Great Britain: the Westminster Democracy Threated by Populism


The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is the most important populist party in Great Britain since, according to the latest polls, it has around 15% of support among British voters. But it could be defined not only a populist party but also a typical “niche party” [Meguid 2005], which has made of UK’s exit from EU its piece de resistance, building its political platform on an issue that lies on the “anti-European integration vs. pro-integration” cleavage.

UKIP was formed in 1993 by Alan Sked as a protest movement against the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty signed by the Conservative government of John Major. It was overshadowed until the 1997 by the Referendum Party of Sir James Goldsmith, but after his death UKIP became the predominant Eurosceptic voice in the British party system. It won three seats in the EP in 1999 before a surge in support in 2004 brought 16% of the vote and UKIP then came second in 2009 with 16.5% of the vote [Lynch et al. 2011].

Figure 5. Great Britain. Electoral Growth of UKIP (1992-2010)

Immagine

Source: Elaboration Data Ministry of Interior

* Legend: General Elections (G), European Elections (E)

Its performances in general elections have been less impressive. UKIP was fourth placed in nationwide share of the vote in 2010, polling 3.2% but failing to win a seat, because of the particular functioning of the electoral system – a plurality system named first past the post – which tends to favor the biggest parties. Instead in the local elections held in 2013 on the 2nd of May, the party of Nicholas Farage took 147 seats in the different councils, with a national share in some cases of 20-25% that has been considered a sort of “earthquake” for the British politics.

But how do we can explain the growing support received by UKIP in the last years, as represented also in the recent polls for the European Elections, where it has positioned just behind the Labour Party with 20% of preferences?

A Widespread Anti-Europeist Feeling.

The recent Eurobarometer 79/2013 suggests that British are one of the most eurosceptic people in Europe. In particular two data seem to be very interesting. First of all, the “trust index” towards EU, which is 20%, more that 10 point below the EU27 average [Eurobarometer 2013]. Second, in this report 54% of respondents define themselves as “total pessimistic” about the future of the EU [ibidem: 133]. It represents an image that has roots in the anguished relation with the European Community since the beginning of its participation to it and exacerbated during the Conservative governments in the 80’s and 90’s.

Figure 6. Great Britain. Level of Optimism about the Future of the European Union

eurobarometro

Source: Eurobarometer 79/2013: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb79/eb79_fact_uk_en.pdf

In fact, the beginning of this tumultuous relationship coincides with the decade dominated by Margaret Thatcher that since her election in 1979 posed herself in a position of severe critics toward the British economic contribution to the European budget, accusing EEC of an unfair distribution of resources[1] on the cry of “We want money back!”. By the way, the most emblematic example of this anguished relation seems to be the British behavior towards the European Monetary System (ESN) and the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty that led to the lower point in the “euro-relations” of the country.

So, a narration built around the very popular theme of “independence” offered to UKIP the possibility to make consensus easily. It would include the independence from the EU, but also independence of citizens from the pervasive state intervention and an independent thinking on issues such as Europe, immigration and climate change where UKIP depicts itself as an alternative to elite consensus [Whitaker & Lynch 2011]. For example, it made this focusing on the costs of membership, the impact of the Working Time Directive on the National Health Service and how EU regulations shape local issues from job losses in manufacturing to the building of wind farms.

A Mechanistic Explanation for the vote to UKIP.

So, behind UKIP success seems to be not only protest voting, also if it remains a relevant component in this phase of economic crisis which stroke – with minor intensity than Southern Europe – also Great Britain. The increasing support obtained by the Independent Party could also be read as symptom of a growing citizens’ intolerance towards rules and decisions imposed by the European Union, more and more considered as a constraint rather than an advantage.

In this perspective Farage played the “double card” of euroscepticism related to both economy and immigration, two issues particularly dear to the party. UKIP is able to ride the wave of widespread discontent toward EU institutions related to the perspective of the free access to Great Britain allowed to the Bulgarian and Romanian citizens since 2014. In this case the immigration issue comes to mix with the eurosceptic one, allowing Farage to increase personal and party popularity as recent electoral results and polls have shown.

UKIP’s success has to be read as expression of an historical desire of British people. Its growth has not been caused by the economic crisis exploded in 2009, but rather it has favored them. In fact, the party led by Farage embodies the historical anti-europeist feeling diffused in the country, all along not only geographically but also culturally and politically isolated by the rest of the continent. The leader of UKIP intercepted and put into effect these feelings, creating a party in correspondence with the ratification of Maastricht Treaty, which meant for Great Britain also a painful transfer of sovereignty [Ford et al., 2011].

In the name of their independence from Bruxelles’ bureaucracy, citizens supported those that seem to be able to defend it. In this particular moment, when EU requests its members for an additional effort in term of economic solidarity with – in particular – Southern European countries and the same Union is expanding its boundaries, the national and populist rhetoric of UKIP results to be successful[Whitaker and Lynch, 2011]. In fact, a certain part of the citizens see in UKIP policies the real possibility to realize an “exit strategy” from EU, permitting UK to reacquire its lost sovereignty and to decide not only in the field of immigration, but also in those of environment and labour, felt today too controlled by Bruxelles. Within this narrative, UKIP can also link EU membership to national and local issues that are of greater concern to voters.

In conclusion, it is possible to define the rise of UKIP as a product both of cultural and contingent factors. In fact, it represents the expression of a secular “jealousy” of British people for their own independency in the fields of both politics and policies – and economy in particular. On the one hand, the birth of the party in 1993, in correspondence to the Maastricht Treaty – and the consequent limitation of UK sovereignty in its policy-making in particular in theme of immigration and economy – seems to represent a quite clear causal mechanism. On the other hand, its recent growing success started in 2009 and culminated nowadays – when Europe is facing the acute phase of the economic crisis – confirm that an anti-europeist feeling is very widespread in the country, leading citizens to support those political forces who proclaim themselves guarantors of the British sovereignty.

 

[1]  In the first half of the 1980’s, almost 80% of EEC budget was destined to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which was essentially directed to France and the other continental countries rather than UK, more devoted to an industrial and financial economy.

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