Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nigel Farage

UKIP and the Return of Popular Conservatism in Britain

Over the weekend Britain’s political class has been reverberating from the latest upsurge in support for the anti-European Union UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). In the early hours of Friday morning it became apparent that UKIP had just won its first member of parliament, while on Sunday the papers released a new poll claiming that UKIP now has the backing of 25 percent of voters. This apparent surge also comes in the wake of UKIP winning Britain’s European elections back in May. Nowhere is the shock being more acutely felt than in the Conservative party; for it has been Conservative MPs, Conservative party donors, and, most significantly, Conservative voters who have been defecting to UKIP. Yet now growing numbers of working-class Labor voters are also being converted. Not since Thatcher has this section of British society been galvanized by a right of center platform.

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Over the weekend Britain’s political class has been reverberating from the latest upsurge in support for the anti-European Union UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). In the early hours of Friday morning it became apparent that UKIP had just won its first member of parliament, while on Sunday the papers released a new poll claiming that UKIP now has the backing of 25 percent of voters. This apparent surge also comes in the wake of UKIP winning Britain’s European elections back in May. Nowhere is the shock being more acutely felt than in the Conservative party; for it has been Conservative MPs, Conservative party donors, and, most significantly, Conservative voters who have been defecting to UKIP. Yet now growing numbers of working-class Labor voters are also being converted. Not since Thatcher has this section of British society been galvanized by a right of center platform.

For some time now the UKIP-base has been characterized as a bunch of Shire Tories in exile. The average UKIP voter was pictured as some ruddy faced ex-colonel still ranting about the empire. Yet since the 2010 election, when UKIP received just 3 percent of the vote, the party has expanded significantly. Today UKIP’s strongest support comes from the Thames estuary region: once working-class areas of Kent and Essex that switched to the Conservatives for Mrs. Thatcher. It is here, in Rochester, that a Conservative MP recently abandoned his party and will seek reelection on a UKIP ticket in November. A little to the north in Essex is the by-no-means affluent coastal town of Clacton. There the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell also switched to UKIP and last week gave the party its first parliamentary seat.

In Clacton the transition from Tory to UKIP was dramatic. Carswell won 60 percent of the vote for his newly adopted party, whereas he had won 53 percent of the vote for the Conservatives back in 2010. But last week there was a second by-election taking place in England, and this one was in many ways far more significant than the result in Essex. In the Labor stronghold Heywood and Middleton–a northern district in Manchester–UKIP surged to second position with 38 percent of the vote, despite having received only 2.6 percent at the last election. Indeed, Labor managed to beat UKIP by just six hundred votes.

Plenty of excuses have been found for this result. Some have suggested that the Rotherham sex abuse scandal may have helped UKIP’s popularity in the North. Undoubtedly, many Labor supporters have been alienated by Ed Miliband’s woefully unpopular leadership and see Labor as still dominated by the liberal metropolitan elite that took over with Tony Blair. Similarly, many Conservative voters are turned off by their party elite and suspect David Cameron of not being truly committed to the party’s traditional core principles. But the ongoing attempt to frame UKIP as a mere party of protest isn’t convincing, for in reality UKIP is succeeding by speaking to a popular, and essentially conservative, public sentiment.

Yes, UKIP is first and foremost a party that opposes mass immigration and the undemocratic/big government EU that makes that mass immigration inescapable, but UKIP also taps into something far deeper. The party’s leader Nigel Farage, ever eager to be photographed in village pubs, pint in hand, is the self-styled politician of the common man. At the same time, his taste for dressing as if off for a hunting weekend on a country estate seems intentionally evocative of an older England. The phrase that Farage uses to sum up his party’s worldview is “patriotic capitalism” and he has been quite unabashed about claiming the mantle of being the heir to Thatcher for his party. With an emphasis on tax cuts for low earners and clamping down on welfare cheats, his party has immediate appeal for the aspirational working class and the small trader.

Much of UKIP is anathema to Britain’s political consensus. The party provoked a frenzy of gleeful outrage by being the only one to voice ambivalence about the introduction of same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Farage and others in UKIP have suggested that Britain’s nationalized health service would function better if run by businessmen, and several senior figures in the party openly refer to themselves as libertarian. Indeed, while UKIP backs expanding the country’s armed forces it is also decidedly isolationist and has opposed much of the Middle East intervention of recent years.

With UKIP’s support growing, figures on the right of the Conservative party such as Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg have been advocating the Tories make an electoral pact with UKIP. So far Cameron’s primary response has been to somewhat up the rhetoric on Europe and immigration and to warn conservative voters that if they vote UKIP then they risk splitting the center-right and helping Labor to power. The problem is, as seen in Heywood and Middleton where the Tories polled just over 3,000 votes, while Labor and UKIP both received over 11,000, UKIP now appears the party best able to challenge Labor in the North. Similarly, with the collapse in support for the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, who have their stronghold in the rural West Country, UKIP could become the primary challenger there too.

If the latest opinion poll putting UKIP on 25 percent is accurate, and depending on how that vote distributes itself, some are predicting UKIP could take over one hundred seats at the next election. UKIP appears to be good news for popular conservatism, but if Cameron won’t get serious about immigration, Europe, and intrusive government, then it could be bad news for the Conservative party.

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Should the European Union Be Armed?

Strategists have long been exasperated by the tendency of European countries to simply rely on American forces to keep their region safe for them. Protected under America’s military umbrella, European countries have annually slashed defense spending, diverting the savings to their ballooning and flabby welfare systems. Yet, the prospect of a European Union army, directed by federalist bureaucrats in Brussels, may not quite be what U.S. analysts had in mind. Had the EU been equipped with a large and well-armed fighting force, it is hardly likely that Russia would have been anymore deterred from its recent invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, were the European Union ever to acquire real military might, there is no guarantee that these forces would be used in a way that aligns solely with American interests.

This issue returned to the agenda on account of a high-profile televised debate that took place in Britain on the matter of that country’s membership in the EU. Last week the UK’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took part in the second of two debates with the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage, during which the prospect of an EU military force was one of several highly contested topics. The very fact that a senior member of the government would even be seen debating Farage is a reminder of how this formerly fringe party has recently exploded into the limelight. This has been driven by a growing anger that much of the British public feels about the fact that when they voted to join the European Economic Community back in 1975 they believed they were simply signing up for a trade agreement.   

The debate about the prospects of the EU acquiring a military revolves around the crucial issue of whether this is primarily a trading block oriented around a peace treaty or whether this is actually a nascent super-state, as federalists wish it to be. If the EU is going to be the latter then it is certainly moving in the right direction, with a flag, a currency, ambassadors, and perhaps next a full blown army. That is what has been agitating Farage and an ever more Euro-skeptic British public willing to support his agenda.

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Strategists have long been exasperated by the tendency of European countries to simply rely on American forces to keep their region safe for them. Protected under America’s military umbrella, European countries have annually slashed defense spending, diverting the savings to their ballooning and flabby welfare systems. Yet, the prospect of a European Union army, directed by federalist bureaucrats in Brussels, may not quite be what U.S. analysts had in mind. Had the EU been equipped with a large and well-armed fighting force, it is hardly likely that Russia would have been anymore deterred from its recent invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, were the European Union ever to acquire real military might, there is no guarantee that these forces would be used in a way that aligns solely with American interests.

This issue returned to the agenda on account of a high-profile televised debate that took place in Britain on the matter of that country’s membership in the EU. Last week the UK’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took part in the second of two debates with the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage, during which the prospect of an EU military force was one of several highly contested topics. The very fact that a senior member of the government would even be seen debating Farage is a reminder of how this formerly fringe party has recently exploded into the limelight. This has been driven by a growing anger that much of the British public feels about the fact that when they voted to join the European Economic Community back in 1975 they believed they were simply signing up for a trade agreement.   

The debate about the prospects of the EU acquiring a military revolves around the crucial issue of whether this is primarily a trading block oriented around a peace treaty or whether this is actually a nascent super-state, as federalists wish it to be. If the EU is going to be the latter then it is certainly moving in the right direction, with a flag, a currency, ambassadors, and perhaps next a full blown army. That is what has been agitating Farage and an ever more Euro-skeptic British public willing to support his agenda.

As things stand the EU is not entirely without the option of military recourse. It already has an External Action Service busy masterminding a Common Security and Defense Policy along with the European Union Military Committee that brings into coordination forces of individual member states undertaking joint operations under the EU insignia. Indeed, in recent days the EU has dispatched a task force for peace keeping to the Central African Republic. From the point of view of Brussels, however, the limitation of this arrangement is that it is reliant on how much of their own armed forces the individual member states are willing to contribute to any given mission.

During Britain’s recent televised debate, the deputy Prime Minister dismissed as fanciful Nigel Farage’s suggestion that the EU has been pushing for its own independent military capabilities. Yet, here he is in direct contradiction with what his own prime minister said, when in December of last year, David Cameron demanded full credit for vetoing moves to equip the EU with an air force. The proposals raised during an EU summit, backed by both Europe’s Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton and the European Commission, sought to equip Brussels with a fleet of drones and an Air Force comprised of heavy transport and air-to-air refueling planes. Meanwhile, the head of the European parliament Martin Shulz called for the creation of a fully-fledged European army.

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen backed the British position, accepting the need for Europeans to invest in military capabilities but opposing the idea of the EU having its own separate military. Nevertheless, a report at the time revealed that Ashton’s External Action Service had already begun work in preparation for acquiring remotely piloted aircraft systems.

All of this raises the question of what exactly a militarized EU would do with a newly found army. Given the pacifistic sentiments of many European countries and the EU’s lack of resolve in what little it dose have in the way of a foreign policy–think Ashton’s role in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran–it is easy to imagine the European army being utterly impotent. Something similar to the United Nations’ ineffectual peacekeeping forces that go around the world observing and recording atrocities, pulling out the moment they fear they might come under fire themselves. After all, are Europe’s men going to lay down their lives in the name of Brussels’ federal project?

Yet, it may well be that the only thing worse than an inactive EU army would be active one. The thought of Catharine Ashton armed with drones, or Martin Shulz–the man who came to Israel’s parliament to lecture in German on Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians–having access to ground forces isn’t exactly comforting. Given the anti-Israel mood on European streets could the day come, during another conflagration in Gaza, when the EU might send forces to “restrain” “both sides,” or to “secure the borders” of a self-declared Palestinian state? These scenarios are quite improbable, but given that only last year a French diplomat was caught on camera scuffling with an IDF soldier in the West Bank, one gets the sense that there is a fringe that wouldn’t be opposed to intervening on behalf of the Palestinians.

Certainly Western nations need to pull their weight in keeping the world safe for democracies, but European federalists have their own unique worldview. With a military at their disposal there’s no guarantee as to quite what they might use it for. 

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