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Why won’t the average Briton take ownership of Europe? We moan about the Germans and the French, the overbearing influence of Brussels. Why can’t we just get on and get involved instead of cursing it, and plotting to leave. It’s our project, but grossly unfashionable to say so. It’s a bit too continental, too socialist. It shouldn’t be. There are voices saying “I’m a proud European”, but not enough. Too few saying, “Britain belongs in Europe”. No declaration of love required: The British must take ownership of our EU.
UKIP are polling a respectable 17% or so, a bloody nose to the Liberal Democrats, under 10% in November 2014. But is the electorate really pushing for Brexit? Depends on which poll you consult, and what question is asked. We’re not all Farages or Patersons (Owen Paterson calling for the irreversible Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to be invoked- as if this two year exit process can be used as “thinking time”). Our relationship with the EU needs work, but it isn’t possible to do the EU as a grand pick ‘n’ mix effort. An economic union is impossible without freedom of movement.
There is a contradiction between UKIP at face value, seemingly striving for an independent United Kingdom, and what the supporters actually want. In the centre right camp, there are plenty of Europhile Tories, but that does work within the Conservative ethos. There are, confusingly, a few UKIP supporters who are pro EU. How does that work?
As a pollster I spoke to many UKIP supporters. The overriding comment was on change. Yes, a few ranty people banged on about immigration. The more eloquent interviewees would express concern on the EU. Yet it wasn’t simply about immigration or Europe. Many respondents of all allegiances were angry and confused about the EU. But the distinguishing message from UKIP supporters was a desire for change. That’s a broad, intangible thing. It signifies disappointment. In 2010 the electorate wanted change: it got a coalition indistinguishable from the Conservatives.
I think UKIP support is not primarily about leaving the EU, it’s about dissatisfaction and disillusionment. So many commentators have said “don’t out-UKIP UKIP.” There must be a real solution offered, not just a lunge to the right. Nor, as a counter, a swerve to the left. A real alternative. If I could provide that alternative formula I’d give it to Labour. There is no workable alternative offered in leaving the EU, it is just that: “leaving the EU.” Beyond that notion, there is nothing.
The disappointment with Europe comes from a deep suspicion of Brussels, which comes from a hatred of Westminster for seemingly handing Brussels power in the first instance. Myths abound about the EU, which is poorly understood, complex, and appears to benefit everyone else but “us”. Everyone hates “us”. Ask Portugal what Europe thinks of them and they will complain bitterly about the Troika. Ask the Greeks and they will say something similar. Every region in the UK feels poorly done by.
There always will be a hardcore of people, ultra nationalist and separatist who want to go it alone with “people like them”. Separatism is rife in Europe. But should these areas push for true autonomy, or merely recognition at a federal level? I use “British” when discussing UKIP, but I think “English” would be more accurate. To compare the Yes campaign, why were Scottish nationalists keen to align an independent Scotland with the EU?
The romance that swept the Scottish nation is the parallel between Yes voters and UKIP. The powerful idea that somehow, this better part of the continent is strong enough to strike out alone. It really is romantic. And frankly ridiculous. As if an accident of birth gifts these citizens with a superior status. The allure of an independent Britain, even England, is attractive, but I don’t think that’s the whole picture. UKIP is a cry, a scream, for change. That is its appeal and it is seductive indeed.
A better alternative is the hard route. The negotiations. The improvement. Don’t give up on this fantastic project. This family, this marriage, this symbol. The EU has brought peace to Europe. To throw in the towel is not just a gamble, it would be an injury from which Britain would not recover. No one likes being told they have to take the difficult route, but that is the truth of the matter.
The centre-left has a hard case to answer. It needs to address the multiple identities of this country, the multiple concerns and interests. It’s a tough job to provide a manifesto, and then a government, that caters to all. Ultimately you can’t do it and the result is compromise. The party that achieves this is the party that speaks to everyone- not a party for the privileged, or otherwise. And that is where our relationship with the EU needs work. Marriage counselling.
We must answer Britain’s cry not with a pander to UKIP’s rash ideas, but with ambition, pride, unabashed defence of the institution that is the EU. We don’t have to love it. But we can learn to live with it better.