This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar


New directions for British euroscepticism

pendulum-828641_960_720A few weeks ago, I wrote on the challenge facing the British eurosceptic movement: the achievement of victory in the referendum removes the key binding agent in the coalition of interests, with many now likely to redirect their activity elsewhere.

Since then, we’ve seen some marginal movements in affairs, including the election of Diane James to lead UKIP and the creation of various Tory ginger groups to push Article 50 along (preferably towards a ‘hard Brexit’ outcome). While none of these is determinative in themselves, they do point towards a new agenda for those eurosceptics who want to carry on the fight.

Until now, the narrative has been one of “if only we weren’t in the EU, then everything would be fine.” We’ll step over the weak/strong paradox – the UK is too feeble to stop the EU pushing it around, but so strong it could impose its will on the EU from the outside – and consider this from a more strategic viewpoint. While exit was not a viable option, this narrative provided both an emotional appeal to a brighter future and a conveniently untestable proposition. If the UK did well, then it was because it was exerting itself; if it did badly, then it was because dark and foreign forces were holding it back. Thus in its more refined version, “yes, things are alright now, but imagine how much better they’d be outside the EU.”

Of course, this was not just a eurosceptic discourse; it also seeped into the wider public and political debate. The scapegoating of the EU that all member states have engaged in over the years is a gentle reflection of this worldview and is a not-unreasonable approach to take. If there’s an opportunity to push blame onto someone else for something unpleasant or controversional, plus separate opportunities to claim credit for things that turn out well, then most people would take these, because in the short-run there’s no cost.

But as EU governments are finding now, there is a long-run cost with the hollowing of the system’s output legitimacy.

For eurosceptics in the UK, the problem is a slightly different one. In securing a Leave vote, they have brought the previously-untestable scenario very much closer to being, with all the attendant dangers that brings for them. Broadly speaking, these dangers fall into two categories. Firstly, the post-membership world might turn out to be obviously and unavoidably worse than its predecessor, while secondly, they might find that they are held responsible more directly for policy failings. In essence, leaving the EU opens up the narrative of “if only we’d stayed in the EU, things would be better.”

The events of the past weeks suggest two responses to this, linked to each other, but ultimately in conflict.

James’ election to UKIP leader suggests that the party is going to stick with the Faragist model, James being the closest to Farage of all the candidates and Farage ‘retiring’ to just his role as leader of the MEP group (i.e. still a substantial and powerful office). This model is adaptive and boradly constructed, pulling constituents from across the political spectrum on the back of general political disaffection.

However, James is not Farage, not least in her charismatic capacity (at least, not yet), so how much she can maintain the delicate balancing act – especially in the conditions outlined above – is questionable. Moreover, the changing political landscape suggests that the greatest opportunities lie in mopping up Labour voters, an option that looks set to be viable through to 2020 with Jeremy Corbyn’s very likely re-election this weekend.

So far, James has not made a big play in this direction, instead getting trapping in a “I admire Putin” trap, but her approach generally appears to be to continue using the EU as the focus of her strategy: something on the lines of “the EU continues to hold us back, despite the referendum.” This adaptation of the classic narrative works as a medium-term proposition, and especially while the government doesn’t push the Article 50 button: it suggests some collusion of Downing Street and ‘Brussels’ in denying the will of the British people, which fits nicely with the disaffection agenda.

The problem with this is that lots of people believe it, not least on the Tory backbenches. The creation of Leaves Means Leaves – Mrs May might get an honorary degree from Oxford for her services to linguistics one day – is precisely the manifestation of the UKIP logic. Because neither the EU nor Number 10 can be trusted, they have to be pushed hard, first to start Article 50 and second to create as much space as possible between the UK and the EU.

Again, this is a reasonable position if you don’t trust these bodies – why try to keep close to an organisation you find politically and economically bankrupt? But it does ultimately undermine the Jamesian adaptation of the eurosceptic narrative. By moving hard away from links with the EU, the mileage in blaming the latter for one’s woes becomes sharply reduced, not least because voters will ask why you don’t use the newly-created freedom of political action that you have just created.

To some extent, this is a transitional problem. The UK is very unlikely to collapse as a result of Brexit and eventually something that looks like a reasonable state of affairs will come about, at which point sceptics can say “see? we told you it would be alright on the outside”: if the EU continues to fail to address its troubles, then the relative performance might be that much starker. However, that still removes the very large part of eurosceptics’ raison d’etre. This isn’t World War II and there are very few eurosceptics who care about liberating the rest of the continent.

The irony here is that while eurosceptics might have achieved their headline goal, they will fail in most other respects. Euroscepticism has always been a very broad church and whatever post-membership deal the UK ends up with, it will disappoint and disillusion many within the movement: Brexit is a means, not an end in itself. As the coming years will show, all too clearly, just as there was no consensus about being inside, so too there will be no consensus about being outside. Whether that gives rise to a new community of pro-EU activists remains to be seen.


Recent Articles

More Brexit clusterf**king

Published on by and | 2 Comments

So it turns out that Usherwood’s Law is simply that things can always get worse. It’s not quite my childhood dream, but (appositely) it could be worse. Since publishing The Brexit Clusterf**k earlier on, I’ve had lots of feedback on Twitter, essentially boiling down to “you forgot some other things”. Since I’m apparently on a roll here, […]

The Brexit clusterf**k

Published on by and | 1 Comment

UPDATED: read a second installation here, after all your comments.   Summer is over: winter is coming in the world of Brexit. As politicians return from their sojourns in the sun, they open up their emails and briefings to find that things are going about as badly as they could. I’m writing this at the end […]

Looking forward from the EU referendum

Published on by | Comments Off

A version of this post was presented to the Conway Hall Ethic Society on 24 July 2016.   The history of UK-European relations has been one of muddling through. At no point in the past 70 years has there been a plan or a strategy: that’s as true today as it was in the 1950s. And the […]

May’s foreign policy gambit

Published on by and | Comments Off

Another day, another upheaval in British politics. In the 21 days since the EU referendum, we’ve had more changes of more consequence than in any time since the second world war. All very grand to say that, but where are we going with all this? Until yesterday, it was very hard to say, precisely because […]

What’s the EU going to do?

Published on by and | Comments Off

It’s telling that almost all the British public debate since Friday’s announcement of the result of the EU referendum has been about British politics: who’s succeeding David Cameron? What’s happening to Jeremy Corbyn? Or Scotland? Almost nothing has been discussed about how this decision will play out with the rest of the European Union. At […]

Is the UK leaving the EU?

Published on by | Comments Off

Thursday’s historic vote was specifically about British membership of the European Union, but subsequent events appear to have raised the question of whether the decision to leave will actually result in it happening. Here we consider some aspects of this. Why it will happen Constitutionally, any referendum in the UK is advisory, since Parliament is […]

Registering your interest?

Published on by | Comments Off

Looking around in these final weeks before the 23 June vote, there hasn’t much reason to feel that the EU referendum has come to occupy a central place in the lives of the British public. While the papers and the news programmes have been full of stories and arguments, this hasn’t seemed to fully translate […]

Subscribe to a fortnightly email featuring posts from Ideas on Europe hosted blogs

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.