March 6, 2014
Many supporters of the European Union don’t understand the sceptical stance of the British. The very founding documents of the EU speak unashamedly of “step by step” movement towards an “ever-closer union”. So, it’s easy to empathise with the incredulity of our European counterparts when the UK feigns outrage each time Brussels attempts to ratchet integration up a notch. What did we expect?
But sceptical we are. Rather than growing used to the possibility of Churchill’s ‘United States of Europe’, our cheeky half-in, half-out attitude is inching ever closer to outright opposition. The predicted rise of Ukip (The United Kingdom’s prominent Eurosceptic party) in the forthcoming European Elections will be a barometer of UK opinion, and will offer a fascinating hint about what may happen in the General Election in 2015.
Euro elections can be difficult to predict, but successive polls put the Tories third with Ukip three points above them and Labour well ahead with a third of the vote. If this looks bad for the Tories, spare a thought for the Lib-Dems, predicted by pollsters YouGov to lose all their 11 seats.
The UK’s vote in the European Parliament elections normally reflects the nation’s Euroscepticism – this is why Ukip are so massively overrepresented when compared to domestic elections. But this normally means that those voting for the traditionally pro-European parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) in the Euros tend to represent the die-hard core of the party faithful. If the Lib Dems are due to lose all of their seats, then it is crystal-clear that many of their most reliable voters are planning to abandon them with no suggestion that they will return for the General Election in 2015, leading to an unprecedented Lib Dem implosion.
Another recent poll by Opinium puts British attitudes to Europe at 36% positive which, however low, is at least three times the percentage of those who think well of the Lib Dems. This is possibly why Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg has decided to challenge Ukip Leader Nigel Farage to a debate.
If Clegg does well against Farage, he might start to carve out for the Lib Dems an electoral identity, something which has been gradually eroded while they have been in Government. The other option is for Clegg to rest on his laurels, be on the wrong end of a hiding in the Euros, and very likely suffer a leadership challenge in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. So, doing nothing is not an option. The debate will be exciting, but now Farage has accepted, Clegg will need to be seriously well-briefed if he is to score against an opponent with a gift for rhetoric, arguing on the home ground of his favourite subject.
Where is Cameron in all this? Surely such an important debate on the future of the UK’s relationship with an institution that makes more than two-thirds of our laws ought to warrant the attention of the two most important politicians in the Country: Miliband and the Tory leader. Well, first, Clegg didn’t invite either of them on the premise that neither the Tories nor Labour have a clear policy position on whether the UK should be “in” or “out” and there is, therefore, “no point” debating with them.
Second, Conservatives are in some turmoil over the EU – with the traditional vote and backbenchers firmly sceptical and much of the leadership in favour of deeper integration – the last thing Cameron needs is for this lack of unity to be highlighted. Debating is much easier when you have something to say. Until Cameron knows he can command the support of his party on the issue, he would be extremely unwise to enter the ring with either Farage or Clegg, both of whom have very clear positions on Europe.
This column is aware that all this talk of electioneering strategy turns many people off. So, what does any of this mean for Catholics? Those who are hoping the seeming conservatism of Ukip make them natural bedfellows in the realms of social policy are in for a disappointment. As Lord Deben (John Gummer) inferred recently, Christianity and Ukip don’t easily reconcile. The latter’s desire to cut foreign aid to the poorest, alienate migrants and expel foreigners hardly chimes with loving one’s neighbour as oneself. The ugly underbelly of racism that they reveal in British politics is completely alien to all our Church teaches.
Yes, Farage commented recently that Ukip would support a more muscular defence of our Christian heritage. After the last 15 years of Government, this is welcome, but it is superficial. It is true that he was vocal in opposing the method (as opposed to the content) of Cameron’s gay marriage proposals, but it would be a mistake to think that Ukip would present a more Christian alternative to the major parties.
Ukip is broad enough to incorporate a SPUC supporting Catholic, a man who blamed the intensity of UK storms on the gay marriage legislation, and another who believed that downs syndrome and spina bifida babies should be compulsorily aborted, that euthanasia should be introduced for the over 80s and that “riff raff” should be deported. Farage himself has called for an end to the ban on hand guns and suggested that women who return to work after having children are “worth less to their employers” echoing the Ukip Treasurer who claimed that “women are nowhere near as good as men”.
To call Farage’s group a broad church would be the understatement of the year, and anyone expecting the central policies of the party on the touchstone Christian moral issues to be any narrower than the breadth of its membership would be making a big mistake.
Whilst it will do well in May’s European elections, Ukip is still a million political miles away from a sane and consistent message that would position it as a credible party in the 2015 General Election.
This article first appeared in The Universe – http://www.thecatholicuniverse.com.
Cllr Chris Whitehouse KSG is Managing Director of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, a Trustee of The Right to Life Charitable Trust, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West).