For Merrie England, against the Dreary EU.
Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
One thing that does seem certain, however, is that the Conservative party is in danger of being shoved over the side. It’s not just the EU, or the economy, or the drift to a witless center, although it is all those things. There’s something else. UKIP’s activists are a smart lot, and they understand but do not appreciate the contempt in which they have for too long been held by Cameron’s metropolitan clique. There’s recently been talk of some sort of UKIP-Conservative nonaggression pact for the 2015 general election. In his keynote speech, Farage appeared to leave a door slightly ajar “to consider it,” but only in exchange for a promise “written in blood” of an in/out referendum on the EU. A later speaker wanted something else: an apology. The applause that followed ought to be a reminder to Cameron to be careful in the future about whom he chooses to demonize.
As always in Britain, resentment comes wrapped in the country’s class sensitivities. The accents at the conference were provincial. Toffs were scarce on the ground. As I listened to the talk, time went into reverse, to Conservative constituency meetings of 30 years ago. These were Thatcher’s people; many of them had come of age under the Iron Lady’s reign. They were no-nonsense, often self-employed, and not the sort invited to the dinner parties that had dreamt up the rainbow coalition of politically correct gestures that, in the end, failed to carry Cameron to clear victory in 2010 against one of the most incompetent governments in British history.
To date the border between UKIP and the Conservative party has been ill-defined and rarely policed. That may be changing. If UKIP is to anchor itself at home as well as in the European parliament—essential if it is to increase its clout—it cannot just be about Brussels (the conference’s slogan was “Beyond the EU”). That will mean staking out a position more clearly distinct from the Tories than hitherto. Farage (who quit the Conservative party in 1992 over the EU’s Maastricht Treaty) has been successful in excluding racists and the jackbooted from his party, and describes himself as libertarian. But it is easy to see that the search for votes—particularly from what Farage terms “patriotic old Labour”—may be easing the party in the direction of the harder-edged, bigger-spending populism of euroskeptic parties on the continent, such as the Finns party (also known as the True Finns) and the Danish People’s party.
That could cause trouble in time, but for now Brussels remains the bogeyman around which UKIP can rally, a piñata for all, bashed in Birmingham by Farage in top form, clever, incisive, and witty. Later, “with greetings from the eurozone,” came Timo Soini (Der Spiegel’s “fifth most dangerous”), the leader of the Finns party and the politician responsible for forcing the previously supine Helsinki establishment to do something to protect its -taxpayers from the ravages of a dysfunctional monetary union. Soini was hammer to Farage’s saber, but he was amusing and touching, too—proud of his country but also of de Gaulle’s grand vision of a Europe des Patries. If this conference was a celebration of xenophobia it was taking a very strange form. The single currency itself was, of course, singled out for rough treatment and rougher prophecies, not least from the distinguished City of London economist (and former Treasury adviser), UKIP cobelligerent Roger Bootle: “When did things go wrong with the euro? Right at the beginning.”
That was the fun stuff. It’s when discussing the next stage in this saga that the usually ebullient Farage began to look a little anxious. He has long been skeptical, for good reason, about the terms of any referendum that Cameron might offer the British electorate. His new concern is that Barroso’s attempt to push for federation will provide an extremely convenient escape hatch for Cameron, by providing him the opportunity to offer the British to vote on joining a closer union or remaining “as is.” The problem with that choice is that, unless the position of those EU member states who choose to remain outside the deeper union is fundamentally renegotiated, “as is” is not good enough. It might seem attractive to a country easily bored by the technical complexity of the EU debate, but Britain would remain subject, in practice, to the heavy burden of EU regulation, not to mention the exorbitant costs, direct and indirect, of membership. In short, it would be a very limited victory. The electorate’s fear of the unknown will make an in/out referendum a risky proposition for UKIP and its sympathizers, whatever the current opinion polls may predict, but for now it remains the last best hope.
Making matters worse is the gradual approach of 2015 and the likely election of a europhile Labour government and, with it, the closing of the exit door, quite possibly, forever.
And writing those words makes me think of a scene in the final Lord of the Rings film. As Gimli, the martial dwarf, contemplates the perils ahead, he turns to his companions, and remarks, “Certain death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?” Gimli, I feel, would have been a member of UKIP.
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.