Europe: The tail that's wagging the dog
Now we’ve all had a chance to reflect on UKIP’s local election triumphs, it seems the one thing that commentators across the board have been able to agree on is that Farage's success reflects an elevated wave of euroscepticism among the British population. What to do about EU membership has, as a direct consequence, become one of the most important debates in modern politics, one that has caused no end of confusion in Tory ranks.
But it is a debate that has unfortunately been hijacked by those who label vast swathes of the UK population as staunchly eurosceptic without sufficient cause. In fact, the evidence at hand can’t do justice to how europhobic politicians seem to think the public is, nor to the privileged position they give the issue of Europe in explaining electoral trends.
February’s Ipsos MORI Issues Index unequivocally shows that most of us have bigger fish to fry than Europe. Concerns about the economy trumped all others by a significant margin; 52 per cent of the public thought it was one of the most important issues in today’s Britain and 34 per cent put it in pole position among all their worries. Europe qua Europe did not even feature in the top ten concerns drawn from the study. In fact, for nearly ten years now, the proportion of voters expressing concerns over Europe in the index has failed to exceed 10 per cent.
Yes, the index did show a significant concern over race relations and immigration, but neither of those things are the same as concern over Europe. For genuine eurosceptics, their disenchantment with the EU extends way beyond its impact on immigration alone.
The situation to-and-fros when you look at how the British people would vote if a referendum on membership were held today, but never with a significant majority voting to leave. This strongly suggests we need to start looking for other reasons why we perceive such disproportionately high levels of euroscepticism in the British population.
It’s partly down to the self-fulfilling prophecy that is Nigel Farage’s popularity. The more hours he spends occupying our TV screens, radios and newspapers, the more we assume he has a point about how much we all despise Europe. His popularity has grown directly in line with his exposure, exposure which has been meticulously managed for the most part. His party delivers a well-targeted barrage of communications which make people feel like they’re somehow missing out on the anti-EU feeling sweeping the nation. But as the Ipsos MORI index shows, there’s simply no such thing.
The problem is, the partly fictional europhobia that Farage is stoking has become the tail that wags the Conservative Party dog. Suddenly, Cameron’s promises of a referendum by 2017 were no longer good enough. The public was demanding more, we were told, assuming away the significant number of people who voted for UKIP simply to get one over on the establishment parties or who may have voted on an aspect of UKIPs policy that doesn’t involve the EU.
A combination of poor economic results and UKIP’s opposition to new gay marriage legislation has turned many rightwingers who would otherwise align with the Tories over to Farage. As ComRes chairman Andrew Hawkins told Reuters when the gay marriage debate was in full swing: "There is good evidence that many UKIP voters are erstwhile Conservatives on the rebound: large proportions are negative about David Cameron and George Osborne on the economy, and about Mr Cameron's handling of gay marriage."
Not one mention of Europe was needed to make that assessement. Nevertheless, more than 100 Tory MPs last week “expressed regret” that the promised bill to lay out plans for a referendum was not brought forward in the Queen’s Speech. This didn’t happen because we as a public are terrified of a new Eastern European immigration wave. It happened because politicians are so keen to appear like they’re doing something to compete with Farage on the issue of Europe that any action was favourable to the status quo.
The 116 rebels in the Tory ranks account for only half of all Tory backbenchers anyway – not exactly a definitive statement that our politicos feel compelled to legislate for a referendum giving the people the right to formalise their anti-EU sentiment because it has reached critical mass.
The fact that the vote was called forward in the first place could simply be a reflection of deep-seated mistrust towards Cameron, ie, his backbenchers wanted to keep Cameron honest more than they actually wanted the referendum pledge put in the government’s legislative programme. MPs fed up with U-turns are wont to devise ways to tie their party down to some agenda or other. It just happens that Europe is in fashion at the moment.
All this blustering saps attention from the issues that genuinely preoccupy us as a nation. Or, to put it in Clegg speak: "endless navel-gazing" over Europe is an unwelcome distraction.
Ironically, if the argument was genuinely being driven by public affections and not political point-scoring, we’d soon see that it’s in our national interest to maintain our allegiance to the world’s largest trading bloc. Why risk losing jobs and potentially erecting new trade barriers by exiting when this could compound our economic woes? After all, jobs and the economy are what we really care about, and no amount of anti-EU hype should divert us from addressing those issues.