Populist Euroscepticism and British politics
The odds of an organised, populist Euroscepticism emerging as a serious political force in Britain have never been shorter. UKIP faces an unprecedented opportunity: just at the moment when the issue of Europe has aligned itself with the politics of the radical right in Britain, its main competitors on the mainstream and radical right have vacated the field
Radical right parties mobilise a complex mix of resentments, against immigration and multiculturalism, corrupt and self-serving elites, a liberal popular culture and the lax morals it tolerates, and the decline of national culture and national sovereignty. A growing number of parties across Europe have mobilised this heady, emotive mix of identity, anxiety and intolerance to break through into national political representation, and even into government.
What is the populist radical right?
Defining populist radical right parties has become a cottage industry in academia. The parties commonly brought together under this umbrella represent a diverse range of histories, ideologies and political strategies, so any definition is liable to be partial and debateable. However, some features recur frequently enough to constitute the core concerns of radical right politicians and voters, particularly as such politics has been practiced in Britain:
Firstly, ethnic nationalism - a desire for the nation-state to be sovereign and to protect the national culture and identity from “alien” influences.
Secondly, authoritarianism - an emphasis on maintaining the social order, by providing strong powers to traditional authorities such as the police and pursuing harsh policies against those such as criminals and terrorists who threaten the social order.
Thirdly, xenophobia - an often irrational and emotive hostility to foreigners, and to native minorities such as Muslims who are perceived as threatening “Others”.
Fourth, populism in the form of disaffection from mainstream politics and hostility to mainstream political elites who are regarded as ignoring the interests of “the people”.
Why does Europe matter for right wing populists?
Europe as the source of problems
Over the past decade, Europe has become more closely entwined with all four of the traditional concerns of the radical right. Nationalist concerns about the loss of sovereignty to Europe have grown as evidence of the power of EU institutions, and popular rejection of that power, have accumulated.
Authoritarian concerns about maintaining law and order and protecting society from threats have also come into conflict with European institutions, particularly the European Court of Human Rights, which are focussed on maintaining civil liberties, resulting in a series of high profile clashes over issues such as votes for prisoners and deportation of criminals. In these clashes, Europe is seen as a foreign power, frustrating the will of British voters and politicians in order to impose alien values.
Europe has loomed larger too for voters hostile to immigrants and anxious about migration levels. Since the accession of the poorer post-Communist “A8” countries in 2004, and the decision by the Blair government to accept unrestricted migration from these countries, Central and Eastern Europe have become the principle source of unskilled labour migration to Britain. Populists mobilising hostility to immigration say, with justification, that such migration can only be controlled by changing our relationship to Europe. So, for the first time, the EU is squarely at the centre of British debates about immigration.
Europe has also emerged as a stronger theme in narratives about out of touch political elites, who dismiss or ignore the concerns of the voters they claim to represent. Populists can point to the frustration of public opinion in the repeated refusal of both Labour and the Conservatives to offer the public a referendum on Europe, or to seriously consider proposals for any fundamental reform of relationships with the European Union. They can also point to the prominence in EU politics of senior political figures from both governing parties as evidence of an elite clique maintaining self-serving links with the lucrative and powerful Brussels gravy train. We can also add the notorious spending and accounting habits of Brussels legislators, which can make the expenses transgressions of domestic British politicians look petty by comparison.
In short, over the past decade it has become much easier for radical right politicians to argue that Europe is “the problem”: the source of immigration threatening British jobs and cultural identity, the source of judicial rulings protecting terrorists and criminals who threaten British safety, the source of a corrupt and self-serving elite political culture, and the source of endless rules and legislation limiting British sovereignty and threatening British identity.
Europe as a legitimation device
Europe also plays an important second role for populist radical right politicians - as a legitimation device for parties often accused of organising intolerance. Research suggests that many voters are internally conflicted about many sensitive political issues, such as Islam, immigration and identity - they may have strong concerns about these issues, but reject organisations like the BNP and EDL due to their association with violence, racism or fascism (Blinder, Ford and Ivarsflaten, 2012). Accusations of stirring up hatred or mobilising prejudice have real bite.
Parties which focus solely on organising opposition to migrants or minorities tend to fail, because such mobilised intolerance is regarded by most voters as illegitimate. Europe, however, is an unquestionably legitimate political topic, and parties such as UKIP which establish themselves on this subject can then broaden their appeal to include populism while retaining mainstream political legitimacy. The contrasting treatment of Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage over the past decade provides an example of this effect in action. Griffin’s efforts to appeal to a more mainstream audience were hamstrung by the BNP’s history of violence, racism and fascism, in which he was personally deeply involved. The charge of “racist” was easy to make stick, and Griffin was never taken seriously, despite a decade of efforts to moderate his party’s image. Nigel Farage, by contrast, has been able to raise contentious questions about immigration, Islam and identity in mainstream political forums such as Question Time without being attacked as a racist or a fascist. He and his party do not have the baggage the BNP carry, and are consequently regarded as more acceptable political actors. This fits with a general pattern across Europe, where the most successful radical right politicians are often, paradoxically, those who start by talking about something else (Ivarsflaten, 2006). In Britain, the overlap between Euroscepticism and radical right concerns makes Europe an excellent springboard for those looking to organise and legitimate a broader populist challenge.
Euroscepticism and populist politics today: UKIP’s wide open space?
Over the past ten years, UKIP has developed electorally as an “uneasy coalition” of two distinct electorates (Ford, Goodwin and Cutts, 2012). “Strategic Eurosceptics” are older, more economically comfortable middle class voters who are generally alienated Conservatives supporting UKIP principally as a means to express their dissatisfaction with the mainstream status quo over Europe. “Polite xenophobes” are more economically insecure, working class voters who hold more populist views - including hostility to immigrants, anxiety about Islam and disaffection with mainstream politics - and regard UKIP as a more acceptable political outlet than the BNP. Recent political events have reduced the competition UKIP faces for both of these pools of voters, potentially creating a wide open political space into which it can grow.
The collapse of the BNP means UKIP now faces no realistic electoral competition from the far right, leaving it free to recruit heavily from the 20% of the electorate who share radical right views on national identity, authoritarian issues and anxiety about immigration and Islam (Ford, 2009). UKIP’s freedom from the BNP’s reputational baggage of fascism and racism could make it easier for the party to build up such a support base without jeopardising its mainstream legitimacy, and in recent local elections some of UKIP’s strongest performances have come in areas where the BNP once stood, but has now collapsed.
The constraints the Conservatives face in Coalition also leaves UKIP with a lot more freedom to recruit “strategic Eurosceptics” - Conservative voters disaffected with their party’s position on the EU, and on other traditional Tory issues. The Conservative leadership have moderated their rhetoric on Europe and resisted an historic backbench rebellion on an EU referendum in order to maintain a working relationship with their more socially liberal and Europhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. The binding of the Conservatives in this fashion leaves the field open to UKIP to market itself as the only true voice of Euroscepticism and traditional conservatism.
UKIP therefore faces an unprecedented opportunity: just at the moment when the issue of Europe has aligned itself with the politics of the radical right in Britain, its main competitors on the mainstream and radical right have vacated the field.
The party faces two main obstacles to seizing this opportunity. Firstly, it must find a way to balance the tension between two very different constituencies - of mainstream right wing, often libertarian, Eurosceptics, and of populist, authoritarian radical right wingers. The party has repeatedly been set back by internal conflicts between these two groups, and will continue to be so until a way is found to balance their demands.
Secondly, UKIP has yet to find a way to break through electorally in domestic politics. It lacks the geographically concentrated niches of activists and supporters which enabled the BNP (and, in a very different social milieu, the Greens) to break through into local politics, and from there into Westminster. Its activists seem ill resourced for, and little interested in, fighting local battles. But such battles must be fought and won to develop a power base outside of the European Parliament.
While both of these challenges are formidable, the odds of an organised, populist Euroscepticism emerging as a serious political force in Britain have never been shorter.
Robert Ford is Hallsworth Research Fellow at the University of Manchester (email@example.com)
This contribution forms part of a series of expert briefings on populism, extremism and the mainstream. Read Matthew Goodwin's Open letter to Labour on immigration and identity; Andy Mycock on the politics of Englishness; Catherine Fieshi on cultural anxiety, class and populism; and Shammit Saggar on policy resonses to populist and extremist grievance politics