Autor: Thomas Lewis
British politics is in a state of crisis. The Brexit deadline has once again been extended and December 12th marks the third time in the last four years that Britons have gone to the polls to decide the country’s future. David Cameron’s miscalculated referendum has, perhaps irrevocably, changed the face of British political discourse. Traditional left and right/Conservative and Labour divisions have given way to new cleavages (Brexit or Remain) and the policy positions of the major mainstream parties have shifted accordingly. But how did we get here? How did Britain’s mainstream political discourse become so polarised? Has the mainstream centre right become more radical? It seems, at first, that in the past decade, the Overton Window (the range of ideas considered tolerable in public political discourse) has shifted and has taken the traditional mainstream parties with it. In particular, the Tory attempts to “out-UKIP UKIP” has contributed to a “radicalisation” of the centre-right. This essay will examine the extent to which the British radical right has contributed to a rightwards shift of the Overton Window and led Britain into its Brexit future. The nature of the relationship between the mainstream centre-right party, the Conservatives, and its fringe counterparts, UKIP (UK Independence Party) and the Brexit Party, will also be analysed to understand how the UK came to decide to leave the EU.
British Attitudes Towards Europe and Brexit In Historical Context
There has been no issue of greater importance to the British radical right than that of European integration. In UK politics it is interwoven deeply with romantic notions of sovereignty and control and hostile attitudes towards increased immigration. Euroscepticism is nothing new in British politics, however. Since first joining the European Economic Community in 1973, both major parties have been split on the nature of Britain’s relationship with Europe. However, it is the Conservative Party that is truly the mainstream “hotbed” of Euroscepticism. While at first supportive of European economic integration, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher criticised the European Commission’s “overinflated ambitions” in her Bruges speech of 1988, posing a threat to both “British sovereignty and to the successful implementation of Conservative party policy.” This sentiment may have resonated with the growing Eurosceptic faction in the Conservative party with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which symbolised the “sacrifice of sovereignty” that continues to be a burning issue. History thus tells us that Euroscepticism has always lingered to varying degrees in mainstream politics. The British radical right instead re-awoke a latent, underlying anti-EU sentiment within the electorate, pushing Britain’s relationship with Europe to the forefront as the defining debate of this decade. Attitudes have, concurrently, hardened into two distinct blocs that rarely overlap with each other regarding Europe. Brexit was by no means an inevitability, but the signs were already there. In the case of UKIP and the radical right, we can trace its impact to the electoral and ideological threat the party represented to the Tories and to two important developments that defined British politics.
Cameron’s Bid for Unity
“And yes, we will deliver that in/out referendum on our future in Europe” (From Cameron’s 2015 election result speech).
The outright Conservative Party victory in the 2015 General Election was a great shock, even to the Prime Minister himself. However, it would come to be a defining moment for British politics for the years to follow. An outright majority meant his promise of a referendum first made in 2013 now had to become reality or face internal rebellion. Of course, the primary reason for calling the referendum was to defeat UKIP’s insurgency and settle the issue internally. The perceived failure of the coalition government to reduce net migration into the UK, mainly from Eastern Europe, and the multiple crises on the continent had helped to spur on UKIP’s advance into the Conservative electorate, however. As Cameron himself said when he first became leader in 2005, he did not intend for his party to “keep banging on about Europe” (Smith, 2017; p. 1). From there grew the fear that UKIP might cost them their seats at the next election. As Gruber and Bale assert (2014; pp. 237-238), the party has long been “shielded by the country’s plurality electoral system” and has “never really experienced truly serious competitive pressure on their right ﬂank.” UKIP portrayed itself as a party that “vigorously champions the interests of ordinary people”, using to great effect the populist narrative that “self-serving elites dominate Britain’s mainstream parties and have willingly ceded national sovereignty to the EU.” (Clarke et al, 2017; p 112). Importantly, UKIP benefitted from the “”oxygen of publicity” effect that helped drive its support upwards in a self-reinforcing spiral of media attention and favourable poll numbers”, becoming a focal point of media attention, which allowed the party to reach a broad and sympathetic audience.
Cameron was likely confident in putting this issue to bed with the “Stronger In” campaign, assuming the public would not willingly vote for such a major change to the status quo. Of course, LeDuc’s law concerning people’s voting behaviour in referendums states that “while people often expressed support for the “change option” at the start of the campaign, they would increasingly side with the status quo, the less risky option, as the campaign progressed.” The results of the 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) referendum and the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence showed that this precedent was there. There was no reason to believe that the aversion to risk and bias towards the status quo would not ultimately prevail. The Tory leadership was confident that the electorate would, after a period of indecision, bet on “the devil they knew”. (Clarke et al, 2017; p. 4)
The Party of Brexit
While considered a “pyrrhic victory” for the Conservative party and a damaging result for the new Prime Minister Theresa May, the 2017 General Election is still of great interest, not least for how it was fought by the Tories. The UKIP vote collapsed almost completely, dropping from 12% in 2015 to below 2%. Their share went almost entirely to the Conservative party. Conservative strategy shifted rightwards by focusing on a hard Brexit and appealing to UKIP voters in particular (Heath & Goodwin, 2017; p 347). May even publicly criticised a “liberal elite” and “citizens of nowhere”, a sign of Tory flirtation with populist rhetoric. Perhaps, this campaign is the point at which the Conservative party surrendered to its own radicals. As Bale (2018; p. 272) states, “Cameron’s close advisor, Andrew Cooper, warned that any attempt to “out-UKIP UKIP” would only backfire” and to some extent it did indeed. While the white working class Jams (referring to households “just about managing”) abandoned UKIP, the Conservative strategy also “rested on an assumption that the Conservative party would retain votes in the typically more prosperous, more highly educated, middle-class and urban areas that had tended to back remain” (Heath & Goodwin, 2017; p. 348). Ultimately, this assumption was found to be majorly flawed, as the Tory wooing of the right-wing vote translated into a loss in more traditional remain-voting areas to Labour. The wealthy, remain-voting constituency of Kensington, which had always been blue, was lost to Labour, for instance.
Of course, considering the ease with which the Conservative party moved into the space UKIP had left (or rather were ejected from), the question arises as to whether the Tories were ever truly dissimilar to UKIP. The answer, it seems, is no. Former leader William Hague, for example, “moved onto unashamedly populist territory” culminating in “the so-called “foreign land” speech of 2001 whose pitting of “the people” against a supposedly elitist, liberal government could, in a blind taste-test, quite easily have come from the leader of a radical right-wing populist party.” Hague is, thus, credited as beginning the Conservative Party’s shift “towards the sceptical (on Europe), the authoritarian (on law and order) and the nativist (on immigration)” before a clear and present electoral danger had surfaced in the form of UKIP (Bale, 2018; p. 266). Moreover, if one is to glance at the Tory membership, features common among continental radical right actors lingered, manifested in this case in Islamophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment. This should not lead to the conclusion that nativism, for instance, is becoming a feature of the Conservative party ideology, but it does suggest that the modernised and liberal brand of conservatism developed under David Cameron has given way to a more radical right-wing alternative that is supplanting itself within the party.
It is hard not to conclude that Brexit is the ultimate victory of the radical right in the UK. What was once the hard Eurosceptic fringe has now become mainstream. The 2016 referendum on EU membership represents the turning point that cemented the mainstreaming of the populist radical right that continued into the 2017 General Election, the 2019 European Parliament elections and beyond. Johnson’s victory was a major radical victory in the battle for the heart of the Conservative party. While many people in the UK now question whether Brexit will happen or not, there is a Prime Minister in Number 10 who will do all in his power to deliver it. The Eurosceptic right has, for the moment, won. Lord Salisbury, the former Conservative party leader who served three times as Prime Minister, once noted that “hostility to radicalism is the essential definition of conservatism.” Britain’s mainstream has fallen victim to a process of radicalisation driven by external threats and internal minority factions, cemented by the failures of the Tory leadership. David Cameron, in an attempt to save his own party, gambled with the fate of the Tories and the country – and lost.
Bale, T. (2018) “Who leads and who follows? The symbiotic relationship between UKIP and the Conservatives – and populism and Euroscepticism”, Politics, 38(3), pp. 263-277.
Clarke, H., Goodwin, M. & Whiteley, P. (2017) Brexit Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press
Gruber, O. & Bale, T. (2014) “And it’s good night Vienna. How (not) to deal with the populist radical right: The Conservatives, UKIP and some lessons from the heartlands”, British Politics, 9(3), pp. 237-254.
Heath, O. & Goodwin, M. (2017) “The 2017 General Election, Brexit and the Return of Two-Party Politics: An Aggregate-Level Analysis of the Results”, Political Quarterly, 88(3), pp. 345-358.
Smith, J. (2018) “Gambling on Europe: David Cameron and the 2016 Referendum”, British Politics, 13(1), pp. 1-16.