UKIP Victory Makes Britain a Lot Like Europe
Here's a paradox: The more Britain tries to leave Europe, the more like Europe it becomes.
When voters gave the U.K. Independence Party its first seat in Parliament yesterday, Britain finally got an electorally credible populist party at Westminster. Up to this point, the U.K. had pretty much been the exception to the rule in Europe, where populists have gained representation by combining nationalist nostalgia and anti-immigration rhetoric. Denmark has its Danish People's Party, Sweden the Sweden Democrats, Holland the Party for Freedom, Finland its Finns Party and France, of course, Marine Le Pen's National Front. Now that Conservative-turned-UKIP candidate Douglas Carswell has won back his old seat in Clacton Essex we can add Britain.
Some commentators have suggested the rise of UKIP shows that British voters -- personified by the largely elderly, sleepy seaside town of Clacton -- have given a collective thumbs-down to the European Union. This, they say, makes the country's exit in a potential 2017 referendum more likely. UKIP's leader, Nigel Farage, perhaps not surprisingly, agreed. Yet this, too, may be a mistake. Indeed, there are some surprising implications that flow from the UKIP win.
The first is that with UKIP in Parliament, the two-party system that dominated British politics may be coming to an end. This was already in the cards with the emergence of a coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2010. Prior to this, Britain hadn't been ruled by a coalition since 1945. Now, like other European countries, the U.K. appears to be developing a multiparty system. After the next election, we can expect to have at least four parties at Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP -- plus a smattering of small and regional parties.
This transition matters, because it forces political parties to find a defined niche; they have to play to their base. For the Conservatives, this will mean solidifying support among urban professionals, the middle class and those aspiring to join it. It's worth pointing out that these cohorts tend to be relatively friendly toward Europe.
This scenario has played out around Europe: Once far-right parties gain representation, support for EU membership tends to rise. Having Euroskeptics in Parliament tends to force mainstream parties to work together, not least because business is reluctant to support parties that threaten economic stability.
In Finland, for example, the National Coalition Party effectively became a modern center-right party once it was faced with the threat from the far right. In Denmark, the main center-right party was prompted by the rise of the right to become a defender of a liberal, market-based, version of the welfare state. Eventually, both parties overtook their main social democrat opponents.
While U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron may feel a wee bit bruised in the wake of the Clacton defeat, he could use the rise of UKIP to reposition the Tories. If he doesn't, Cameron may -- like the Dutch Christian Democratic Party, or CDA -- see his share of the vote dwindle. Once the largest party in the Netherlands, as dominant as the Tories in the U.K., the CDA declined because it failed to modernize.
Cameron could fall into the same trap and play to the Euroskeptic wing of his own party to stem the flow of voters to UKIP. He should stay the course and win over the moderate middle.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
(Matt Qvortrup is a fellow at the Center for Contemporary British History and a senior lecturer at Cranfield University in the U.K. His most recent book is "Referendums and Ethnic Conflict.")
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