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UKIP and Euroskepticism

Despite some recent gains by UKIP in Britain, Euroskepticism in Britain has been declining. Iain Martin speculates that the two are directly connected:

Support for UK membership of the EU is actually up a bit, according to a new poll. Ipsos Mori shows that support for the EU at its highest level since 1991. YouGov’s EU referendum tracker also gives the status quo a narrow lead by 40 per cent to 39 per cent this month.

How can this be when Ukip is running rampant? The truth is that for all the cocky Ukip rhetoric about a people’s army, the party appeals to nothing like a majority. Indeed, many middle-ground voters find the blazer-wearers of Ukip distinctly unappealing. Ukip is a brand (in my experience Ukippers hate that word) with which they do not want to be associated. In this way, Ukip may be giving Euroscepticism a bad name.

Alex Massie reaches a similar conclusion. These interpretations make a certain amount of sense. UKIP’s recent successes might be making withdrawal from the EU less popular than it would be otherwise, but it’s also possible that the two things have much less to do with each other than anyone would have guessed. Just as parts of Scotland that had backed the SNP ended up voting against independence last month, there are probably quite a few new UKIP supporters that back them as an alternative to the major parties without sharing their ultimate goal of withdrawal from the EU. When it comes time to vote on the referendum (assuming that there is one), many people that supported UKIP at the general election might vote to stay in.

UKIP has been gaining support because it presents itself as an anti-establishment political movement, because it taps into dissatisfaction with the country’s immigration policies, and because it has used populist rhetoric to appeal to working-class voters. It also serves generally as a vehicle for protesting the political class as a whole. Many others have observed with some amusement that this makes UKIP very much like nationalist protest parties all across Europe. It doesn’t follow from this that its new supporters find its main goal of leaving the EU appealing. Reports from the constituencies that UKIP won or closely contested in the recent by-elections confirmed that issues related to the EU were not a high priority for the vast majority of voters. Tim Worstall recently identified what was ultimately responsible for increasing UKIP’s support:

The protest is really about the near complete divorce between the British political classes and a very large part of the British electorate.

It’s possible that UKIP will continue to benefit from the disaffection of this large part of the electorate, but that doesn’t mean that its new support necessarily represents an endorsement of leaving the EU. Still, I suspect there is less support for withdrawing from the EU now than there was a few years ago for other reasons that have little or nothing to do with UKIP. The possibility of leaving the EU may now seem more real–and therefore less attractive–to some people that were slightly in favor of withdrawal and have since reconsidered. That isn’t necessarily because they are driven away by Nigel Farage, but because “Brexit” would be a major change from the status quo and would have significant consequences for Britain and the rest of the EU. As it was in the Scottish independence debate, the magnitude and presumed irreversibility of the decision will push many waverers and fence-sitters back in the direction of the status quo. In other words, it isn’t UKIP that’s driving otherwise Euroskeptic voters away from supporting withdrawal, but the real prospect of withdrawing from the EU that is pushing people in the opposite direction.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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