74-88.
- The Economist, ‘Labour and Europe - Europhile and proud’, 15th March 2014
Photo credit : The Defiant Flag - Teignmouth, by Christopher Martin on flickr