The populist right has made gains across Europe. Why not in Britain, asks Anthony Painter
So it did happen. In the year following its staggering first place finish in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the political classes had argued that the English Independence party’s support – in the mid-20s – was just froth. But in the first post-austerity general election, Nigel Farage’s party managed to hold on to most of its support, polled 20 per cent of the vote and saw the election of 25 MPs.
Sporting a St George’s cross tie, Farage declared in the early hours that his party ‘hadn’t even begun yet’ and already it had ‘turned British politics upside-down’. The prime minister, David Cameron, now faces a tough choice: governing as a minority coalition with the 12 remaining Liberal Democrat MPs, a grand coalition with Labour, or a small majority coalition with the EIP. The UK’s departure from the EU now seems a very real possibility. How did it come to this?
There were three main factors behind the rise of the EIP: it tapped into a latent cultural anxiety and popular exasperation with continuing austerity and rebranded itself and adopted a new organisational approach.
Research had pointed to latent cultural anxiety and hostility over and over again. Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham and Robert Ford of the University of Manchester had showed how the core or loyal support of the EIP’s forerunner, the UK Independence party, resembled that of the British National party in many ways: younger, working class, white, male and often with a Labour heritage. The more fleeting support generally came at the expense of the Tories but only in European elections. It had done well in the previous European elections – a second place finish and 16.5 per cent of the vote in 2009 – only to see the bulk of its support returning to the Conservatives in 2010. It was seen as a single-issue anti-European party.
But then something changed. The collapse of the BNP into a financial, legal and organisational heap helped. But this was a double-edged sword. The BNP was still associated with an aggressive form of politics: racist, Holocaust-denying and provocative of violence. Its supporters were older and more northern compared with the English Defence League’s – a violent street militia resembling the National Front of old – but both sat in an antagonistic political space. Any association with the supporters of either organisation would be a kiss of death to UKIP looking to appeal to more mainstream voters.
UKIP moved quickly to deal with the threat. Learning from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, it expelled any members who had any association with violence, Holocaust-denial and racism. It refused entry to former members of the BNP or the EDL where it could. Le Pen had moved to expel a party candidate who had been photographed performing a Nazi salute. If anything, UKIP became more severe and made a public virtue of combating racism and prejudice within its own party – whatever the reality.
Other research hinted at an underlying cultural anxiety. The Searchlight Educational Trust’s Fear and Hope report pointed to 23 per cent of the population who were culturally hostile – latently or actively. Goodwin’s research pointed to a broadly similar number. A complacent ‘it couldn’t happen here’ attitude prevailed in the UK’s political and media elites.
However, comparative research such as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination report demonstrated that the UK’s attitudes to immigration, Muslims, and the EU were in the same territory as countries where the populist right or culturally exclusive left had success: France, Germany and the Netherlands. For example, that report demonstrated that 62 per cent of Britons thought there were too many immigrants in the country compared to 40 per cent of people in France and 46 per cent in the Netherlands. Perhaps it was the political system, perhaps it was luck with the leadership and organisational capabilities of rightist parties, but the UK had avoided the rise of the populist right despite public attitudes, not because of them.
UKIP’s major concern in this regard was that it was still seen as a single-issue party focused on leaving the EU. In a political sense it got lucky: this single issue became more salient and formed a convenient bridgehead to other touchstone issues for the anxious one-fifth. The collapse of European democracy in the face of eurozone woes with technocratic governments put in place to administer terrifyingly severe austerity programmes moved the EU’s image in a more malignant direction. When the economy plunged into recession again in 2012 political elites were no longer simply distant; they were incompetent too.
The UK government was not immune from this. Despite cripplingly tough spending cuts – or even because of them – growth did not return and unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remained scarily high. The deficit remained above eight per cent. While the government was discredited people still did not trust the opposition Labour party. With austerity not working, Labour’s plans to spend more money to kickstart the economy met with deep public scepticism. Both party elites were discredited and so were their colleagues in Europe.
The economic pain was compounded by an apparent breakdown of law and order. Riots became a feature of each summer. This took on an added twist when a rightwing columnist began a ‘ban the burka’ campaign. Whether it was the cultural offence, whether it was persistent long-term unemployment, there is little doubt that the terrifying ‘summer inferno’ of 2013, violent clashes between white supremacists and young Muslim men in London’s East End, left a deep political wound. The death of a policeman and a young mother in the violence were appalling. And this was Farage’s opening. He caught the public mood with a message of a ‘plague on all their houses’ – rioters, ‘un-British cultures’, and political elites. He spent the next few weeks touring TV studios with a demand for a return to British values and a restoration of law and order. UKIP’s poll rating briefly touched 30 per cent.
It then started to fall away and that would have been that if UKIP had not changed its entire organisational strategy. Farage started to argue not just for UK independence from the EU but for an independent England alongside Scotland. To that end he proposed reinventing UKIP as the ‘popular expression of English patriotism’. The drift of Scotland towards independence or at least ‘devo-max’ made this agenda more politically powerful – both Labour and the Conservatives were like rabbits caught in the headlights as they had no clue about how to deal with this debate other than to try to avoid it. Predictably, this approach failed.
At a special conference, the party changed its name to the English Independence party. It received an endowment of £20m from five wealthy donors to develop its organisation in pursuit of English independence.
By focusing on 50 seats which contained both a high number of disgruntled nationalistic Tories and the sorts of voters who may previously have been attracted to the BNP, it made the most of its organisational firepower. It was a powerful combination: a broader political message, a new focus on Englishness, a bright new brand, serious resource, and a coherent organisational strategy.
And yesterday, the EIP secured 20 per cent of the vote and 25 MPs. Just like Alex Salmond in Scotland, seen as a faintly ridiculous figure a few years ago, who now underestimates Farage and his EIP? His name has been added to the list of Europe’s popular new right that includes Le Pen, Pia Kjærsgaard, and Geert Wilders.
Few voices are saying ‘it couldn’t happen here’ on this post-election morning. Instead, the British political establishment is asking ‘how on earth did we get here?’ More pertinently, the question has become ‘is this the beginning of the end of the UK and its membership of the EU?’ English and British politics will never be the same – a heavy price has been paid for complacency.
Anthony Painter’s article Time for an Optimistic Englishness appears in the current edition of Soundings
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