Melanie Phillips

14 June 2004

The nation fights back

Published in: Daily Mail

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The stunning success of the UK Independence Party in the Euro elections is much more than a mid-term protest vote for a political party which came from nowhere and may soon vanish in the same direction. It quite simply changes the terms of the political debate.

It delivers a wake-up call to our whole political class. For it does not merely tell them that many British people are viscerally opposed to the EU project. It registers a profound disillusionment with politics, because people think all politicians are living on another planet altogether.

Europe is the classic example. If euro-scepticism is considered extreme, leaving the EU altogether is said to be totally off the wall. Yet many British citizens have now voted for a party that stands for precisely that.

As a result, Tony Blair's claim that Euro-sceptics secretly want Britain to leave the EU - and are therefore barking mad - now looks less than clever. For the election has shown that, far from this claim terrifying 'moderate' Eurosceptics out of their wits, that is precisely what is desired by a large tranche of the electorate.

Whether or not UKIP is a collection of cranks is irrelevant. The vote is a protest by people who for years have felt totally disenfranchised. Politicians for whom it is an article of faith to position themselves on the centre ground have not grasped that the centre of political gravity has shifted.

The centrist position is said to be to use our membership of the EU to get a better deal for this country. But bitter experience has taught British voters that this is a pipedream, not least because of the ever-expanding rulings of the European Court of Justice and the obliteration of Westminster's powers over large swathes of British public life.

This upsurge in feeling is not an isolated British phenomenon. All over Europe, populations have been frantically signalling that they do not support the creation of a superstate. Such is the pressure that the EU constitution may disintegrate even without Britain vetoing it.

In the light of the European election results in Britain and the wider mood in Europe, Mr Blair might conclude, however, that the smart move would be to refuse to sign up to it this week and thus wrap himself in the mantle of the principled defender of his famous 'red lines' and the national interest.

But the British vote for UKIP is about far more than the EU constitution. It is a protest at the decline into irrelevance and incompetence of the very concept of Britain as a nation. It is thus closely related to the other protest delivered in the local government elections last week. For the voters' fundamental message is that the political class has simply lost the plot.

On public services, they don't think the government is delivering. But since the government repeatedly claims the public services are improving, this reinforces the impression that it never tells the truth. And this, surely, is the really lethal damage done to the Prime Minister by the war in Iraq.

For rightly or wrongly, many - including some who supported the war - think Mr Blair did not tell people the truth about Iraq. Perhaps even more damagingly, others believe he himself was misled. Rightly or wrongly, people believe he went into that war as the junior partner to an American president who walked all over him.

At the heart of this whole collection of protest votes is the feeling that the very idea of the nation is being betrayed. People believe that, over Iraq, the British government did not lead but was led against the interests of the nation. They also believe that the EU is destroying the government's powers to defend such interests, while on the domestic front the government is destroying those interests altogether.

Both Labour and the Tories are claiming that the other side has lost or failed to gain the voters' trust. But the more the Tories try to paint Mr Blair as a liar, the more the public remembers why it doesn't trust the Tories either. For the overwhelming message of these elections is that people feel that no mainstream party now speaks for them.

This is because, although the public has fallen badly out of love with Labour, the Tories have so far failed to deliver a positive reason for voting for them. To win public attention and support, a political party has to articulate the galvanising issue of the moment.

That issue is nothing less than the threat to the democratic nation itself. This threat takes a variety of forms. There is the increasing threat posed by the EU to the power of self-government. There is the threat of unlimited mass immigration and multiculturalism, which if left unchecked will destroy national identity. And there is the threat to the moral values underpinning this nation, as the government shatters our bedrock norms of respectability and responsibility.

The issue of the nation is a trap for Labour that it cannot easily escape. This is because of what lies behind both its attack on this country's ancient constitutional conventions, and its fanatical zeal to subsume it into the heart of the projected European superstate.

This is the Blairite belief that the self-governing nation state has had its day because 'globalisation' means it can no longer make its own way in the world; that the idea of a majority culture expressing its values in its laws and institutions is illegitimate; and that that the nation has to take second place to supra-national institutions and laws like the EU, the International Criminal Court or the Human Rights Convention, whose values must trump anything the British people might express through their own Parliament and courts.

Defending British democracy against this world-view is the big internal issue of our time. But the Tories have been very slow to grasp this. Despite the undoubtedly impressive strides made under Michael Howard, they have yet to articulate just why it is such an urgent priority to unseat the Blair government, and why they should be trusted to do so.

To make this case, they have to present a vision which is far more profound than the arguments over which party is the more daring in allowing the public a modicum of freedom to spend their own money on the public services - which frankly sounds like little more than angels dancing on the head of a pin.

Thy have to show us not only that they share the concern over the nation but, in addition, exactly what they will do to protect it against the EU and the 'supra-national' world-view. They have to show that, far from undermining British democracy, America is our principal ally in the struggle to defend it. They will never do this if their main preoccupation is to avoid being painted as 'extreme'. Voters reward courage, not cowardice; principle, not pusillanimity.

Only if the Tories raise their game in this way will they make the breakthrough that still eludes them. There is an open goal in front of them. The question is whether they yet have the self-confidence to play the ball under pressure.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie