‘The deepest characteristic of Europeans is this huge perplexity,” says French political philosopher Pierre Manent: “They don’t know to what they belong, and they don’t know whom to obey.” In past ages, Europeans hailed to the crown. With the creation of the European Union — that nebulous body in Brussels, part economic alliance, part political confederation, part agent of eschatological dreams — Europeans indicated, and crystallized, their uncertainty about what they belong to and whom they obey.
The United Kingdom has long prided itself on its distinctness — temperamental, political, cultural — from Europe, but Manent’s Continental confusion crept across the Channel in the later decades of the 20th century, prompting even the Brits to sign on to the Treaty of Maastricht. But a vocal portion of the U.K. has always been skeptical of the grand project being undertaken in Belgium. As of May, theirs are no longer voices in the wilderness.
In 2013 the United Kingdom Independence Party, headed by the flamboyant Nigel Farage, earned an astonishing 22 percent of the popular vote in U.K. local elections, finishing just three percentage points behind David Cameron’s Conservatives, seven behind Ed Miliband’s Labour party, and eight points ahead of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Observers speculated about the rise of a fourth major party in U.K. politics. A year later, in the country’s elections for EU Parliament, UKIP won outright. UKIP has 24 of the U.K.’s 73 EU Parliament members. Farage hopes that that success will translate into UKIP’s first parliamentarians next May.
Or earlier. Last month, Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton since May 2010, announced his defection from the Conservatives to UKIP. The decision triggered a special election, in which Carswell has a healthy lead, and the Conservatives are having trouble finding a candidate to run against him. As it happens, the date of Carswell’s likely victory is October 9, Prime Minister David Cameron’s birthday.
“Sovereignty,” with its Old World flavor, is an uncommon word in American politics — but the question of sovereignty is the foundation of UKIP, and the issue on which Farage is making his political career. Who is sovereign over the United Kingdom? Farage insists that it is no longer Buckingham Palace or Westminster; it is Brussels. “The United Kingdom’s sovereignty is gone,” he tells National Review Online. “It’s a fact. It’s gone. It’s been given away.” The U.K. “is being governed from a foreign land.”
Parliament still has much sway, of course, but in a broad sense Farage is not wrong. Because of its membership in the European Union, the United Kingdom’s immigration policy, energy policy, and justice system are all ultimately subject to Brussels. If, for instance, Britons want to close the nation’s borders to potential Islamic jihadists with passports from other EU countries, they will have to withdraw from the European Union. It is, insists Farage, that simple.
Farage knows the EU well: He is a member of the European Parliament, perhaps its best-known member — in large part for his floor speeches denouncing the European Union. In his scorn for the organization, Farage takes his bearings, at least in part, from Manent. Speaking during a session of the European Parliament in April, Farage explained:
The whole European project comes from the disaster that was sparked by the First World War, and it is entirely understandable that people should have sought ways to prevent such awfulness. The problem is, they chose the wrong target. [They] decided that it was existence of nation-state[s] that led to war, and therefore we have to abolish nation-state[s].
This is, said Farage, “a falsehood — and it’s potentially a dangerous falsehood”:
If you try to impose a new flag, a new anthem, a new president, a new army, police force, foreign policy, whatever else — [if] you try to impose that without first seeking the consent of the people, you’re in danger actually of creating the very nationalisms and resentment that you sought to snuff out in the first place.
In his Democracy Without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, Manent fingered the same cause, blaming Europe’s troubles on “the erosion — perhaps the dismantling — of the political form that for so many centuries has sheltered the endeavors of European man. I refer to the nation.” The surrender of the nation, in Manent’s view, has been the surrender of democratic government.
With that, Farage is in wholehearted agreement: “The European system isn’t just undemocratic, it’s anti-democratic,” he pronounced in the European Parliament in September 2012. For Farage, the solution is not to abolish states, but to ensure democratic ones. And that is a question of sovereignty. As long as citizens of France, or Germany, or any other EU state, are subject to laws created by a transnational body of technocratic elites, against which they have no recourse, the country is not democratic — and its citizens will eventually chafe against the removal of power to foreign borders. That is especially true in the United Kingdom.
Anti-democratic institutions are not a European phenomenon, though. The abnegation of sovereignty to which UKIP is responding has parallels in the United States. For example, American progressives are keen to defer to the wishes of abstractions such as the “international community.” The current administration’s preference for signing onto whatever foreign policy the rest of the world chooses — i.e., “leading from behind” — is simply the outsourcing of American decisions to foreign leaders. The president’s proposed U.N. climate non-treaty would subordinate American energy policy to the strident climate alarmism of other nations, particularly European ones. Even the imposition of progressive policy through domestic regulatory agencies is often anti-democratic. After all, who votes on EPA regulations?
Like UKIP, the Tea Party was a product of questions of sovereignty (though the debate was rarely couched in those terms). By constantly hearkening to the words of the constitution, tea-partiers were asking: Who rules? In that form, the piquancy of the question resonated with many Americans. It is now doing the same for Britons, dramatized by the specter of an actual transnational organization that governs their daily routines.
It is unclear whether UKIP can reshape the political topography of the United Kingdom long-term. Unlike the Tea Party, which operated through and has generally been integrated into the Republican party, UKIP has condemned all three major parties in the U.K., offering itself as the sole viable alternative. Thus it has to battle for votes — and that is a long, arduous, costly process. Underfunded and with only a volunteer infrastructure to speak of, UKIP will have trouble making its electoral success stick. Furthermore, while UKIP draws a diverse group of supporters — disaffected Conservative and Labour voters, for the most part — a sizable number of its backers are Britons disaffected with U.K. politics generally. How to keep within the fold these protest voters, many of whom had not cast a vote in decades before 2013, presents another problem.
But win or lose at the polls, Farage has already accomplished something extraordinary. In a sphere characterized by dissembling and false assurances, he has articulated clearly the question the citizens of the United Kingdom must answer: Whom will we obey? That is one decision that will not be made in Brussels.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.