You can makes plenty of arguments that the results in the European elections for the populist right and left are not that big a deal. For that perspective see here. I’m not sure I share the complacency and for a simple reason. Of the many aspects of Europe’s sudden lurch toward populism, one looms large to me: the same core cultural divide we have seen polarize and gridlock America, a blue-red culture war over modernity. Blue Europe is internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural. Red Europe is non-interventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society. The essential deal between these two complex coalitions was always a simple one: the Blues got to engineer their European dream, as long as it gave the Reds prosperity. Money would take the multicultural blues away. And for so long, it sure did.
But when the money ran out, and the recession hit, and the EU only bailed out members on the basis of brutal austerity … the deal began to fray. Now that growth is returning, if only anemically, it appears, moreover, to be benefiting Blue Europe – the elites, the property-owners, the transnationals – while leaving ordinary, working- and middle-class Europeans in the dust. That fuels another layer of mistrust and despair. Then a reform like marriage equality is imposed from above (unlike the US), despite ferocious opposition from the social right in France and back-bench Tory queasiness in Britain, leading to more discomfort. Mass immigration or migration across Europe – a wonderful idea in theory – only made things worse, leading to resentment and racism when it has occurred in already-beleaguered working class Europe. The emergence of an unassimilated Muslim population didn’t help things either. And, more to the point, Europeans increasingly feel they are not given a choice in any of this. So they vented. And America’s culture war finally put down roots in Europe.
I see both red and blue sides to this. I grew up in a prosperous part of Europe, Southeast England, but in a nonetheless recognizably English small town. I maybe ate at a restaurant a handful of times before I went to college. My high school class was 100 percent white. I was brought up in a church-going household with not much extra money around. And we were Tories of a patriotic hard-working type. These days, I’m an inhabitant of a very blue and different world. Catapulted from my home town and life by a magnet school, and then an Oxford scholarship, I now live on the East Coast of the US, married to a man, earning money off the Internet, and stay in hotels when I visit London.
And here’s the thing about the last ten years or so. When I go to London now, it feels very much like home – i.e. a US blue state, multicultural, cosmopolitan, and slightly more international than even New York. It’s jammed full of Starbucks and Uber and hot spots. Only an hour south of there, you’re in a somewhat different world, changed but still culturally recognizable as the place I grew up in. Yes, there are pizza chains in the High Street, and a smattering of dudes on gay hook-up apps, and a Muslim cab driver, but there is also the cumulative weight of centuries of Englishness, an Island identity, a storied past. In the fields around where I grew up, you might still stumble across an old concrete tank-barricade, designed to prevent a Nazi invasion. In the High Street, there’s a World War I memorial, and one to commemorate the Protestant martyrs burned at the stake under Queen Mary. Every part of this history tells the tale of an island nation, with a distinctive culture and amazing story. You don’t feel the weight of this history as powerfully in the roiling post-everything multicultural melee that is modern London. And you don’t internalize it quite as much.
What globalization is doing to us is scrambling these identities – creating one class doing relatively well with globalization and one that absolutely isn’t. The first is likely to be more tolerant, progressive, modern, risk-taking. The second is likely to be more traditional, conservative, cautious, security-seeking. This doesn’t completely square with left and right. In Europe, the right fostered the economic liberalization that undermined its traditional middle-class base. The populist left remains deeply suspicious of economic liberalism, but became a beneficiary of its cultural consequences. And in these circumstances, of course immigration would come to be an issue, as it has in the US. When you’re out of work in a part of the country left behind by the 21st Century, and suddenly have to compete for what jobs there are with thousands of new immigrants from Poland or Romania, you’re going to get mad. And the EU itself – especially among its elites – seems a spectacular symbol of this cultural and economic disconnect, a perfect target for the new populism.
That’s why I don’t believe the latest upset in the European elections is a fluke. I think it’s the new reality.
My sense from Britain, the country I know best, is that a hefty chunk of the population feels no connection to either major British party or to either party leader. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are products of Blue Britain. Nigel Farage is recognizably not. One recent moment of truth was the debate that Farage had with Nick Clegg, the Liberal-Democratic leader, over membership in the EU. Farage won it hands down against Clegg, a multilingual European elitist if ever there was one. And it was a victory of style as well as substance.
The task of a conservative in this moment, it seems to me, is not to resolve this struggle for either side – an impossibility anyway. It is to attempt to keep these two tendencies from going to war with each other in politics and culture. It is to retain a sense of national coherence and continuity in the midst of large-scale social change. That may prove impossible, but it can be done (look at the London Olympics opening and closing ceremonies). And it’s what David Cameron is now apparently trying to do. And about time. Over the next few years, Cameron and his successor will be confronting not only the possibility of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU but also the possibility of an end to the United Kingdom, if Scotland votes for independence. Both moves, it seems to me, are signs of an attempt by the English and Scottish to reassert control of their own destinies and to preserve their own cultural identities – which is why it would be foolish not to take both possibilities seriously. They remind me at least of a vital truth: that national identity remains the most potent and democratic form of political association. Screw with that, and you’ll merely have nationalism come back at you, with nostrils flaring. Europe’s elites have indeed screwed with that over the last decade or so. We have to hope the backlash does not destroy more than it builds.
(Photos: British Prime Minister David Cameron visits a construction site on May 27, 2014 in London, England. By Andrew Winning – WPA Pool/Getty Images. French far-right party National Front (FN) president Marine Le Pen delivers a speech during a press conference at the party’s headquarters on May 27, 2014 in Nanterre, France. By Chesnot/Getty Images.)