This is the second article in our new series: Pinning Down Farage. The first – What is UKIP’s economic policy? – was published on Tuesday.
UKIP was founded with one aim and one aim only: securing Britain’s independence from the European Union.
In recent years they’ve broadened their platform (developing an economic policy, for example, as I document on Tuesday). This started as a response to the criticism that they were in effect a single-issue pressure group standing for election. The critique both stung and worked as an argument against electing UKIP candidates – even if a voter opposed the EU, they tended to want a candidate who would do other things of which they approved once in office.
From a reactive step to deflect attacks, the development of a wider UKIP offering then turned into a proactive electoral strategy. To build beyond a base of hardcore anti-EU activists, they realised there was an opportunity to hoover up other disgruntled groups – fans of grammar schools, people concerned about the burqa, opponents of same sex marriage, those living near the HS2 route and, most recently, those opposed to the so-called “bedroom tax”. Get those votes, too, went the thinking, and they could be used to deliver independence from Brussels.
Over time, the need to pull together what could be portrayed as an opportunistically compiled hotch-potch of policy positions into a coherent platform generated a much wider UKIP worldview. Nigel Farage once mulled rebranding his party to reflect that new outlook – dropping the UK element and simply calling themselves the “Independence Party”, to signify independence from Westminster and the state as much as from Brussels. He didn’t do so in the end, but it’s an insight nonetheless into his awareness that the party has grown beyond its origins as the Anti-Federalist League.
The interesting question is whether that evolution has in any way changed the party’s approach to – or even commitment to – Britain leaving the EU. After all, when you’re a single-issue outfit your chosen topic occupies all of your time, adopting others inevitably dilutes your focus and disperses your resources.
The broadening of their issues and the deepening of the party’s support and machine produced a number of important changes.
Once, UKIPers were adamant that if Britain left the EU then they would disband. It would be mission accomplished. Now, privately at least, they say the opposite – leaving the EU is just one condition necessary to build a UKIP Britain. Where once they sought to put control of our borders, trade, fisheries and other policies back in the hands of a democratically elected government in Westminster, now they have very fixed views of how those powers ought to be used once they are regained – and UKIP intends to have its say on the matter.
That’s a symptom of developing a distinct world view. It’s also, more cynically, in the interests of those who have become professional politicians at the head of the “People’s Army”. How many of UKIP’s MEPs and advisers want to hang up their swords in 2017 and go back to what they were doing before? Or, horror of horrors, reintegrate with the “LibLabCon” that they have so fervently denounced once Britain is self-governing again? Not many.
Changing their character, views and objectives so fundamentally has, inevitably, changed UKIP’s behaviour, too. After years of calling for the main parties to promise an In/Out referendum, now one is promised they choose not only to say they don’t trust it, but to argue that they don’t care – that their new demand is that UKIP replaces the “legacy parties” outright.
Stopping a referendum
In case it wasn’t clear that an opportunity to leave the EU is no longer sufficient, they openly aim to harm the best chances of it coming to pass.
We know that UKIP is actively working to prevent a Conservative majority government, for example, despite the fact that such a government would produce the In/Out referendum that they (and I) have asked for.
Various smokescreens are deployed to justify this hypocrisy:
- Labour and the Lib Dems will promise a referendum, too. Farage confidently predicted that pressure from UKIP would force all the main parties to back a referendum, so harming the Conservatives wouldn’t matter. That hasn’t happened and shows no sign of doing so – and yet UKIP still cling to the line.
- “Cameron can’t be trusted to keep to his promise”. This site has expressed its frustration at unfulfilled pledges in the past, but the central importance of the in/out referendum is now such that even if the Prime Minister wanted to do so, his MPs would defenestrate him if he even tried to back out – a fact Douglas Carswell and others surely know.
- “Cameron will campaign to stay in the EU”. It may very well be true – but it’s an incoherent criticism of a referendum pledge, the very point of which is that the people, not the Prime Minister, would decided the issue. I have faith that the anti-EU argument is strong enough to win a referendum, if properly deployed – it appears UKIP do not. Furthermore, it makes little sense to simultaneously argue that Cameron won’t hold a referendum and that he will personally win it for the In side.
- “The renegotiation won’t work”. This is perhaps the most absurd argument. I don’t believe the EU is willing to or capable of change – that’s one reason I think we ought to leave. But it’s a fact that plenty of people do believe it’s possible. What impact will a failed renegotiation have on them? Most likely, it will clarify their views on Brussels’ arrogance and intransigence, and help to bring them towards voting Out. That is no bad thing for the anti-EU cause.
Hurting the anti-EU cause
Nor do UKIP just oppose the Conservative Party leadership. Under the Better Off Out deal which The Freedom Association brokered and which Farage personally pushed through his party, they didn’t stand against several openly anti-EU MPs – including Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell – in 2010 on the grounds that UKIP put country ahead of party.
In keeping with their change of character, they will break that deal in 2015 – candidates have already been selected to run against MPs like Philip Davies, for example, regardless of the risk of letting europhile Labour or Lib Dem candidates in through the middle.
Given that willingness not only to harm the chance of a referendum but to threaten the re-election of fervently Outist MPs, it’s hard not to conclude that UKIP isn’t quite so committed to getting the chance to leave the EU after all.
What could be the reason?
- That enthusiasm for their wider worldview. Portions of the party’s leadership, and a large majority of its members, now believe that any treating with “the establishment” (not normally a phrase used to describe Philips Davies and Hollobone) is unacceptable, and nothing short of total victory in parliament is enough. Their wider policy platform is no longer adornment for their crusade to leave the EU, it’s become an equal objective.
- Others are privately sceptical as to whether a referendum is even desirable. The eurosceptic tradition of obsessing over technicalities and silver bullets in order to minimise how big the task of leaving the EU really is has generated a sizeable minority who believe that it would be better to win a parliamentary majority (“in how many years’ time?” is rarely asked) and trigger the Article 50 exit clause. It conveniently neglects the fact that independence could only be made permanent with a stark democratic mandate, but the idea’s advocates aren’t interested in inconvenient detail.
- Still more – particularly on the party’s pragmatist wing – are concerned about whether a referendum could be won. As the Daily Mail reported yesterday, this is one concern that drives some to think a Miliband government would be desirable, simply because he’d be so awful at campaigning for an In vote. Some subscribe to a Leninist view of the desirable crisis – allow EU integration to deepen, watch life get worse and British democracy suffer even more, and then they might win.
The Farage Paradox
There’s another reason to be justly concerned about whether an EU referendum can be won by the Out side – a reason no UKIPer will openly acknowledge, even though some are painfully aware of it. UKIP themselves are harmful to that cause. Stephen Tall dubbed it the Farage Paradox – the higher UKIP poll, the lower the Out vote falls. Why? Because in appealing to those disaffected, “left behind” groups – most damagingly on immigration – UKIP may maximise its own support within its pool of potential voters, but it deters those more moderate, floating eurosceptics who can be better won over to the Out position by a positive, optimistic anti-EU case (when setting it up, I called the campaign Better Off Out for a reason).
I saw the process in action in Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups as waverers who needed reassuring visibly cringed when they heard others talk about Bulgarians in donkey carts. Douglas Carswell hinted at the problem in his victory speech when he warned his party of the need to speak to all Britons, including first and second generation immigrants, but there’s little sign of his new party taking the message on board.
From a eurosceptic perspective, this is all deeply troubling. Not only is Farage’s party willing to campaign against the best chance of an in/out referendum in the next parliament, and to run candidates against sitting MPs who publicly and ardently agree with them about leaving the EU, but it is willing to deploy arguments that harm the Outist cause simply in pursuit of partisan gain. Ironically – tragically – the biggest threat to Britain’s chances of leaving the EU is currently UKIP itself.