How Britain Became European

An election holds up a mirror to society, revealing the relationship between the people and the politicians.

The 2015 election in Britain revealed widespread distrust of a political class seen as remote and out of touch by those left behind, by voters who feel disfranchised and powerless to control their own lives. It showed that disquieting trends on the Continent are not without some resonance in Britain.

Many voters believed that the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and his Labour Party challenger, Ed Miliband, were all too similar in their determination to keep Britain in the European Union, their inability to curb immigration, and in their support for gay marriage.

In Scotland, voters noticed that Mr. Cameron and Mr. Miliband seemed equally committed to austerity and retention of the Trident nuclear deterrent. How was a citizen who rejected this consensus to vote? Those supporting the UK Independence Party believed that, if only Britain left the E.U., there would be no immigration problem. Scottish National Party voters believed that, if only Scotland left the United Kingdom, austerity would come to an end.

These attitudes were felt most strongly among those left behind by social and economic change in the areas of the first Industrial Revolution — the industrialized parts of west central Scotland, the North of England and parts of the Midlands — and also in decaying seaside towns and docklands on the east coast of England, such as Clacton, the only constituency where UKIP managed to win a seat, despite drawing over 12 percent of the vote nationwide.

In the past, it had been the Labour Party’s historic task to represent the disadvantaged. Indeed the party has traditionally been a coalition of liberal intellectuals and the working class — an alliance, as it were, between Hampstead and Humberside. That alliance is now breaking down. Hampstead remains loyal; Humberside is feeling the attractions of UKIP.

Ed Miliband hoped that 2008 would prove a social democratic movement, that the crash had fundamentally altered attitudes to the free market and financial capitalism. But his call for a socially-regulated form of capitalism based on the German model had little resonance.

Instead, in Britain, as in much of the Continent, 2008 has proved to be not to a social democratic moment, but a nationalist one. Social solidarity has weakened, while national feeling has grown in intensity.

UKIP and the S.N.P. have something in common: They both seek to replace the politics of ideology with the politics of identity. They cannot easily be located on the left-to-right spectrum. One can be a left or right-wing advocate of Britain leaving the European Union or Scottish independence.

UKIP argues not that Mr. Cameron is insufficiently right-wing but that he is insufficiently British. The S.N.P. argues not that Labour is insufficiently left-wing but that it is insufficiently Scottish.

Both concern themselves less with the distribution of income and resources, the standard agenda of democratic politics, than with issues of belonging. Are the British really European? Is being European compatible with being British? And is being Scottish compatible with being British?

These issues — whether Britain should remain in the European Union, whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom, and, if so, on what terms — look set to dominate the 2015 Parliament.

It is a paradox that, as the world is becoming increasingly interconnected economically, it is also becoming more fragmented politically. UKIP and the S.N.P. have their analogues on the Continent – parties of the Right, more extreme and tainted with racism and Islamophobia, such as France’s National Front, Jobbik in Hungary and the Sweden Democrats.

In some of the Mediterranean countries, their analogues are parties of the Left, like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Both seek to restore national economic sovereignty against the unaccountable institutions and bankers in charge of the euro. What all these parties have in common is nationalism.

The European Union was intended to contain nationalism, which was indeed strikingly absent from the Continent during the immediate postwar years following the defeat of fascism and National Socialism. But it has now returned with a vengeance.

The new political conflict in Europe reflects a social cleavage between those who have benefited from globalization and those who have not and it is coming to overshadow the traditional left-right conflict between mainstream parties.

The new ideological cleavage pits internationalist against nationalists — and it exists within as well as between mainstream parties. In Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, Mr. Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, are squarely aligned with the liberal internationalists; but many Conservative members of parliament reject the leadership’s stance and share UKIP’s view that Britain would be better off outside of Europe. In the referendum due to be held before the end of 2017, it is unlikely that the Conservatives will be able to preserve a united front.

Paradoxically, UKIP has made Britain resemble the rest of Europe by helping to transform Britain’s traditional British two-party system into a multi-party system. And both UKIP and the S.N.P. support proportional representation, which also would make Britain more European.

For a long time, pro-European politicians have urged that Britain should become more like the rest of Europe. Perhaps they have succeeded all too well.

Vernon Bogdanor is a professor of government at King’s College, London.

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