Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Farage and Clegg Europe debates: when UKIP became "the unofficial opposition"

It's clear that when Nick Clegg offered to debate Farage on TV about the EU, he knew he had nothing to lose politically, and everything potentially to gain. If he had shown that he clearly had the better arguments and reasons for Britain's part in the EU, he reasonably thought this would burst some of the momentum for Farage's populism and UKIP's support, as well as boosting the LibDem's credibility and political support. With LibDem support so low, Clegg felt there was little to fear from his party's position becoming any worse.

Such a strategy was always very risky, and we saw that it backfired badly. We will only know how badly it has backfired when the European and local elections happen in May.

Clegg's strategy was always going to be very risky, but there was another factor that he maybe had forgotten about. Clegg and Farage represent parties that have directly opposite views on the EU. As these parties are neither of the "big two", the event had been cast as comparatively "safe" for both Labour and the Conservatives. But what was clear from Farage's stance was that he was casting UKIP (correctly) as the only "real" anti-establishment party on the issue of Europe. Both Labour and the Conservatives agree with the LibDems on the fundamental idea of Britain being in the EU; Labour and the LibDems point of view is essentially the same; the Conservatives' official view only differs on the detail, not the premise.
In this sense, Clegg's decision to call for the debates with Farage (and Clegg's two "defeats") was also calling for a show-down between the pro-EU (status quo) establishment of the "big three" against the anti-establishment UKIP. The "establishment" lost.

Losing the plot

The establishment lost the argument against Farage because they have lost the ability to see beyond the confines of Westminster. They no longer represent a point of view that matches closely with that of the ordinary voter; instead, they talk with other "politicos" and like-minded journalists who, like many of them, have been to public schools, lead a very cocooned lifestyle, and have no personal experience of what effect on the labour market the EU's free movement of labour has had on Britain.

The establishment's perspective of what effect the EU has had on the internal labour market is the same as what it is for many employers. The free movement of labour is great for employers because it means they can hire East Europeans, thus bringing down their overheads. As Farage pointed out, it is a disaster for the white working class, who are undercut by East Europeans. As I wrote in an article late last year:

"The rise of UKIP in recent times has been a result of the (correct) perception that the mass influx of East Europeans to The UK has brought about a labour crisis for some parts of the "native" population.
The government has blamed the freedom of movement around the EU for this, which is accurate, but fails to mention that it is also part of the government's intention. Much of UK PLC's "shareholders" (British and foreign investors) are strongly pro-EU because it helps them to lower wages by using workers from elsewhere in the EU (from Southern Europe as well as Eastern Europe).
At the same time, however, British people are far less likely to have linguistic ability compared to foreigners. Lulled into a false sense of security by the government, the electorate were led to believe that their economic stability would last forever because English is "the world's language". Now the UK government blames their own electorate for not taking advantage of the EU's freedom of labour mobility by not bothering to learn foreign languages.

It is not surprising that some people are left feeling "betrayed" by their own government"

 The white working class have felt abandoned in recent years, since the financial crisis and the influx of EU workers from Eastern and Southern Europe. On paper, a Briton has the same freedom of movement (to get a job) as any other EU worker, but because the government has never seriously encouraged Britons of the utility of learning other European languages, comparatively few of them can take advantage of the right to look for work elsewhere in the EU. You can blame Brits themselves for this, but the government also has a large hand to play in this, and has fed Britons with a feeling of complacency about the stability and security of the home-grown labour market against the threat of a "foreign invasion".

Due to this inadvertent "linguistic handicap", the British worker cannot look for jobs across the EU in the same way. Back in the 'eighties, many manual workers left Britain to work in Germany (the "Auf Weidersehn, Pet" effect). but that opportunity has now been taken up by East Europeans. In this way, a British worker therefore is unable to have as much labour mobility within the EU as many other Europeans; everyone in Europe knows of the utility of speaking English, but this is only really useful within the British Isles. Europeans in general are also far more motivated to learn another European language, be it German, or French, or whatever. Britons aren't, partly due to government education policy.
So what does the average British employee get out of being in the EU, compared with his mainland European counterparts? On this evidence, very little.

A detached elite

The rise of nationalism in Europe is the most noticeable effect of the financial crisis within the EU; nationalism is now at its greatest resurgence since the 1930s. Britain in no different. Like many other Europeans, Britons now also see that many powers have been transferred to an unaccountable elite in Brussels, and that the main beneficiaries of the EU seem to be employers and large corporations, not ordinary people. I've mentioned in a recent article the curious historical comparison of the modern EU and the former European power, Austria-Hungary: both multi-lingual political projects that seemed to work well for a while, before a combination of factors brought the house crashing down.

In the debate with Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg predicted that ten years from now the EU will probably be the same as it is now. In April 1914, the Austro-Hungarians probably felt the same way. While it is absurd to make direct comparisons with a hundred years ago, the Ukraine Crisis is in some ways a sign of the foolish hubris of the European elite, as Nigel Farage rightly said. His words may have been better-chosen, but many Britons would agree with him that the EU walked into the Ukraine Crisis with its eyes closed. Putin is simply reacting according to his (sovereign) interests, and considers the Ukraine to be "his backyard". That is simply political reality. It is pure foolishness for European politicians to think that the EU could really extend from the Atlantic to the Urals, as Cameron has advocated in the past. But Cameron for one has a long history of behaving like a political fool

Nick Clegg seems like all the other members of the EU establishment, and those in Westminster that support it: out of touch with the everyday reality of life, and an unconvincing advocate of his own ideas brought about by years of complacent consensus of Europe. When put up against someone like Nigel Farage, they fall back on old stereotypes about the perils of "xenophobia" and "extremism"; ideas that seemed convincing before the financial crisis, but now look hopelessly out-of-date. When that fails, they talk about the apocalyptic consequences of not being in the EU, which also look frantically over-done. 

This is why Nigel Farage is winning the argument. This is why the political establishment, of all three main parties, have right to be very worried. The chances of the UK really leaving the EU may be over-estimated, but the damage that UKIP is doing to their credibility, is not.

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