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Identity and euroscepticism as a substitute for political agency: A few lessons from the British elections

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The morning that followed the British elections was sombre for progressives and Europeans. This commentary argues, first of all, that the Tories’ success was very much due to Labour’s failures and, secondly, that the voters gave priority to the parties proposing more political agency, even if in an distorted fashion.

(Photo credit: MPD01605, Wikimedia Commons)


Identity and euroscepticism as a substitute for political agency:
A few lessons from the British elections

Coming only a few days before the 65th anniversary of the Schuman declaration, the morning that followed the British election results was sombre, not only for those who have been calling for a more progressive economic policy, but also for the European project itself.

The Tories won an overall majority that exempted them from the need to find coalition partners, bestowing a strong mandate on the party and enabling them to fully implement their programme. Cameron won 328 seats (37%), two more than the 326 required for an overall majority, while Labour collapsed to 232 (30%) – worse than its lacklustre 2010 performance. As for the Liberal Democrats, they were devastated across Britain, going from 57 seats to 8 with 8% of the votes. UKIP got only one seat but 13% of the votes. The Greens have one seat with about 4%, while the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 seats with only 5% of the votes. In the British ‘first past the post’ electoral system, small differences in vote numbers can have a huge impact in terms of seats, depending, among other factors, on how the votes gathered by each party are concentrated or spread. This outcome nonetheless did contradict most opinion polls, which suggested Labour and the Conservatives were neck and neck.

I will argue in this commentary, first of all, that the Tories’ success was very much due to Labour’s inability to put up a convincing and popular alternative, and secondly, that the voters gave priority to the parties proposing a return to more democracy, sovereignty and political agency, even if in an distorted fashion.

The first puzzle concerns the dismal performance of the main opposition party. Despite its five years in opposition, Labour did not manage to capitalize on some of the failures of the Conservatives’ mandate – e.g., social and economic issues – nor to create a distinct and appealing alternative project. This failure was due to the striking inability of Labour to renew its strategy and ideology – a more general problem for European social democracy.

Labour’s last attempt to refurbish its ideology took place during the Blair era. It did work for a while, after being radically condemned from all sides. Following the Conservative’s and LibDems’s victory in 2010, almost everyone agreed that the old ‘third way’ had to be given up, and internal controversies broke out over the ideological direction the Labour Party should take: should it revive its radical and left-wing traditions? Or should it instead, from a ‘blue Labour’ perspective, rekindle its ‘Conservative roots’ by promoting concepts such as identity, community and traditional moral values? These divisions and others led to stimulating intellectual debates but remained unresolved. And during the 2015 campaign, Ed Miliband failed to convey either an original and distinctive progressive message or a new and attractive long-term political project. Even on concrete policies, its stance was weak and unclear. Despite the fact that he was chosen by the unions in 2010, Miliband embraced the main economic tenets of the Conservatives by promoting only a milder version of austerity and complementing it with a social touch. In a time of increasing poverty and inequalities within the British population, such a strategy proved totally insufficient for Labour to regain its lost popularity.

The consensus on cuts and austerity among the two big parties was one of the striking features of this campaign. UKIP backed up the austerity measures, while the Liberal Democrats adopted a similar postulate. The only dissident voices on the issue came from the SNP and the Green Party, influenced by very different ideological premises, who asserted a very vocal anti-austerity stance. The Greens proposed to end austerity, create one million public jobs, put in place a Robin Hood tax on the top one per cent, increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour, invest in a fully public NHS, provide free higher education, decent homes and public transport. The charismatic Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP railed against ‘slash-and-burn austerity’ and the ‘cosy consensus’ on afflicting the poor with benefits sanctions while turning a blind eye to the tax avoidance of the super-rich. She also promised to invest in the NHS and education in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom.

But the big two abided by the idea that austerity had to be the top priority of the next government. The drive to reclaim some sort of popular say through politics ran counter to economic measures that reduced the ability to invest in and to fund decent public services, create jobs, and provide education, health and housing. Labour failed to seize upon the condemnation of this approach voiced by numerous economists: the recovery presented by the Tories as the result of austerity actually arrived when the austerity measures were lifted – after the first two years of the government mandate. If Britain grew 2.9% in 2014, it is because it didn’t do any fiscal tightening that year. Return to growth after austerity has been put on hold is not at all surprising. As the famous economist Paul Krugman noted in a column published just before the elections:‘if this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it feels great when you stop.’ Furthermore, as many economists have been arguing for years – in the United Kingdom and elsewhere – an austerity programme in bad economic times is the best way to create depression and unemployment. As Krugman noted,‘harsh austerity in depressed economies isn’t necessary and does major damage when it is imposed. That was true of Britain five years ago – and it’s still true today.’ The Nobel winner also wrote that this obsession with austerity differs from the approach adopted in the United States but is in line with the EU’s recommendations. In that respect, the United Kingdom might be more European than it thinks. Labour’s decision to stick to an excessively orthodox economic message partly explains its inability to seduce a British people in need of political agency.

The desire to recover some active sovereignty was nonetheless very present during the campaign; it simply took the shape of euroscepticism, xenophobia, regionalism and nationalism.

Loud political euroscepticism was one outlet for the popular need for more sovereignty was channelled. Apart from Labour, all the contestants – although the Liberal Democrats did it later and more reluctantly – ended up supporting a referendum on the EU. For the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, this was mainly a way of giving some voice to the people on a fundamental issue. But in the case of UKIP and the Conservatives, this demand was clearly associated with an anti-European message. Certainly, British euroscepticism is partly due to an ingrained nationalism and partly a diversion – it is easier to cast the EU as the scapegoat for all the ills and problems affecting the United Kingdom than to tackleing social and economic problems at their roots. However, it is also a genuine attempt to regain political sovereignty. And this is actually the most appealing part of the eurosceptic discourse.

UKIP’s popularity – not reflected by its representation in seats – was very much due to its loud defence of sovereignty. This firstly took a cultural dimension through a very explicit nationalism that values the exceptionality of Britishness and justifies an anti-European and anti-immigration stance as well as a harsh controls on UK borders. But the eagerness to reclaim some form of economic sovereignty also pervaded UKIP’s project – at least in the short term since, after an exit from the EU, UKIP’s plan would be to increase free trade agreements with the whole world, a project hardly compatible with full economic sovereignty. Thirdly, UKIP also promoted military sovereignty by reversing defence cuts. The Tories expressed many similar ideas in a more moderate form: a strong valuing of British identity perceived as the equivalent to British interest translated into a fear of the EU and of foreigners alike. The Conservatives associated that message not only with a rhetoric of economic responsibility but also with an appeal to democratic principles: a referendum on the EU would give the people of Britain the ability to regain their popular will.

The willingness to reclaim popular sovereignty was also expressed by the SNP, albeit in a regional form of nationalism. The SNP coherently formulated a message in favour of Scottish sovereignty – understood in cultural, political and socio-economic terms. Even if the SNP’s left-wing discourse for the rest of the United Kingdom was somehow at odds with this separatist agenda, it could also sound like a willingness to reclaim political agency in order to defend the people’s interests. As for the Greens, their harsh and radical criticism of the establishment, their opposition to austerity measures and their very left-wing social and economic programme aimed to re-establish politics as a means to serve people’s interests.

Labour, on the other hand, proposed neither an increase in popular input nor a renewal of political agency. On the contrary, its relatively pro-European and multicultural approach seemed antagonistic to such goals. Having ruled out the return to a more critical discourse on the economy, it did not have many tools left to convince an increasingly insecure British population. Nevertheless, Labour could have combined its reformist, European and progressive principles by advocating a clear European federalist project: it could have argued that the only way to rescue sovereignty and political agency was neither by turning one’s back on the EU nor by adopting a timid approach to it, but by fully engaging in its deepening and renewal. In other words, it could have spearheaded the debate on a more efficient, democratic and social Europe and made the United Kingdom an active part of that project. But this lack of federalist orientation – which actually characterizes most of the centre-left in the EU – is one of the reasons why, unchallenged by a convincing European alternative, sovereignist movements are so successful.

The Tories regained their mandate with an absolute majority, and in the current political climate there is a very real danger that the United Kingdom will drift further and further away from the EU, clinging to the illusion that it is renewing its geopolitical importance, economic sovereignty and control of its borders all by itself. This is, of course a pipe dream, since the United Kingdom needs the EU at least as much as the other way around. The return of more competences to the national level is likely to be demanded (and obtained) by a Cameron government using the threat of a total exit. This evolution will be advantageous neither to the average British citizen nor to the country’s general economic and geopolitical position. Another danger for ordinary UK citizens and those in the rest of the EU is that the fear of a ‘Brexit’ could lead not only to additional ‘opt outs’ for the United Kingdom, but also to a further unravelling of the very few existing social EU legislations. It could also justify a refusal to implement a much needed social and fiscal harmonization and to increase the EU budget in favour of investments and employment. If the 2017 referendum leads to a ‘Brexit’, the illusion will dramatically collapse. Indeed, the United Kingdom has become a very small state on the current world stage, and does not have the means to reclaim its lost power without its European partners.

Fortunately, history does not follow any deterministic path. And we can always keep hoping that the few genuinely pro-European actors still involved in national and European politics will wake up before it is too late. In other words: will they finally choose the ‘federalist leap’ Europeans dramatically need to rescue their rights and sovereignty? Or will they just watch the slow dismantling of the European project?


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