Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Significance of UKIP

Is it time to start taking UKIP seriously? This should be a classic ‘question to which the answer is no’, and yet this week, in the wake of the ridiculous Rotherham foster parent case, we find that they are at their highest ever level of popularity. Furthermore, serious Conservative politicians are arguing that some kind of electoral pact is necessary between the two parties if the right is to secure the next election.

There are a number of things going on here, and most of them concern internal Conservative Party matters, rather than a principled stand regarding Britain’s membership of the EU. UKIP’s entry into the mainstream of political debate tells us a great deal about the challenges facing David Cameron in the near future, but to understand them you have to look at the recent past.

Europe is the issue which has torn the Conservative Party apart since the late 1980’s. It was Europe which caused them to depose Margret Thatcher. It was Europe which caused backbenchers to cripple John Major’s government. It was hysterically fanatical anti-European sentiment which was a huge contributing factor in the un-electability of the party under Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard. During the opposition years, the party gave voice to the obsessions of retired army officers in golf club bars in Southern England, namely the evils of Europe, the terror of political correctness and the perils of immigration or as we now call these things, the UKIP policy napkin. The Conservatives were in danger of fading in to irrelevance*.

David Cameron’s great achievement was to drag his sometimes unwilling party back to the centre ground of politics, and make them sound relevant to the concerns of the electorate. In his first conference speech as leader, he exhorted his party to “stop banging on about Europe”, and start talking about what voters care about. As an electoral strategy, this sort of worked. The Conservatives now lead the government (albeit with a Lib Dem fly in the ointment). However, it had two major flaws. The first is that there is still a hard-line Europhobic element in the Conservative Party. The second is that Europe actually exists, and even if you don’t want to talk about it, you have to have a policy towards it, so the party hardliners will still cause chaos.  

When you see right wing commentators arguing that the Conservatives must accommodate UKIP policies in order to prevent their core vote deserting them for Nigel Farage, what they are really trying to do is to undo David Cameron’s modernisation project, and take the Conservatives rightwards. UKIP is a convenient way for them to argue this. If it didn’t exist, they’d just find another reason. Cameron is resisting this because he (rightly) believes this will make the Conservatives unelectable again. The strain is showing. Cameron has been defeated by his own backbenchers in Parliament. There is now a real risk that the UKIP tendency in the Conservative party has a stranglehold over European policy. The risk of being dragged ever rightwards by his own party will haunt Cameron. If it happens, he will share the fate of John Major, and go down in history as being “in office, but not in power”. As for the rest of us, the idea that the single most important element of our foreign policy is being decided by a few euro-sceptic oddballs should be cause for grave concern.

*Cute fact; the hardliners at this time used to call themselves the “rockers”, and they did political battle with the “mods” who wished to reach out to centrist voters. See the excellent “Tory Wars” for details.   

Update (30/11/2012): If you think I'm wrong about the Tory UKIP tendency, have a read of this.

No comments:

Post a Comment