The United Kingdom Independence Party has thrown U.K. politics into turmoil. Last week it won a safe Conservative seat in a by-election and came within a whisker of winning a safe working-class Labour seat in the north of England. The party and its leader, Nigel Farage, are widely feared by David Cameron’s Conservatives to be splitting the anti-Socialist vote, in a Tea Party/GOP type of rift, and clearing the way for a left-leaning, old-fashioned Labour Party to win the next election by default.
Fear of UKIP has led Cameron to promise an in/out referendum on U.K. membership in the EU in 2017. But Farage’s recent electoral successes have emboldened him to demand that the referendum on Europe be brought forward to 2015, as the price of UKIP’s support for a minority government after the general election next May.
This is a major mistake and, were his demand to be met (although this is unlikely), the referendum would be lost and the U.K. would be condemned to remain in the EU until its eventual and untidy collapse.
The simple reason is that the case for British exit (BREXIT) — the key aim of UKIP — has not been made to, nor is it currently understood by, the British public, regardless of its vital importance to Britain’s future.
In a referendum, the voters would be battered by lies and half-truths from the Cameron/Miliband/Clegg Europhile axis and would be bamboozled to stay in, just as they were by Roy Jenkins’s mendacious campaign in the 1975 referendum, when Harold Wilson falsely claimed to have renegotiated British terms of membership.
This failure to explain is Nigel Farage’s fault, and, while I yield to no one in my admiration of his success in bouncing Cameron into a referendum, I am in despair about the direction in which he is taking UKIP.
As a passionate supporter of BREXIT from before the 1975 referendum, I have supported every hopeless and hare-brained campaign to get the U.K. out of the EU, from Jimmy Goldsmith’s to Robert Kilroy-Silk’s to Joan Collins’s (!). Farage’s chutzpah and ability to connect with people have been inspirational by comparison. However, he has now lost sight of the fact that UKIP is not and never should be a conventional political party. It is an existential, single-issue campaign to save the U.K. as an independent sovereign nation; otherwise it merely becomes a vehicle for Farage’s own frequently denied political ambitions.
He is turning UKIP into a ragbag of Poujadist resentment, claiming to have “policies” on the National Health Service, wind farms, housing, welfare, the Treasury, and a range of other issues, which lack any coherence and simply attract the “anyone but them” vote, much as the Scottish National Party did in the Scottish referendum. Getting members into Parliament is a necessity in order to influence and scare other parties; UKIP’s platform should concentrate on Europe alone.
Insofar as the EU figures in Farage’s policies at all, border controls and immigration are the issue, but even this connection is vague, and the current government seems to be blamed as much as are EU requirements for our immigration problems. Nowhere does UKIP articulate a coherent and fully developed case for BREXIT. Unless such a case is made, Farage will have scaled the first hurdle — securing a referendum — but totally failed to fight for the real prize.
The referendum should be in 2017, and although, in the view of most of us, Cameron’s promised renegotiation of terms with Europe is a lost cause, he must be allowed to attempt it, in order to give the referendum legitimacy for both In and Out voters and thus settle the issue. Meanwhile, Farage must review his strategy and refocus it immediately to establish an unanswerable case for BREXIT — one that no false claims by Cameron about a successful renegotiation, or from Deputy Prime Minister Clegg about the loss of 3 million British jobs, can undermine. This case is relatively simple, but it needs to be worked up into an easily understood, vivid narrative, connecting with people. Its components are these.
First, the EU is an outdated political project from the postwar world. “Ever-closer union” is damaging all the participating members, especially those in the euro zone, and has no economic justification. Support for it by U.S. administrations over the last 40 years is baffling, given the overt hostility of the entire project to the United States.
The associated loss of national sovereignty, the core of this political project, is the reason for the U.K.’s inability to control its borders and for the imposition on industry of high regulatory costs that affect economic competitiveness in much larger world markets than the EU.
The economic benefits of U.K. membership have been and remain marginal and are likely to diminish. Both we and other EU members trade equally with non-EU countries, as do non-EU countries with the EU. There need be no loss of trade with EU member countries resulting from BREXIT, but a greater stimulus to competitiveness and to trade with the rest of the world would follow.
Expanding the EU beyond anything sensibly understood as “Europe,” including the Balkans, and making overtures to Georgia and Ukraine, while playing Turkey along, too, suggests an imperial ambition that makes no historic, strategic, or economic sense. Putin, for whom I hold no brief, cannot be entirely blamed for seeing Cathy Ashton as Hitler reincarnate, given her role in destabilizing the legitimate government of Ukraine.
No major new research is required to support these arguments. The case has mostly been made in two excellent pamphlets put out by Civitas, “The Demise of the Free State: Why democracy and the EU don’t mix” and “Where’s the Insider Advantage? A comparative study of U.K. exports to EU and non-EU nations between 1960 and 2012,” as well as in Roger Bootle’s recent book, The Trouble with Europe: Why the EU Isn’t Working. The latter is a totally balanced and unhysterical analysis, debunking some of the dafter Euroskeptic fantasies, while demolishing the Europhile case.
Farage has a historic choice. Either he masters these arguments, popularizes them, and promotes them to the British people between now and 2017, or he becomes a footnote in history like Poujade and other shooting stars who temporarily scare the Establishment with populist revolts, but quickly fade.
If he chooses the latter, next May he may become one of a dozen UKIP MPs for the duration of one Parliament, more concerned with Punch and Judy politics than with giving the nation the leadership no one else on the political scene is able to provide. If he chooses the former, he can become the greatest British statesman since Churchill, who also saved Britain from European domination and could bask in that glory for the rest of his days, sitting in the House of Lords and revered by a grateful nation. I know which route I would advise if he consulted me.
— Roger Humber is a lobbyist and Conservative commentator, formerly CEO of the major house-building representative body in the U.K.