A Crumbling Union

A referendum on Britain’s EU membership is likely. And if the country secedes, others could soon follow its example.

In 1991 I founded the Anti-Federalist League, which changed its name in 1993 to the UK Independence Party (Ukip). I remained party leader until 1997 when, for a variety of reasons, I quit. One reason was that the party was becoming too right-wing for my liberal sensitivities. The major one was that I thought Sir James Goldsmith, who had led the Referendum Party in the 1997 election, would be the torch-bearer for British Euro-scepticism in the future. However, Sir James died a few months later and his party disappeared.

Hence Ukip, soon under the baleful leadership of Nigel Farage, continued to hold the torch. Farage has not been a particularly successful leader—the party has never won a seat in Parliament and has only a tiny handful of councillors. In the House of Lords it has the support of only three very right-wing peers—all Tory defectors-and in opinion polls it registers still only about 4% of the national vote. In two recent by-elections, however, it has beaten the Tories and Liberal Democrats in seats where they had no chance of winning anyway. And the coalition parties, given the state of the economy, are highly unpopular. The odd, freak poll, however, puts Ukip at 10%.

What does this mean? Probably only that, since the Liberal Democrats have entered government, the mindless, protest vote has switched to some extent to Ukip. The anti-foreign, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant vote, however, is going Ukip’s way as well. Does it mean that the country is about to vote Ukip to leave the EU? That is more difficult to say. The EU is certainly hugely unpopular but that is not due to Ukip.

One of the aims of the party when I founded it was to convert the Conservative Party to a policy of quitting the EU—just as the Anti-Corn Law League in the 1840s had converted Sir Robert Peel to Free Trade. It has taken a while, but in this I believe I have succeeded. The new generation of Tory MPs is solidly Eurosceptic and a majority of the party membership would vote to withdraw from the EU tomorrow. Cameron’s difficulties in the House of Commons reflect this new situation. And it has in part—even large part—come from the political competition from Ukip on the right. The message on Europe has got through. The Tory Party is now a highly Eurosceptic one.

However, the main reason why most British people now reject membership in the EU is more straightforward. After forty years of membership they see that the EU is undemocratic, lacks accountability, and that its policies don’t work. I have outlined these objections in previous articles. The EU now has about half a dozen presidents—none of them elected. Its head of foreign affairs—Baroness Ashton—has never been elected to anything her entire life. Only 25% of British citizens vote in EU parliamentary elections since the results can’t change anything. The Council and the Commission are responsible to no one. Votes and decisions are taken in secret.

The end results, moreover, are dreadful. The CFP has denuded the North Sea of fish and destroyed Britain’s fishing fleet and fishing communities; the CAP rewards agricultural barons, impoverishes small farmers, keeps prices high for consumers and rewards inefficiency; the Common Foreign and Security Policy is a joke. Most EU member states simply rely on the US for their defense and Britain and France cannot even maintain a campaign against Libya without US logistical and weapons support. Israel rightly treats the EU with contempt given that EU foreign aid in the past has found its way into the hands of Palestinian terrorists. Now, to cap everything, EU mismanagement of its own currency zone has made it a threat to the world economy and especially, it seems, to the City of London. Why then would any intelligent British citizen want to remain inside the EU?

Will the UK leave soon? Well, the political establishment is still pro-EU. But no party is positively popular. Cameron’s Tories want to ditch the pro-EU Liberal Democrats but cannot hope at present to win an election by themselves. Labour is popular in opposition, but has a bad reputation for governing and poor leadership. However, it could win an election by promising a referendum on EU membership. So might even the Tories. And neither party has strong enough faith in the EU not to risk doing so. So I believe that a referendum is inevitable. In any case, events over fiscal and monetary union inside the EU will make some kind of referendum necessary. So the EU itself will force a referendum on the UK. And inevitably that will become one on membership, whatever Cameron or Miliband or Clegg would ideally prefer.

Would Britain vote to leave the EU? The campaign would be tense but yes, I think so. Then France and others would follow her example.

Read more in this debate: Mark Briggs, Stephen Tindale, Sam Macrory.

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