Why UKIP’s rise is a shortlived rebellion

The success of anti-EU parties speaks to the decline of the old political order rather than to the rise of a new one.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Across Britain, embarrassed mainstream politicians have been struggling to explain away the local election successes of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which won 23 per cent of the votes cast last Thursday. Labour leader Ed Miliband insists UKIP’s rise is down to the public’s fears over the economy (so why are they not voting Labour, Ed?). The Liberal Democrats say the UKIP vote is not a vote against Europe, but rather is a protest vote, a sign of the public’s disengagement from the political establishment. The anti-EU Conservative No Turning Back Group, on the other hand, insists that the European question was exactly why UKIP had cut into Tory support, and that the government ought to give ground by calling a referendum on EU membership.

All of these responses have some element of truth. But the unstated assumption is that the UKIP vote is an unwelcome disruption to the British political system, and that normal services should be resumed as soon as possible. Even radical left-wing commentators are worrying that UKIP is a proto-fascist movement that must be quarantined from the mainstream lest it upset the political norm.

The public, on the other hand, seems to prefer a party that challenges the mainstream. UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s eccentric coalition might not bear too much scrutiny close up, but its shaking up of the establishment is a good thing. The question of Europe is indeed symbolic. The aloof and seemingly arbitrary impact of the European Union on people’s lives is a very good symbol of the way elites rule today. The sentiment that people in Britain should run their own affairs might seem xenophobic to some, but actually it has a positive side.

All across Europe, new populist movements and protests have shaken up the establishment. In Italy, comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won a quarter of the votes cast in the recent general election; in Greece, Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing SYRIZA coalition is polling at 20 per cent; radical right-wingers like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are also climbing the polls once again. Only last year, George Galloway kicked over yet another apple cart to be elected MP for Bradford in northern England on the RESPECT ticket. In Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Cyprus, various new movements have challenged both the EU and the political establishment over austerity measures.

Researching the growing authority of the European Union at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, I found that these populist movements against the mainstream political establishment were intimately connected to the European Union’s fortunes. More and more populist movements have impacted upon the mainstream political consensus with growing frequency since the mid-1980s. Their appearance is symptomatic of the breakdown of the left/right political model that pitted Socialists against Christian Democrats across Europe in the postwar era. Whether leftist, nationalist, green, or ‘white’ (the ‘white movement’ paralysed Belgium in the early Nineties), all of these mobilisations took off because of the inability of the old party system to give a voice to people’s hopes or fears.

These different movements are each interesting developments in their own right – but as a whole, they are a symptom of the collapse of the old order. In itself that is no bad thing. The mainstream political system has failed, and it is pointless to keep on trying to revive it. The problem is that, so far, no alternative has succeeded in rooting itself. All of the protest movements and parties have proven to have a limited appeal, sometimes breaking out of the small ghetto of support to scare the mainstream, but always drifting back into obscurity, or breaking up. Until a viable political alternative is built with real and developing ties to an enduring social movement, the protest parties will continue to be a sign of the decline of the old politics rather than of the emergence of a new politics.

That the EU itself is more and more the target identified by protest parties is telling. The Union has grown stronger for much the same reasons as the protest parties have: the failure of the national political process. The Union gathers more powers to itself in direct proportion to the declining authority of the constituent assemblies of its member states. It is because national elites feel out of touch with the voters in their own countries that they derive more and more authority from their relations with one another, in the institution of the European Union.

Political scientists talk up the growing power of ‘non-majoritarian’ authorities, like central banks, judges, courts and ombudsmen that are taking the place of elected governments. The largest such non-majoritarian institution is the EU.

To its critics, the EU is a monolithic or tyrannical power. They see the sinister hand of Germany, or capitalism, or the Bilderberg Group behind its growing influence. But that is a mistake. The EU is a feeble dictator. Its real power stems from the willing surrender of authority on the part of Europe’s national political elites. They prefer to give up their own control over interest rates, spending, working conditions and more than to allow those things to be debated and challenged in their national parliaments.

UKIP’s vote is one in the eye for Westminster, and maybe even for Brussels. But in the long run, and unless people create a real alternative to the failing mainstream politics, the EU will gain in power by default.

James Heartfield’s The European Union and the End of Politics is published by ZER0 Books. Come to the launch, at 6pm on 30 May, in the Westminster Forum, Fifth Floor, 32-38 Wells Street, London, W1T 3UW. For more information, email Heartfield at: {encode=”” title=””}.

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Topics Politics


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