At some point, the relentlessness of the austerity, the hopelessness of the job market and the frustrations of thwarted sovereignty were bound to provoke some kind of backlash. We just witnessed the extraordinary success of the French Front National in local elections in France. But in Britain, there is also a political earthquake. In the looming European elections, the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, may even beat the Tories and Labour and the Liberal Democrats in a low turnout vote. And the leader of UKIP – once described by some Tory leaders as a “swivel-eyed loon” – Nigel Farage just debated deputy prime minister Nick Clegg on the issue and, by all accounts, knocked the stuffing out of him. Two post-debate polls showed him beating Clegg by more than a 2 – 1 margin. YouGov found that 57 percent of Labour voters thought he won the second debate with Clegg. Telegraph Tory, Daniel Hannan, rejoices:
Clegg, remember, was defending the position taken by every party represented in the House of Commons and by every newspaper except the Daily Express. Yet he lost by more than two to one. More than two to one, for Heaven’s sake.
Euro-enthusiasts will no doubt be trying to console themselves with the thought that it was a clash between two politicians, not the In/Out referendum itself. But why should that campaign play out significantly differently? What we saw over the two televised clashes is what we usually see when the EU is debated. Euro-enthusiasts almost always argue as Clegg did, calling their opponents names, flaunting their supposed expertise, implying that anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot. It didn’t work for Clegg, and it won’t work during the referendum.
And what was Labour leader Ed Miliband’s response? He wants to ban Farage from the general election debates scheduled next year:
“No. Look, I think the format we had last time with parties that have representation in parliament is a good format. In the end it is for the broadcasters to decide who they invite. They have got their own rules and they have got to follow their rules. I look forward to debating David Cameron. I am not that interested in Nigel Farage. I care about debating David Cameron.”
Talk about playing into populism’s hands. Farage, meanwhile, is not just intent on withdrawing Britain from the EU. He’s also an admirer of Vladimir Putin, an opponent of all immigration (especially from “Mediterranean” countries), a ferocious opponent of any military intervention in, say, Syria or Ukraine, deeply opposed to marriage equality, and a backer of a flat tax for Britain. What we’re seeing across the continent is a rejection of the political class that defends the EU and represents EU austerity and cosmopolitanism. It’s not terribly pretty – but in too many ways, the European establishment has played its hand with the usual deftness of the arrogant and the cocooned.