This is the first of a series of articles about the future of British politics
At this moment, most members rightly have their minds focused on one thing: the General Election which will give UKIP its first real chance to become a politically significant force. It’s also an election which will change the lives of some UKIP members: after it, they will be MPs. But there is a future beyond the election; an uncertain future, certainly, but a future for which we need to be prepared. So a committed UKIP believer who is too old for active campaigning may be excused for thinking ahead a little; and others may possibly be interested in his thoughts.
We don’t know how many UKIP members there will be. I don’t propose here to embark on detailed analysis and prediction about that. There are many variables and many sources of information, some of which I don’t have access to. Nigel is the best judge we have and probably the best informed; he believes that there will be a significant number of members, enough to make a difference in the arithmetic of the Commons. He thinks it likely that UKIP will be in a position to offer conditional support to a Conservative government, on the basis of a firm promise of a truly fair referendum on future British membership of the EU. Let us suppose that the numbers are right, that a firm agreement is reached on the referendum, and that it happens.
This is the point to which the whole momentum of UKIP has been directed for many years now. For Britain, everything depends on the result of the referendum; there may be dramatic change or there may not. But for UKIP, everything will be quite different, whatever the result. Ford and Goodwin’s book Revolt on the Right anticipates trouble for us either way:
If the British public voted to remain in the European Union, it would reduce the potency of Euroscepticism, settling the debate over the EU, for the short term at least. If UKIP politicians continued to agitate for exit, they would look risk looking like out-of-touch obsessives, undoing years of hard work to shed this image..on the other hand, if the British public did vote to leave the EU…UKIP would enjoy its great policy triumph – and the next day would find itself deprived of its reason for being.
I don’t agree with this analysis and I shall try to explain what I think may actually happen and why. I think we may be able to learn something from recent events in Scotland. Many in England regard events there as paradoxical. There was a very strong popular movement in favour of the “Yes” campaign. Everyone on the side of the Union, including leading members of the UK government and opposition, were near to panic on referendum day. But then the result was negative. Had it all been hysteria, a lot of fuss about nothing? As it turned out, it hadn’t. Scotland had been changed profoundly. The referendum result had been negative, but enthusiasm for the Nationalist cause, instead of being extinguished, seemed to have positively gained strength from the result. On the Unionist side also, new political passions had been aroused. On both sides of the divide, Scots had been aroused to a totally new interest in politics. Although Alex Salmond immediately resigned as First Minister and Leader, he will be in the new House of Commons again this summer, at the head of a solid bloc of Scot Nats who are likely to play an increasingly important role in the politics of the United Kingdom.
Why did the Scots vote No, and why did they nevertheless overwhelmingly join the Nationalist bandwagon? Is it likely that anything similar might occur in England? I think it might.
Why did the Scots vote No? There is one very simple possible answer. People often vote, in referendums, for the safer option, the status quo. If a referendum had been held in Britain before we joined the Common Market, and if the implications of joining had been made even partially clear, there is no doubt at all that we would never have joined. But by the time a referendum was actually held in 1975, we had already been members for several years and had got used to it. Membership had not so far produced any very obvious negative effects. Continued membership was favoured by all the powers that be and they found it easy to portray the Eurosceptic campaigners as dangerous eccentrics. We were in and it was easier to stay in.
In the more recent case of Scotland, nationalistic passion had been stirred as never before. But nationalistic passion is one thing; the practical reality of independence is quite another. Scotland stood, on referendum day, on the edge of an abyss. If the vote had been “Yes”, suddenly everything would have been uncertain. The Scots were too wise to jump, and they recoiled.
But as soon as they personally recoiled, voted and saw the result, they realised that something had happened before the election which was very exciting and which must not be allowed to die out. And it probably won’t die out. The new political consciousness and enthusiasm which was kindled in Scotland by the referendum campaign is likely to be a very important continuing factor in the politics of the UK.
For politicians, politics can be exciting. It can be an adventure. But most voters (and especially older voters) feel that the best politics is no politics. As has often been said, happy the country which has no history, for history is the story of conflicts and catastrophes. Things may currently be unsatisfactory in many ways, but the ordinary citizen has learned to survive in the world and the state in which he finds himself and would prefer not to face an uncertain future which may require serious adaptation. He (and even more she) does not want trouble, he wants peace and stability. He tends to vote for no change.
Let us now imagine the political atmosphere in Britain during the coming referendum campaign. The 2015 election campaign and its result, it’s already clear, will be unlike anything in Britain for a long time. The future will appear full of danger and uncertainty. The media will be very much in the mood which we have already seen in its recent satirical portrayal of a future UKIP government. The Conservative government, ruling courtesy of conditional UKIP votes in the Commons, will be universally vilified, portrayed as being at the mercy of a lunatic minority. Of course its Conservative members will give plenty of opportunities for scandalous revelations. The Labour Party will have a new leader, perhaps far better able to lead the attack than Ed Miliband. The Prime Minister will claim to have secured good terms for continued membership. Would we win the referendum campaign? Perhaps not. But if not, UKIP would be still be there and the future could yet be full of promise – for UKIP and for an independent Britain.
To be continued…