UK Independence Party renews culture wars

UKIP is just a small part of a broader phenomenon spreading across the developed world that resembles a political backlash against globalization and interdependence. But how should mainstream parties respond?  

UKIP is just a small part of a broader phenomenon spreading across the developed world that resembles a political backlash against globalization and interdependence. But how should mainstream parties respond?

– – –

Over the past week, Britain has been shaken by a political earthquake. The previously marginal UK Independence Party (UKIP) burst onto center stage to capture almost a quarter of the votes in local elections around the country, threatening to upset the stable two-party system that has existed for the last century. Nigel Farage ‑ the Claret-quaffing, cigar-smoking former city trader who leads the party ‑ breathed life into abstract ideas of sovereignty by highlighting the inability of European Union member states to control their borders. He predicted “hordes” of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens legally migrating to the UK. The mainstream parties are struggling to respond.

UKIP is just a small part of a broader phenomenon spreading across the developed world that resembles a political backlash against globalization and interdependence.

A recent study showed that policy issues are secondary to potential UKIP supporters. (Only 7 percent of UKIP supporters say Europe is the single most important issue for them.) In focus groups, UKIP supporters reel off a litany of complaints, both imagined and real, about the cultural and social state of Britain. For example: Your school is not allowed to hold a nativity play; you cannot fly the flag of Saint George; you cannot call Christmas “Christmas” anymore; you cannot be promoted in the police force unless you are a minority; you cannot wear an England team shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you cannot even speak up about these things, because you’ll be labeled a racist. “All of these examples,” says Lord Ashcroft, the study’s author, “make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.”

It seems that UKIP’s support comes from a very similar constituency as the Tea Party in the United States, Geert Wilders’ far-right PVV in the Netherlands, Joerg Haider’s party in Austria, and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary. Sunder Katwala of the think tank British Future described UKIP to me as “a cultural movement of angry white men over the age of 55.”

In essence, support for UKIP, like other populist parties in the West, is a cry by an empowered majority afraid of losing its position as a result of the economic, demographic and cultural changes of globalization. As power and wealth spread from west to east, an increasing number of people fear their children’s lives will be worse than theirs; and that the cultural makeup of their countries will change.

The winners in the Western world now feel threatened by the very things that were previously seen as opportunities. The cheap products and services that they enjoy consuming are now seen as destroyers of jobs. Easy travel is seen as an immigrant flood waiting to happen. There is a pervasive sense of victimhood among creditors and debtors alike. The more that globalization forces countries to bind together, the more citizens crave their independence.

So now, after two decades of watching borders come down across the world, a growing group wants to see the walls re-erected. It is no coincidence that a backlash against interdependence is happening at the same moment as a backlash against the elites who drove globalization in the first place. The appeal of the populist parties is that they offer a way of re-exerting control over lives at a time when economic policy is increasingly beyond national control.

Katwala says many mainstream European parties have cycled through a set of three inadequate responses: “They start by trying to change the subject;”he says. “When that fails, they often concede and echo the populist argument; and when that fails, they return to defending their liberal creed. And when that still doesn’t work, they often make their way back through the cycle again.”

Perhaps there is an alternative approach. Anthony Painter, in a thoughtful paper for the think tank Policy Network, put forward a trinity of strategies: to acknowledge the issues that drive potential support for the populist radical right; to develop a new national vision involving changes to jobs, welfare and housing; and to mobilize new voters to change the electoral demography.

This sounds remarkably like the approach that Barack Obama successfully used in the last U.S. election. America’s changing demography, its ability to insulate itself from global pressures and Obama’s political skills may help to keep these sentiments in check for a few more years. But there are reasons to fear it will be more difficult for Europeans to adopt the same approach. Through their membership in the European Union, Europe’s nations do not have the luxury of disentangling themselves from one another. At the same time, they have not yet developed the political habits and cultures to deal with sensitive issues that cut across borders.

For euro zone members, sensitive issues like public spending, retirement age and public-sector salaries have become entrenched in European politics. Even outside the euro zone, the global mobility of Europeans has become a political issue. Unfortunately, the leaders of Europe’s governments have tended to carry on treating the European sphere as if it were a technocratic realm, rather than focusing on gaining support for their individual policies. This has left the field free for the populists.

Britain has always been more open to free trade because it was the country that brought globalization to the modern world. The British economy continues to be disproportionately shaped by international trade and finance. The UK’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system has also squeezed an ever more diverse country into the straitjacket of a two-party system. In these circumstances, the Conservative Party has managed to absorb much of the support that would go to far-right parties in countries with more proportional electoral systems.

Ironically, it is the euro-hating Nigel Farage that is dragging British politics further into line with the European mainstream. British politicians will need to face up to the same political dilemmas as their continental counterparts. Unfortunately, they threaten to be equally ineffective.

This article was first published by Reuters.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.