With 100 days to go until the European elections, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister calls for people to stand up against misleading Euroscepticism. By James Bartholomeusz
Nick Clegg is not a popular man. Getting on for four years in government, the leader of the Liberal Democrats – the country’s third-largest national party – has found himself mired in disrepute. And he has now decided to add to his woes by backing one of the currently least popular causes in the UK: European integration.
The Lib Dems (in their former incarnation as the Liberals) were overtaken as the primary force on the British Left by the Labour movement in the early decades of the last century. The last time they were in government was as part of the three-way national coalition during the Second World War, and those were exceptional circumstances; British electoral history from 1945 until 2010 saw power passing from red to blue and back again with no yellow in sight. Then, in 2010, with a withering and vastly unpopular Labour government under Gordon Brown, and a Conservative opposition painfully incapable of gaining ground in what should have been an open-goal election, the Lib Dems found their way back into Downing Street as part of a centre-Right coalition.
Any jubilation over the final breaking open of Britain’s two-party system was swiftly put to rest. The Lib Dems, and Clegg in particular, have faced derision all round for a chain of failures: from the Left, for signing onto the Conservatives’ austerity programme; for breaking their most public pre-election promise, only months into government, to abolish university tuition fees (they instead ended up being tripled to £9,000 per year); for their dismal failure in the referendum to change the UK’s voting system from first-past-the-post to AV. Even those issues which have commanded widespread public support, such as the legalisation of gay marriage or the easing of the tax burden on low earners, have failed to generate support for the party. The Conservatives claim disproportionate credit for the government’s activities, playing relentlessly to nationalist opinion on immigration, the welfare state and the EU, whilst the Lib Dems are depicted as sell-outs even as they prop up the voting majority in the legislature.
The Lib Dems’ prospects look bleak for both next year’s general election and the local elections which will coincide with the European Parliamentary ones this May. Yet, writing in the Independent yesterday – with only 100 days to go until the election – Clegg pegged his party resolutely to the European project. Warning of “a state of hopeless isolation” if the UK were to leave the Union, he drew attention the huge benefits Britain gains from membership in terms of jobs, trade, and the ability to tackle crime and climate change on an international level.
The greatest threat to Britain’s EU membership is, as Clegg identified, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The Lib Dems share a particular enmity with UKIP; the former is pro-European, internationalist and socially liberal, the latter began as an anti-European campaign and has since mutated into the main hard-Right force in the country. Stoking voters’ fears around immigration and loss of sovereignty to Brussels, UKIP has soared in the polls and performed particularly well in last year’s local elections. Clegg rightly accuses the two main parties of capitulating to UKIP’s agenda – for Labour, because it has yet to find a way of dealing with its disillusioned white working-class support base; for the Conservatives, because of the party’s innate sympathy (particularly amongst grassroots members and backbenchers) with the nationalist cause. Clegg claims that the Lib Dems are the only party in Britain unafraid to stand up for Europe.
Is this electoral suicide? Having sought entry to the Union repeatedly in the 1960s and ’70s, Britain is now the member-state least hospitable to the European project. Labour and the Conservatives have indeed quailed as UKIP has set the anti-European, anti-immigration agenda. It may be that Clegg, realising his electoral opportunities are fully spent, feels that he has nothing to lose from a principled pro-European stand. Regardless of the reason, he finds wholehearted support in the Project for Democratic Union. More politicians should find the courage to speak up for what is right, if not immediately popular.
Image: “Nick Clegg Q&A 17” courtesy to Liberal Democrats via Creative Commons 2.0 share alike.