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Strange Days - On the UK election

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            It’s refreshing to experience a general election in which the polls and the pundits are proved massively wrong.

            It’s especially invigorating when the stakes are as high as they were on thursday. After all, a different result could have had huge domestic and international ramifications in fairly short order, beginning with a collapse of the pound and perhaps culminating, in theory, in the UK’s nuclear disarmament and departure from the UN Security Council.

            But the unexpectedness of the final result also makes you wonder how disconnected from the electorate the political and media classes really are. The whole computer-assisted modern apparatus of marketing, polling and focus grouping seems not to work as well as advertised when the country is in the midst of a tectonic political shift.

            Among other things, the election proved that the celebrated “detoxification” of the Tory brand was not, in fact all that successful. But it indicated at the same time that that Tory “toxicity” may not really matter, at least in the current economic and political climate. After all, tens of thousands of people apparently lied to pollsters and journalists about their intention to vote conservative, and then went ahead and ticked the Tory box…

            That said, one great danger for the new government is that Cameron may believe that the resulting Tory victory was attributable to his own qualities and actions rather then the unattractiveness of the Labour alternative combined with the surge of Scottish nationalism.

            It seems likely that millions of people in England and Wales were simply unwilling to gamble Britain’s relative prosperity and low unemployment on a return to the old-fashioned socialism believed in by Ed Miliband. Others weren’t willing to gamble on a socialist project if it was to be led by such a smug and untrustworthy-seeming young man.

            In the old industrial cities of England, a significant number of traditional working class Labour voters who might have supported Miliband’s economic policies were probably alienated by the way the Labour leader personified the domination of the party by upper-middle-class metropolitans like himself.

            The fact that Miliband’s personal toxicity was not fully reflected in the polls or  journalistic coverage suggests that both operated with some kind of pre-existing bias in favour of the Labour party.

            In Scotland, the problem with Labour was different: a population steeped in 1970s-style socialism was no longer willing to vote for a local Labour party that had become offensively complacent, lazy and corrupt after years of unchallenged dominance.

            Indeed one of the underlying themes of the 2015 election, and one that Cameron and other party leaders will ignore at their peril, is the deepening alienation of many working class voters from both the “London-centric” political and media elite, and from established party machines in the big cities 

            It is an alienation that simultaneously manifests itself in UKIP votes in England – more than three million of them, and in 1.5 million SNP votes in Scotland, 50% of the total cast there. It’s easier to overlook the former than the latter because of the weird distorting effect of Britain’s “First Past the Post” system as currently constituted: with the SNP getting 58 seats for 1.5 million votes, and UKIP getting one seat for almost 4 million votes.

            The fact that UKIP won fewer seats than expected and that its leader Nigel Farage failed to get in and had to resign, should not distract observers from the fact that UKIP proved itself to be a truly national party, gaining significant votes all over England and Wales, and often coming in third or even second place. There’s also little question that many UKIPers, especially in the South, voted tactically, their desire to keep out a Labour-led coalition overcoming their disillusion with or dislike of David Cameron’s Tories.

            It now seems possible that Labour could go into catastrophic decline in much the same way that the Liberal Party did in the years after World War I, despite having played a dominant role in British politics for more than half a century. Certainly the results from London suggest that Labour may become more and more reliant on the votes of immigrant communities and racial minorities.

            At the same time, if UKIP survives Farage’s resignation or if another alternative party should emerge that can appeal to white working class voters who are tribally allergic to the Tories, then Labour’s vote may well shrink much further in the midlands and industrial North. 

            As for the LibDems, their extraordinary rout felt like karmic punishment for their hypocritical and dishonest refusal to support customary redistricting of electoral boundaries while in the Coalition with the Tories. The actual mechanism of their defeat though, seems to have been partly a matter of tactical voting by a British public that had a taste of coalition government and doesn’t like it. But it may also have had a lot to do with the disillusionment of those voters who foolishly believed before the formation of the Coalition that the LibDems were principled outsiders, unsullied by and immune to the compromise and corruption that comes with political office.

            Some of the lessons offered by the election are contradictory. In large parts of the Kingdom, many voters seem to have made a cool calculation that their material interests would be served by the continuation of relatively responsible, cautious and competent economic management, an option which was offered by only one main party. But elsewhere, and especially in Scotland, large numbers of people were motivated by intense political emotion and by concerns about identity and national pride. All of the latter were noticeably absent from the campaigns by the Westminster leaders. But then none of the three are as obviously talented and appealing as the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

            But the big reveals are yet to come. For instance, will a David Cameron unrestrained by coalition partners behave differently now that he has an actual majority?  Critics within the Tory party have long worried that he lacks a vision for the country, that the only thing he believes in is own suitability for the top job. Arguably he has never had to demonstrate political courage by leading public opinion or standing up for a potentially unpopular person or policy, all of which may be necessary if he is steer a country rattled by a massive electoral shifts. 

            It is possible that Cameron will decide that the collapse of Labour and the Lib Dems vindicates his “essay crisis” style of leadership, his faith in “branding”, his lack of interest in foreign affairs, his downgrading of the armed forces, and his insistence on a lavish foreign aid budget at a time of austerity elsewhere. 

             But now that there are no LibDems to blame for broken promises, humiliating compromises or the shambolic execution of government policy, Cameron will find himself under much more pressure from Conservative MPs whom he prefers to be quietly deferential and whose opinions he has shown little respect for.

            At the same time he will have to confront a new SNP bloc that is considerably further to the left than the Labour party, and which because of its youth, inexperience and Anglophobia, (not to mention its desire to break up the Union, not necessarily shared by all SNP voters) may turn out to be a disruptive force in Parliament.

            More important, Cameron and his team are going to have deal with national challenges that make questions of NHS funding and mansion taxes seem insignificant. Not least the constitutional reforms that may be needed to keep the country together. But there are also other important issues that went all but unmentioned by everyone during the campaign: foreign alliances, immigration, defence, freedom of speech, foreign aid, the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, social cohesion, and the special relationship with the United States, all of which demand a vision of the country the UK is going to be and the role it will play in the world.

The High Tea Party (Commentary Magazine July/Aug 2013)

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It takes a lot to intimidate David Cameron, the ultra-confident “modernizing” leader of Britain’s Conservative Party.

After all, he took in his stride the surprising humiliation of having to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats—a third party which had never before known office—in order to become prime minister in 2010 and claimed, almost convincingly, that he had always wanted such an alliance. By all accounts, however, he and his circle of young, Oxford-educated, socially elite, green-obsessed, and complacently liberal Tories are in a state of near panic—and only partly because the economy isn’t responding well to his chancellor’s measures and because ordinary voters are dismayed, not gratified, by his insistence on protecting the overmanned National Health Service and lavish foreign-aid budget from being cut. What has the normally cool Cameronites worried is the apparently unstoppable success of a hitherto minority political party with, as yet, no members of Parliament.

The United Kingdom Independence Party, better known as UKIP, has been around for 20 years, but it achieved a spectacular breakthrough in local elections in May and is polling more than 25 percent of all British voters. If it was probably responsible for the loss of more than 10 Tory seats in the 2010 general election (by drawing away conservative voters), thus necessitating a coalition, UKIP is now likely to doom any chance of a Conservative victory in 2015. More important, UKIP is forcing the British political class to deal with subjects it would prefer to keep out of politics. Indeed, its popularity may prove to be a greater catalyst in British politics than the rise of the Tea Party in America.

UKIP certainly has elements in common with both the Tea Party and some recent populist movements in Europe. It lacks the American movement’s grassroots origins, religious coloring, and primary concern with matters fiscal. It shares, however, the Tea Party’s disillusionment with the political and media establishment and its appeal to working-class voters who feel ignored.

UKIP’s rise is also being fed by the same public concerns that have boosted anti-immigration parties in Continental Europe: failed assimilation, especially in Muslim ghettos, the emergence of Sharia courts, and Islamist-inspired attacks on freedom of speech and expression. But the party’s origins and style are very different from those of recently successful European populist groups, some of which descend from fascist movements or have links to racist organizations. UKIP was founded by mainstream politicians and academics in 1993 with the specific goal of changing Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Today it boasts minority candidates including Hindus, Hasidic Jews, and Afro-Caribbeans. Its popular demand for an end to uncontrolled mass-immigration is based on questions of economics, population growth, and law enforcement rather than ethnicity.

Nevertheless, like Holland’s Fortuyn List (the libertarian party established by the flamboyant Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn before his assassination in 2002), UKIP has been the object of efforts to tar it as extremist. Of course, in much of Western Europe, and especially in Britain, any organization or politician who dares to raise the hot-button subjects of immigration and assimilation risks being labeled as a “racist” and rendered beyond the pale of polite discourse.

In real life, UKIP represents a big chunk of the British population that voted for Margaret Thatcher. It is made up of those parts of middle- and working-class England that are the most instinctively pro-American.

The majority of Ukippers are, like the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, former Tories. Harsh economic times have made the Cameron administration, with its huge subsidies for uneconomic wind farms, regressive “green taxes,” and insensitivity to issues like law and order, seem more divorced than ever from either the Thatcherite brand of conservatism or the concerns of the less privileged. (It is telling that Cameron’s government is expending vast amounts of its diminished political capital on a gay-marriage bill.) Cameron’s apparent contempt for ordinary Conservative Party activists—characterized recently by one of his closest advisers as “swivel-eyed loons”—is turning a trickle of disillusioned defections into what seems like a flood. Since he became party leader, membership in the Conservative Party has shrunk by more than 50 percent and is now at an all-time low.

But what makes the UKIP phenomenon most fascinating is that it is also attracting large numbers of disillusioned Labour voters, especially from the aspirational and patriotic working class. UKIP’s leader is drawing friendly crowds and polling well in parts of the industrial heartland where no Tory has won an election in years.

Much to the surprise of the political class, moreover, and to the confusion of establishment institutions such as the BBC, many of those who are shifting from the main parties to UKIP are not doing so primarily because of the European issue that was UKIP’s raison d’être. Rather, what they approve of most is the party’s approach to mass immigration, crime, and taxes (being that there is too much of all three). UKIP is being rewarded for challenging the elitist metropolitan consensus that had solidified in recent years.

Some of these issues are intrinsically linked to the European question. More than half of current UK legislation now originates from the unelected and unaccountable European Commission in Brussels. It is arguably the subordination of British law to European law that has prevented the British government from deporting foreign criminals and the likes of hate-mullah Abu Qatada.1 (At the time of this writing, European officials are threatening to take the British government to court for failing to make the UK’s generous welfare benefits easily available to all EU citizens living in Britain.)

In the United States, the growing British antipathy to the European Union is far from front-page news. And the coverage has not fully conveyed the extent to which the EU is a machine for the redistribution of wealth, lacking democratic oversight and legitimacy. The way the EU distributes that wealth is determined by pressure groups with access to the Brussels bureaucracy. The system is actually designed to be undemocratic. Its architects were men whose experience of Europe’s 20th-century horrors made them suspicious of the popular will and enthusiastic about calm, technocratic rule by bureaucratic elites. They felt, as do their successors, that it was the ideology of the nation-state that brought about two catastrophic world wars. For them, surrender of national sovereignty and democratic control to unelected international bodies seemed less risky than entrusting the public good to masses of voters with a record of voting for tyrants and mass murderers. Of course, there is little historical reason for British leaders to be so fearful of either the national idea or democratic electorates; their experience of the 20th century’s upheavals was rather different.

Although the European Union began life as little more than a free-trade pact, it is quickly evolving in the direction of an “ever closer union,” culminating in the establishment of a single European superstate. This is what British pundits often call the “European ideal.” True believers in that ideal seek to build a pan-European state from the top down, a difficult task given the lack of a pan-European nation, a pan-European media, or a pan-European public opinion.

Unsurprisingly, “Europhiles” in the British and continental establishments have not been above deceiving their respective publics in order to achieve that ideal. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP), has argued that such an entity was not what Britons were told they were joining in 1975 when the EU was still called the European Economic Community: “Instead of becoming members of a common market, based on the free circulation of goods and mutual recognition of products, we had joined a quasi-state that was in the process of acquiring all the trappings of nationhood—a parliament, a currency, a legal system, a president, a diplomatic service, a passport, a driving licence, a national anthem, a foreign minister, a national day, a flag.”

Even European free trade turned out to be a kind of mirage as Europe’s bureaucrats, following the French political model, devoted vast efforts and billions of dollars to hyper-regulation and standardization. British grocers have even found themselves liable for arrest and prosecution for selling bananas in pounds rather than kilograms. If that were not bad enough, Britain has paid more money to the system than it has received. The economic beneficiaries of the EU are actually inefficient smallholders in France and Bavaria, and the heavily subsidized, comically corrupt governments of Southern European countries such as Greece.

As a strictly European matter, it’s easy to see why this might not concern Americans all that much. But there is a geostrategic aspect to the EU’s evolution they should be aware of. For many Europhiles, or “federalists” as they are sometimes misleadingly called, the whole point of the European project is the formation of a European superstate that can challenge and oppose American political, economic, and cultural hegemony. Unfortunately, American observers, even supposedly sophisticated observers in the State Department and in successive administrations, tend to be unaware or dismissive of the powerful anti-American animus of the European ideal and its proponents.2

This is all the more surprising because that anti-American element is so overt. British Europhiles frequently argue that the UK must support the European project “because we have so much more in common with people in Europe than we do the Americans.”

Such statements hint at the snobbery, conscious or unconscious, that underlies much enthusiasm for the EU in Britain. The person who feels so little connection to America is inevitably speaking in the educated accents of the upper middle class, and his tone often conveys a picture of a fat, ignorant loudmouth Yank, enslaved to fast food, guns, and dumb Hollywood movies. The Europhile’s expression of greater cultural kinship to continental Europe is often followed by a remark about the crudeness and cruelty of U.S. foreign policy or the commercial crassness of the American way of life. For many working-class Britons, aware of the profound links between Britain and America that only begin with our common language, the idea that Britons have more in common with Europeans than Americans is self-evidently ridiculous.

Many otherwise sensible people in the UK favor the EU and its ever-growing power in British life for reasons having to do with class identity and social status. They genuinely believe that if you are the sort of modern Briton educated enough to prefer wine, elegant food, art films, and cappuccino to beer, burgers, TV reality shows, and sugared “builders’ tea,” then you have to support “Europe.” It’s as if good taste requires favoring the loss of parliamentary sovereignty to Brussels bureaucrats, ignoring the waste and corruption inherent in so much EU policymaking, and being happy that the British taxpayer subsidizes the “Common Agricultural Policy” that makes tiny French farms viable while impoverishing countless people in the Third World. This may sound illogical, but it would be wrong to underestimate the profound pleasure afforded by feeling superior to the vulgarly bigoted lower orders —and also to the traditionally patriotic “little Englanders” to be found in the old upper class.

Europhile antipathy to the nation-state has some additional negative implications for Americans and other nationalities. For example, the late British historian Tony Judt was one of those Europhile internationalists who saw the post-national EU as a symbol of human moral evolution and a stick with which to beat Zionism. In general, it is extremely rare to find committed Europhiles who are even mildly sympathetic to Israel. In British politics, the most pro-Europe politicians tend to be those who are also the most anti-American and anti-Israel.

The new popularity of UKIP indicates that the anti-democratic contempt underlying much pro-EU politics has finally become obvious to ordinary people. As the outspoken working-class columnist Julie Burchill put it in an interview in the Spectator: “People aren’t voting for UKIP because they’re ignorant or stupid or haven’t got it. It’s because they’ve got it all too well.”

None of this means that UKIP will ever take office or be more than a party of protest, or even that it would stay in existence if David Cameron were to hold an “in-out” referendum on the European Union. Many conservatives who agree with most or all of UKIP’s stated goals will not vote for the party in general elections simply because, under the UK’s traditional electoral system, it is unlikely to win any seats in Parliament, let alone to play a role in forming the government, even with a quarter of the popular vote.

Some of those who like UKIP’s primary message about independence from Europe and its old-fashioned small-c conservative attitudes toward crime and immigration are put off by the jocular but unvarnished personality of Nigel Farage. Others, however, like that he is confident and real enough to be photographed with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, that he meets the public unchaperoned, and that, unlike “Call me Dave” Cameron, nothing he says or does feels like the product of PR advice, marketing analysis, and focus-grouping.

Apart from its leader’s image, UKIP has a number of other weaknesses that would probably limit its prospects even if the electoral system were somehow reshaped in favor of minority parties. Its administrative amateurishness is plain to see: UKIP actually forgot to sign up its candidate for the London mayoral election in May 2012. The leadership also did a poor job of vetting candidates for the recent elections in which the party did so well. As a result, a handful of its 1,739 candidates were exposed as cranks or extremists by Conservative Party researchers and pro-Tory newspapers and had to step down.

Many conservative MPs and activists hope that UKIP’s success might prompt the prime minister to adopt braver positions, shift rightward, and revisit some of the promises on which he has reneged since gaining office, including establishing tax policies that favor the family. At the same time, they fear that UKIP will take conservative votes from an already unpopular Tory Party in the next election and ensure a Labour victory—unless the prime minister makes some kind of alliance with a party whose members he notoriously dismissed in 2006 as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists.”

Cameron almost certainly knew that it was an unfair characterization, but as a consummate politician he also understood how important it was to marginalize a rival party of the right. Since then, Cameron has formed a coalition with a party that has long included more than its fair share of fringe elements: the Liberal Democrats, many of whom are to the left of Tony Blair’s New Labour. Their numbers include the likes of Baroness Jenny Tonge, who claimed that Israeli troops sent to Haiti after the earthquake were trafficking in human organs.

Since the last general election in 2010, it has become apparent that efforts to marginalize UKIP, whether by the Tories or by the BBC—that censorious voice of the liberal establishment—have failed. The party has picked up voters from all three main parties. One recent poll shows some 27 percent of Tory voters switching to UKIP, along with 13 percent of Labour voters and 12 percent of the now profoundly unpopular LibDems.

As a result, UKIP may well bring about a revolution in British politics without winning a single seat in Parliament. It is already forcing the leaders of the three parties to recognize that voters are becoming less deferential to the political class and could push them in some radical new directions. UKIP’s appeal to traditional Labour voters has meant that Labour’s own Euroskeptics, unpopular for many years, are gaining influence in the party. These days Labour spokesmen occasionally sound tougher than the Tories on once taboo issues such as crime, immigration, and military preparedness. David Cameron and his glamorous coterie of Oxonian “modernizers” might do well to realize that it’s not always wise to take things in stride.


1 Countries like France and Italy have defied European regulations and deported such unwelcome foreigners, because unlike the Anglo-Saxons, their governments and judiciaries pick and choose which European rules they want to take seriously.

2 Euroskeptics in the UK were infuriated by the Obama administration’s foolish call for Britain to stay in the EU, just as they have been irritated and surprised by previous administrations’ enthusiasm for Britain-in-Europe. Given the anti-Americanism inherent in the European project, the only justification for this seems to be Washington’s hope that the UK will keep the rest of the EU on a reasonably Atlanticist track.