Sunday, 16 November 2014

Time for straight-talking with the voters

Consider what you'd hear - or what you think you'd hear - in the saloon bar of most British pubs if the talk turned to politics. Hatred of the Europe Union (EU)? Opposition to 'more and more' immigration? Well, maybe - at least if you frequent the same hostelries as Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's anti-European (and anti-immigration) United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP (above).

There's no doubt that he has struck a chord. UKIP will probably win this week's Rochester and Strood by-election at a canter, following the defection of that constituency's Conservative MP to the newer right-wing outfit. And there's no doubt that immigration has been climbing as a matter of public concern - hitting the top of Ipsos-Moris's long-running 'issues index' for some time now. An influx of Eastern Europeans since the early 2000s has, in consequence, leached away a lot of the support for the EU.

But we're going to go out on a limb here: economic and political reality means that there is no alternative. Now we know that you've heard that grating certainty before in the mouth of Mrs Thatcher, but hear us out here. Start with this. The UK cannot afford to live outside of the EU's Common External Tariff barrier, the source or destination of about half her exports and imports. Any attempt to do so would be economic suicide: no doubt separate agreements could be reached with many of those countries (and with - for instance - the USA and China), but it's by no means clear that Whitehall has the intellectual and adminstrative firepower for that without even taking into account the UK's poorer bargaining position in any such set of renegotiations. Try to manage 27 new treaties, along with a host of others regulating trade with the rest of the world? Are you crazy? So let's accept that and move on. If we did leave the EU and try to negotiate a place in that club as a member of the European Economic Area (like Norway and Switzerland), we'd have to accept the 'free movement of people' to work here anyway. Without any say whatsoever about the conditions or the circumstances in the countries from where EU immigrants originate. What sort of victory would that be?

Insisting on a bit of reality in public policymaking does not mean that it is necessary to believe that 'elites' should just 'ignore' the people. Because the British people know in their hearts that the choice between 'Europe' and 'the world' is a false one, and that the idea that we can simply pull up the drawbridge and say goodbye to the better, brighter new world of porous borders is a fantasy. It'd be easy to look down on the voters - and Matthew Parris recently got himself into trouble after a surprisingly nasty piece of work on the UKIP-voting residents of Clacton - if they always agreed with UKIP. If they really were a bunch of bigots. If the crude certainties of some of UKIP's more swivel-eyed adherents were all there is to it.

Here's a newsflash: the people aren't so stupid as all that.

The political circumstances in which we find ourselves today - the last, long, loud cry of anger about a more open, cosmopolitan and liberal Britain - are unlikely to last. All three 'main' party leaders will rarely be so detested. All three 'major' parties will not always be so tainted by failure. New solutions will arrive. Novel concepts will arise. No doubt things looked bleak in 1929-31. Then Keynesianism, US corporatism and a huge investment boom injected capitalism with a great big dose of steriods, and everyone in the West got a lot, lot richer for a long, long time.

Britons aren't all that convinced by UKIP's remedies even at our present low political ebb. Recent polls have in fact shown rising and record majorities in favour of staying in the EU: there is little doubt that, if the Prime Minister recommends staying in after a renegotiation, then in the UK will most definitely stay. Young people, graduates and urban dwellers - in short, Britons of the future - are actually severely relaxed about immigration. Open racism is relatively rare in today's Britain - or, at least, not nearly as widespread as it is in countries such as France, Spain and Italy. The population as a whole is becoming surprisingly laid-back about even very radical measures to tackle racial discrimination, backing for instance the idea of positive discrimination if necessary to boost the chances of non-white Britons.

It's easy to absorb big old political myths. They're zombie facts, lumbering around the imaginative landscape, cluttering up the place, smacking into the furniture, and generally getting in the way. Scottish nationalists want you to believe that young people are part of an 'inevitable' tidal wave in favour or independence that can only flow in one direction - except that Scots have been gradually feeling more 'British' recently, that a majority still just about do in one way or another, and that we have some evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds voted 'no' in the recent independence referendum. This set of bedtime fantasies is wrong as well, by the way.

So this blog's conclusion? Straight talking about the reality of our situation - like it or lump it - would go down better with the electorate than just pandering to UKIP. Because that political insurgency's prejudices and preconceptions aren't shared by most people anyway.

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