There is no getting away from Nigel Farage if you live in the U.K. Turn on the TV or radio, or open any British newspaper and there is, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party. One recent opinion poll showed UKIP scoring 16 percent support, making it the third-most-popular party in Britain.
That isn't bad for a group that Prime Minister David Cameron once derided as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.” If so, then Britons seem to be warming to fruitcakes. Trevor Kavanagh, the associate editor of the Sun, (the most widely read newspaper in the U.K. with a daily circulation of 2.3 million) writes correctly that: “UKIP are on a roll. They are the flavor of the month and support is growing by the day.”
This is causing consternation across the political spectrum and especially for Cameron's Conservative Party, which is steadily losing voters to Farage. Cameron is in the spotlight, as he prepares to make a long-heralded keynote speech on how to manage the U.K.'s relationship with the European Union, but Farage will be prominent in the background.
Cameron says the U.K. should renegotiate the terms of its EU membership while staying inside the 27-nation bloc, and he's expected in the speech to set out terms for a referendum on Europe. He's being pushed by the Europhobic right wing of the Conservative Party which, like Farage, simply wants out. There is much talk, rejected by Farage, of making an electoral pact between UKIP and the Conservatives.
In terms of message, Farage and his party are generally seen as focused on a single issue, namely getting the U.K. out of the EU. But new research from the London School of Economics shows that Europe only comes third on the list of issues that UKIP supporters are worried about, after immigration and the economy. The research shows them to be twice as concerned about immigration as the economy.
They also clearly warm to the character of the famously hard-drinking Farage himself. He woos voters by being funny, charismatic and rude and gives the impression of being a refreshingly frank-talking politician. In 2010, he lashed out at Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Union, saying the Belgian had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.”
In 2010, UKIP was scoring only 3 percent in opinion polls. It still has no seats in the House of Commons, but it is represented in the European Parliament, where Farage is one of the U.K.'s elected representatives.
To many in the rest of Europe, and many Europhiles in Britain, Farage and his ilk seem just plain bonkers. But you only have to meet a few UKIP supporters to understand that when it comes to Europe, many of the people debating each other might as well be living on different planets and speaking different languages.
Take these thoughts from Peter Mandelson, a former Cabinet minister, European commissioner and Labour Party bigwig. On Cameron’s forthcoming speech, he writes in the Guardian newspaper:
Beginning 2013 by placing this large and indefinite question mark over our membership of the EU, and all the trade and investment privileges it brings us, can only be described as economically insane. The signal it sends to the world is that we are on our way out of the European single market and that those who invest in Britain in order to trade in the market should think again.
To many, that might seem eminently sensible. But meet Frank Neale, who runs a small construction company on West London’s Uxbridge Road. Neale is exactly the type of man Farage wants to woo: “The biggest group for us,” Farage said in an interview with the Guardian this month, “are what I would call not particularly well off but aspirational people.”
Neale is already won over. Farage’s picture has been taped to the street-front window of his office, along with a printed slogan that reads: “Nigel Farage For PM!” The picture shows Farage doing that most archetypal of English things, drinking a cup of tea, under a portrait of Winston Churchill.
“I like the way he talks,” Neale says of Farage. “I liked Thatcher and of course Churchill, our last great statesman. I think Farage is a very clever man and I think he will stick by his word.”
Just opposite his office is a pub called the British Queen, a classically British institution that has become something of an anomaly on Uxbridge Road. Shops and cafes here cater to the local Somalis, Sudanese, Arabs, Poles and other recent immigrants.
“Who is the minority here?” asks Neale. “I have got the only English shop here, along with the guy over the road. I think this country’s infrastructure can’t take the number of people coming into this country. I mean, how many people can you get in this room?”
In the mid-1990s, Neale employed 27 people and he says that 90 percent of builders in the area were either British or Irish at that time. Now he estimates that figure is down to 40 percent and a lot of the new builders, especially Poles, came thanks to EU freedom-of-movement rules since other countries joined the bloc. They have muscled into the market and forced prices down. Neale now employs 12 people, four of whom are Romanians, whose country joined the EU in 2007.
Competing with many of these eastern European migrants is hard. Neale says they live five or six to a house and that if they earn 500 pounds ($803) a week, they send more than half of that back to their families, or save it to buy property back home. By contrast, says Neale: “Joe Bloggs can’t get on the property ladder” in the U.K.
“It is not my England anymore,'' Neale says. "Given half a chance I would think of leaving.” When people like Mandelson argue the big picture, about the benefits the U.K. enjoys by being part of a giant single market, Neale says he doesn't see it because it hasn't helped him.
As so often, the personal trumps the general. Neale employs Romanians who are only here thanks to the EU. “They are part of the family,” he says proudly. Good workers, loyal and, he points out, paid the same as his U.K.-born staff. If the price of leaving the EU is to lose his Romanians, though, then he would pay it and just take on less work, he says.
Today, Romanians and Bulgarians can work for him, if they are classed as self-employed. In a year, there will be no restrictions on their working in the U.K. and the tabloid newspapers in London are filled with warnings about the hundreds of thousands waiting to make the trip. At the back of the office, Neale introduced me to one of his Romanian builders, who asked not to be named. He says he fears for the future.
Next year, he says, “everyone will come. They are so poor, they will come just to eat. Most will not find work and they will live in cardboard boxes on the street, like in France or Spain.” This fear of people coming to the U.K. and living off social-security benefits is widespread, and rising up the political agenda. In Neale's view, Farage is Britain’s “last hope”.
Mandelson and others are right when then say that, in an increasingly globalized world, small countries count for little. Size counts. The trouble is that between that argument and Neale’s reality, there is a very large gulf. Farage, a populist with whom many ordinary people can readily identify, is sailing in to occupy it.
For many, the issue is an intellectual one, about Britain and Europe and their place in the world. For others, like Neale, it is much more visceral and close to home. It is about jobs, standards of living and a country that is changing in ways they don’t like and that, in their experience, doesn't benefit them.
The challenge for pro-Europeans (and for Cameron in his speech) is to find a way to bridge that gap, preserving and deepening what is best about the EU, without losing sight of people like Frank Neale on Uxbridge Road.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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