UK society is currently suffering from the utterly ordinary issue of doubting the European Union in a time of economic crisis. Although politicians such as UKIP frontman Nigel Farage promote this as a uniquely British concern, other nationalistic parties everywhere from domineering Germany to grimacing Greece suggest otherwise. That being said, Britain does suffer from indecision more than most.
Truthfully, Britain stands to benefit from whatever decision its population is most committed to. If the majority of the electorate does not want to stay in the EU, then Britain can’t exist as a functional member state anyway. In such a case both the UK and the continent would be better off if it left.
On that same note, an optimistic push to tackle EU concerns and promote the best of integration can also be to the advantage of both Britain and Europe. At the moment, the country’s internal problems have much less to do with European tethers than they do with English cold feet.
European countries that have managed to do well, either inside or outside of the European Union, have gotten there by being decisive about their priorities. Germany is committed to the European Union, and it prospers because it knows what it wants from European integration (cheap exports, access to labor). Norway is not a part of the European Union. It prospers because it knows what it would rather have instead (resource management, fiscal autonomy) and it took economic steps to reflect that divergence.
The UK, on the other hand, currently props up a nasty half-partnership with the continent. This in turn prevents Cameron from properly engaging in dialogues with France, Germany, and other members. He’s partly given up Britain’s seat at the table after so many fiery speeches against the EU process, but also because he’s too busy opposing EU regulations, as he did with “fracking()”:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/14/uk-defeats-european-bid-fracking-regulations last year. In the process, Britain is less involved in developing regulations that directly affect it.
Criticizing the continent is of course nothing new in Britain. It was Thatcher who famously said, “In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world.”
Enter Nigel Farage.
Mr. Farage is correct that the United Kingdom does have some significant geopolitical differences from the EU. Britain’s population continues to grow, even as most European populations stagnate and age. Its economy has both elements of American cowboy capitalism and continental socialist democracy. These demographic, social, and economic factors do require Britain to adjust its relationship with the EU over time. But that alone does not mean Mr. Farage or UKIP actually have any tangible solutions.
The Commonwealth myth
If it doesn’t seem like Mr. Farage has a clear agenda, you can bet that the people who back him do. UKIP primarily runs on a platform of economic deregulation, anti-immigration, and support for a very limited concept of national pride. Farage and his party ignore the fact that it was a lack of financial oversight before the crisis years, not currently employed Polish and Pakistani immigrants, that have cost his country so much money. His calls to make Britain once again “Great” are as tired as they are vague.
The type of independent Britain being pushed by members of UKIP is not one that will transform the country into a proud power with greater sovereignty and fresh opportunities. What it will do is employ distrust of immigrants to distract citizens from the larger issue of inequality among social classes. A less regulated Britain isn’t likely to be one with a whole lot of incentives to preserve the NHS, expand education, or address London’s housing crisis.
Farage also talks about Britain’s “friends in the commonwealth”. This notion that there is a vast, unified English-speaking world of past colonial holdings waiting to be closer to Britain is an absolute myth. From Canada to India, the economies of the world have moved on. It’s a ballooned concept that culturally appeals to Britain’s post-superpower hangover, but in practice makes little sense.
What makes a lot of sense is appealing to the more negative, divisive, and racist attitudes of the British people by promising them a very intangible plan to get back to some sort of ambiguous state of Pax Britannica pride instead of suggesting any sort of detailed economic plan for a day when Britain leaves the European Union. That could prove very divisive. Let’s not forget that 5.3 million of the UK’s population very nearly voted to leave the country last year.
The danger of Mr. Farage’s ideas is that he fundamentally promotes intolerance. It’s intolerance of Europe, intolerance of immigrants, and intolerance of any tangible form of international cooperation. A Britain that detaches from Europe isn’t more or less embedded in a world economy that mandates cooperation. It’s true. Britain very well may be better suited to life outside the Union. But if European integration is to be replaced by a superior national mission, it’s going to have to be a hell of a lot more elaborate than a handful of painfully unclear and eerily intolerant UKIP talking points.