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UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage arrives at Milbank studios in London May 3, 2013. The anti-European Union UK Independence Party made big gains in local elections, grabbing support from Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives in a vote that underlines widespread frustration with Britain's traditional parties. (Photo: EUTERS/Olivia Harris)
Image: Getty Images

Populism and the UK

Emma Wallis
November 5, 2013

Riding the waves of 'populist' anti-EU sentiments is bread and butter to UK politicians. But the leading business federation, CBI, has voted that the UK would lose if they left Europe. So who is populist now?


"Euroskepticism" is the word "they dare not speak in the corridors of Strasbourg," claimed the UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Nigel Farage, this week whilst addressing the European parliament. For him it's a "normal, sensible assertion of identity" that every country should be pedaling.

"We want to live and work and breathe in a Europe of nation state democracy. We want to trade together, we want to cooperate together. We are happy to agree sensible common minimum standards, and yes, we want to control our own borders, which is the rational, logical and sensible thing for any nation state to do," Farage continued, speaking to the European parliament. UKIP is normally defined as being populist and right wing, but they are not the only ones to make political capital out of this sentiment in the UK.

Since the former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown uttered the memorable promise "British jobs for British workers" back in 2007, a populist anti-European sentiment in the UK has been harnessed by politicians on the Left and Right eager for votes. Fast forward to 2013, and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, addressing a group of new apprentices at the Mini plant in Cowley, was reported as having told his audience that Britain must "say no" to eastern European workers by making sure that British youngsters had the skills and the education to compete in a globalized world.

'British jobs for British workers'

Cameron acknowledged that at the moment "you can go to factories in our country where half the people come from Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. With the full opening up of the EU to Romania and Bulgaria in January 2014, it is easy to see how politicians could whip up "populist" fears of eastern European migrants out to "steal our jobs, our benefits and our money." .

British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speaks with Romanian President Traian Basescu during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
David Cameron tries to balance the anti EU sentiment in his own partyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Nigel Farage said last week (October 31) "it is imperative we start holding our Government to account and stop them using the excuse that there is nothing they can do about opening our borders to Bulgaria and Romania". He went on, quoting an EU study which has told the British government that there are "600,000 economically inactive eastern Europeans in Britain, something our own government wasn't able to tell us." He claims that at the moment the UK is paying out child benefit to "50,000 children who don't even live in the United Kingdom." Saying that costs Britain one million pounds a week.

With benefits being squeezed ever further for British families, these kinds of figures, true or not, help turn the tide against a perceived threat from the east. Farage said that opening the borders to Romania and Bulgaria would mean "more burden on our NHS [National Health service], more burden on our schools, and yes, more crime too." He claimed immigration would be the "central issue of the European elections" in 2014 and would be the "central issue too of whether Britain remains in Europe".

Riding the populist wave

Cameron has long been struggling against elements of his own party who share Farage's views and the increasing popularity of UKIP itself, which is encroaching on the Conservative vote. The shadow of a UK referendum on whether or not to stay within Europe has loomed above the current administration and the rest of Europe since 2010, with the date currently having been slated for "some time after 2015" ie not in the current administration.

Chris Howarth, senior policy analyst at Open Europe, an influential London think-tank, told DW that the UK electorate's apparent embrace of populism reveals "underlying issues" about the level of unease with the European Union. He explained that many voters are frustrated with certain aspects of the EU, including "excessive regulation and the cost of the EU budget."

A symbolic picture of a poverty from eastern Europe showing an old woman and a baby carriage. (Photo: imago/epd)
The 'looming fear': eastern Europeans who move to claim benefits, contributing nothing in return.Image: imago/epd

This is why politicians on the Left and Right return to these kinds of issues regularly. But why are populist sentiments gaining such sway? John McDermott, another commentator, writing in the Financial Times, suggests that the popularity of populism could be to do with the general decline in the British public's trust in not only the political class but elites in general.

Trust in governments is 'in decline'

He cites the current British Social Attitudes survey which found that in 2012, "only one in five people, or 18 percent, trust governments to put the nation's needs above those of a political party." That figure had declined from 38 percent of people trusting government in 1986. Trust had also fallen for the press, banks and politicians as a class in general. They also found that "people's attitudes had hardened towards social welfare for disadvantaged groups in society," from 81 percent thinking it was important in 1985 to only 59% percent thinking it was important by 2012.

Overall, McDermott believes that there is in Britain an "anti elite" sentiment upon which Miliband and Cameron try to capitalize in their different ways. The problem for both of them though, as he points out, is that they are part of different elites themselves: Cameron, an old boy from Eton and Oxford, and Miliband from the political and intellectual elite of the country who has spent most of his working life in politics in Westminster.

Rowing against the tide?

Rowing against the perceived tide of the British public's antipathy to Europe, to migration and to everything the EU represents, is the UK's leading business organization, the CBI, which Monday (November 4) came out with their annual report making the case for the UK's continuing membership of the EU. They claim that the EU benefits each UK household by up to three thousand pounds a year (about 4789 dollars). According to their research, "membership of the EU is worth approximately 4-5 percent of UK GDP which is about 62-87 billion pounds." The benefits, they believe, far outweigh the negatives: "Access to European markets of 500 million people for goods and services has been the single biggest positive for our economy, while membership of the EU has also helped cement the UK as the world's leading financial center."

Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech during the Trades Union Congress-TUC march in London, (Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA / DPA)
Labour leader Ed Miliband appears to be creating a 'populism of the left'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

John Cridland, the CBI Director-General said "Contrary to popular myth, the UK is influential in the corridors of Brussels and will still be as long as we play our cards right. The Single Market is a great British success story and the best way for us to remain a leader on the world stage is from within the EU." Although he felt that the Single Market should be modernized and reformed to make sure that the "EU recognizes and respects the boundaries set by member states" he concluded that Britain "can't end up on the fringes of the world's largest trading bloc, following and paying for all the rules, but setting none."

Given that the CBI employs about a third of the private sector workforce in the UK, and includes 240,000 businesses, the fact that 78 percent of firms voted to stay in the UK would suggest that in future, politicians wanting to tap into the public mood would do well to stay informed of which way populism lies, rather than playing to the "popular myths" as outlined by John Cridland.

Additional reporting by Joanna Impey in London.

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