On Thursday, Britain held local and European elections. The BBC’s political editor has described the results as an “earthquake” in British politics. Charging out of the wilderness, the U.K. Independence party (UKIP), which is anti-EU, has stabbed the heart of the U.K. political establishment.
Before Thursday, UKIP had only one councilor (the U.K. term for an elected official in local government). Now, that number stands at 157. The European returns won’t be released until Sunday, but polls suggest that in those elections UKIP will claim first place.
Taken together, the British and European elections represent a watershed moment in British politics. Where the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties once dominated British political life, UKIP has introduced a fourth face to the nation’s discourse. Three particular lessons should be taken from UKIP’s victory.
Voter anger over EU interference in U.K. law
The European judiciary has long drawn British anger — and for good reason. Take the case of Abu Hamza. Earlier this week, a federal jury convicted him on numerous terrorism charges. Still, while the English courts had approved Abu Hamza’s extradition to America with little hesitation, the EU Court of Human Rights obstructed that process for over two years. As I’ve noted before, the EU judiciary is an enemy of robust counterterrorism. But it’s not just EU counterterrorism that has infuriated U.K. voters. Unlike English law, which relies on the principle of precedent, EU law is shaped largely by judges constantly reinterpreting it to advance EU federal authority.
Supporting the EU judicial agenda, EU bureaucrats also work tirelessly to impose leftist regulations on British society. This arrogance has not gone unnoticed or, as UKIP’s fortunes illustrate, unanswered.
Voter infuriation with the EU’s cultural ignorance
Beset by its bureaucratic insanity, many Britons regard the “EU” as a byword for institutional failure. This discontent is particularly significant in rural communities proud of their historic character. For a good example, take this story from a small English village in 2000: “European regulations have forced Railtrack to build a bridge capable of carrying 40 tonne lorries — even though it is too narrow for big trucks to pass over.” Britons are a proud people who do not appreciate being told how to live.
Today, this insanity is even worse. Consider the EU’s recent ban on olive-oil dishes and its prospective ban of Danish cinnamon pastries. Let’s be clear, this regulatory fetishism is federalism gone mad. The EU motto seems to be: “If in doubt, ban it everywhere.”
Voter dissatisfaction with the three main parties
At present, the British government is formed by a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. On questions of Europe, however, the two parties are fundamentally divided. Where the Conservatives support Britain’s continued EU membership alongside repatriation of judicial powers, the Liberal Democrats are keen supporters of EU federalism. Similarly, while the Labour party’s leaders are ideologically sympathetic to EU federalism, they’re restrained by growing anti-EU sentiment among their base.
This confusion has left UKIP the opening to offer a simple, populist alternative: “We want out.” And while UKIP leader Nigel Farage has made some odd remarks, his passionate focus on the problems of the EU has energized loyal supporters. Ironically, media criticism of Farage (see this biased Huffington Post report) has improved his position with both Conservative and Labour voters. Farage is seen as a man of genuine beliefs, as is his party. The Conservatives are especially concerned about UKIP’s popular appeal. With U.K. parliamentary elections in 2015, David Cameron is facing calls for a Conservative–UKIP alliance.
Ultimately, while UKIP is unlikely to ever win sufficient support to extricate Britain from the EU — most voters believe that Britain’s total exclusion would be an economic disaster — the party is revolutionizing U.K.–European politics. Moreover, UKIP’s stunning rise is a testament to the power of anger to institute rapid democratic change.