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An alternative source of the UK’s EU-scepticism: politico-scepticism

Forgive the even more rough and sketchy nature of this post than the normal you find on this blog, but this is about something that has been on my mind a lot recently, and I am struggling to adequately explain. I cannot back up what I am asserting here with complete facts – instead I am putting this out here to provoke some sort of reaction and further insight. I’m also keen to hear from people not based in the UK who find the UK’s current track so perplexing.

Anyway, here goes.

The classic explanation of British EU-scepticism owes a lot to the UK’s history – winner of two world wars, Winston Churchill, being an island that stood alone, had its own empire. Britain’s membership of the then EEC in 1973 was as a result of the country’s weakness at that time, and this has never been reconciled with a population that still views the UK as a major world power. Let’s call this the we’re-better-than-you scepticism.

I’m now instead more of the view that there is another cause of Britain’s EU-scepticism, and it is rooted in politico-scepticism, or authority-scepticism. To put this another way: if your population has crashing levels of trust and participation in its own institutions, politicians, political parties and administration, this then also applies to the European Union, because being broadly pro-EU is something that is an establishment thing to be. If your MPs (expenses), police (Hillsborough), journalists/BBC (hacking, Savile) and government (HMRC DVDs) are broadly not to be trusted in the way they (perhaps naïvely) once were, then what? Just take a look at the comments below this Comment is Free piece I wrote about Sharon Bowles MEP – there is no accusation that Bowles is in any way classically corrupt (i.e. did something illegal). The accusation instead is that the very act of being a MEP in itself means she must be a questionable personality, jumping on a gravy train.

Add to this that trust in political parties and governments in the UK is below the EU average (table in the middle of this post), election turnout is 20% lower than the western European norm, and turnout even hit a new low of just 18% at the recent Manchester Central by election. Democratic Audit warns that political equality is ‘widening rapidly’ in the UK. I also recently read (but can’t find the source) that the UK ranks 25th of 27 EU Member States for party political membership per capita.

Poor and inaccurate reporting of EU matters in the UK press, while especially severe when it comes to the EU, is not uniquely confined to coverage of Brussels. While anti-German, WWII style rants are still all too common, there is also the enduring politico-scepticism in the tabloids that is very much in common between both Westminster and EU coverage.

In short: relations between citizens and politics, and citizens and state, are not healthy in the UK, even in comparison to other states in the European Union, and anecdotally it feels that this situation is worsening. The European Union cannot be the entire cause of the UK’s political malaise, as UKIP would try to have us believe. Indeed it seems to me that it works the other way around at least as much – that malaise about the UK engenders a general scepticism about all politics, and EU-scepticism cannot be separated from that.

Photo: "The Public, West Bromwich - European Union part-financed" by ell brown on April 1, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

27 Comments

  • Martin Keegan |

    There is very low trust in national political institutions in other EU member states, but this is often found together with higher levels of trust for EU institutions as a counterweight. Your theory doesn’t account for this difference. (I’m thinking places like Italy, though I don’t have the figures to hand).

    The notion that Euroscepticism in Britain is really a manifestation of some other phenomenon (like imperial nostalgia, which doesn’t account for Sinn Fein or anyone like me from the former colonies or Ireland who views British imperialism as not exclusively a good thing) rather than a sincere critique of something wrong with European integration is just unconvincing to me. Is every criticism of European integration incapable of being valid on its own terms, and only expressed as a smokescreen for some other agenda? This is close to saying that European integration is infallible.

    I’ve always found your positions intellectually honest (and a lot of people on all sides of the EU debate are not intellectually honest, as you say above of some of the UK press), but I’ve also seen a lot of examples of where you don’t seem to be familiar with, or have taken seriously, the strongest of the arguments against your position, though you’re very good on *some* counterarguments or motivations of the Eurosceptic cause.

  • Craig Willy |

    My only quibble is that this assumes people in other European countries are less suspicious/cynical about their political authorities. In the case of Greece, France or Italy, I think this is doubtful. Indeed, hostility to national politicians can feed europhilia if (notably in Italy) there is an idealization of EU institutions as particularly competent and virtuous.

    I have a hard time explaining why euroscepticism is so uniquely British. I’d guess it’s a mixture of the vastness of the Anglosphere on the one hand, Brits intuitively know and understand Aussies, Canucks and Yanks better than Continentals with their foreign tongues. And on the other, the British Nation-State has never been as insecure or as discredited as the Continentals’. Britain is 300 years old, its Empire was as big as all the Continentals’ put together, the myth and reality of national sovereignty has not been dispelled by a foreign occupation since 1066, the Nation-State has never been corrupted and discredited by Fascism…

    All this comes together to make the English people and the English elite far less “European” in ideology and outlook than Continentals (or even the Celtic nations), despite an obviously common history. It is interesting that these trends are self-reinforcing. Before (and I mean before the 1950s), the Continent still seemed a vast world and much of the British political elite proudly spoke French. Today, America is greater than ever and the geographic distance has been enormously reduced by technologically. The British elite, to the extent it looks past its navel and preoccupies itself with world affairs, literally cares about nothing except serving the United States’ designs and basking in its reflected glory.

    Oh, and it obviously doesn’t help that the euro project was so manifestly flawed and has led to perma-crisis and economic suicide. The UKIP/”keep the pound” crowd may have been parochial or based on nationalist sentiments, but ordinary people everywhere can see they had a point..

  • Jon |

    @Elliott – fair point. But I don’t think that can explain it altogether…

    @Martin – hell, no, the EU institutions themselves are for sure not absolved of all blame, and my critique of the way the institutions don’t work has been consistent here over a long period. I suppose my main starting point is that the institutions themselves need not necessarily be as malign as the accusation in the UK is that they must be. Indeed a criticism of the EU institutions on their own terms (classical scepticism if you like) is a fair one, but it is hard – in everyday debate – to separate this completely from the other aspects of everyday political debate.

    @Martin / @Craig – I have never understood Italy, because if they all hate their political parties and their government so much (as they tell the pollsters), why do they all keep voting at national elections in such high numbers? France is interesting though – while its parties may be loathed, it’s government is not to the same extent, and in neither place (perhaps wrongly?) the media critique of politicians is not as harsh as in the UK. But anyway, this is far too short a post to provide a complete analysis of EU- and politico-scepticism everywhere!

    @Craig – the Britain old nation state stuff falls more into the first form of EU-scepticism, the historical kind, than the second. It cuts at the heart of how the British see their country as a nation, how they view their own futures. To deal with this issue fairly is to see steady British imperial decline, a process that no politicians have ever really wanted to broach with the population.

  • Craig Willy |

    I’m not sure what the deal is with Italian turnout. Wiki claims voting is “compulsory but not enforced,” whatever that means. Prior to the end of Communism, political parties were an integral part of daily life and voting as a bloc could be seen as a necessary act for “your” community. I don’t know if this practice is persisting, despite cynicism about politics (and, anecdotally, I am always amazed at how blasé Italians I know are about their politics).

  • John Rowan |

    Jon – essentially membership of the EU has never been an act of faith for the UK in the way it has for other countries.

    For the majority of Member States and their populations, membership of the EU is an essential part of the way they view their modern nation, whether that is because, conscious of their own relative weakness post-WWII, they joined to shield themselves from German power (Benelux, France), as part of their WWII atonement (Germany, Italy), to rehabilitate themselves into the international arena after a period of political isolation under an obscurantist dictatorship (Spain, Portugal, Greece), or to rejoin “Europe” after decades behind the Iron Curtain (most of the class of 2004). Of the remaining countries, Malta and Cyprus are somewhat special cases. That leaves the UK, Ireland, and the Nordics – and of those, membership of the EU is seen in Ireland as having been an essential part of becoming a modern country; and Finland sees membership of the EU as resolving its essential geopolitical problem with Russia.

    So, by my reckoning, there are only three EU Member States which are not emotionally committed to the EU on the grounds that being part of the EU is inseparable from their own sense of national identity. I think this matters: the UK is untypical in that its discussions are about the cold, hard calculation of whether or not being part of the EU is in the national interest. These discussions are seen elsewhere as being Eurosceptic precisely because they reveal that the British just do not see the European project in the way (almost) everybody else does.

    So yes, for sure, disillusionment with politics in general doesn’t help matters. But the fundamental problem is that most Member States have a very different idea of what the EU is from the UK and a handful of others. It has been possible up to now to paper over these differences: it is becoming much harder to do so.

  • Martin Keegan |

    @Jon I am perfectly aware of your criticisms of the EU institutions, but they were the topic only of my first paragraph; what I was discussing was European integration in general. Your position appears to be that European integration is infallible, and I challenge you to a debate that this is not so.

  • Jon |

    Is European integration infallible… hmmm. On balance I still think the EU will persist, and will persist without states leaving it and without states leaving the Euro. But that’s on the balance of probabilities as I see it, not a dogmatic “it must be that way”. I don’t think it can be ruled out that some factor – economic or political – could lead to one or more countries leaving, or eventually some alternative bloc comes to supercede the EU. It could likewise go the way of NATO – just to become an enduring irrelevance.

    I’m not sure that fully answers your question, but I don’t know if I can fully answer it. There is nothing inherently right about the EU to mean it must exist, that it is infallible. But the same must be said for any political construct, including nation states. Beyond that we’re into the realm of balancing the likelihoods of breakup (or not).

  • Jon |

    @John (sorry – replying to comments in the wrong order here) – I am not sure I agree with your basic premise. I am not sure joining the EU was an act of faith anywhere else either. OK, there was a *rationale* (peace in Europe) for more of Western Europe, but the whole thing – just as in the UK – relied on trust that the elites were doing the right thing.

    While you do not mention them, I assume you mean Denmark and Sweden are the other countries in the 3 that lack a rationale. But, while I don’t mention them in my piece, these two countries are interesting cases as hardline EU-scepticism, especially on the left, has actually fallen away in both of these countries in the last decade – essentially their EU relations have normalised. OK, neither of them wants into the Euro, but neither is there a strong push to leave. It’s as if small states in a globalised world have realised the EU is actually quite handy sometimes. I’m still trying to work out what, if anything, the UK could learn from the experiences of Denmark and Sweden over the last decade in this regard.

  • Craig Willy |

    The non-euro membership of Denmark/Sweden is key. Without the euro, the EU is merely a very muscular trade bloc (“free trade area +”) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in today’s world where trade is indeed more important than armies.

    Were they in the euro, I suspect they be in the exact same position as Finland with the rise of populist-nationalist parties railing against bailing out their “irresponsibly profligate” fellow euro-citizens.

    Near as I can tell, only in the UK does EU membership *as such* pose a problem. The lack of identification is that strong. Everywhere else, even the more skeptical countries (Czech, Scandies) accept that some kind of European polity is necessary, even when they are critical of the euro or of further integration.

  • Paul Haydon |

    I think it’s important to consider that young people tend to be the least eurosceptic. In a recent YouGov poll 18-24 year olds were the only group in which a majority would not vote to leave the EU, and the gap was quite significant. This age group is also generally regarded as much less engaged politically and are far less likely to vote, which suggests the relationship between ‘politico-scepticism’ at the national and European level is more complex.

    I personally think the press has a huge influence, and perhaps because younger people are less likely to read newspapers and instead read from a variety of sources online their views may be more balanced. They are also generally more likely to take an internationalist outlook and favour cooperation with the outside world.

    On another note, the euro crisis has undoubtedly been a key factor in the recent rise in euroscepticism. To many, greater integration in the eurozone coupled with economic decline make being in the EU seem less like a necessary evil and more like an unnecessary burden, especially when other parts of the global economy are growing. My own view is that promoting global trade is best achieved from within the EU, but unfortunately many still see it as some sort of binary choice between trading mostly with the EU or with the rest of the world.

  • Jon |

    @Craig – yes, probably fair, also in CZ is also a bit like Italy with a deep, deep malaise about the national political system.

    But to explain the UK-has-a-problem-with-the-EU-per-se is harder. There is a genuine headache in there – British smugness about assuming that the country is powerful, but actually having no agenda to push for at the moment. Could Britain lead, even if it wanted to? But then to explain why Britain is better off not going it alone is something no politician is really willing to do, as it requires an understanding of British relative decline… But hell, if all the party political mainstream understands it, why can’t any of them communicate it…?

  • Craig Willy |

    An added explaining factor is the existence of American-style anti-govmuntism in the UK, with little Brussels taking on the role of the wasteful/growth-killing “Federal Government” shackling the economy… however implausible such demonic powers are if one compares the relative powers and sizes of the U.S. feds vs. the Eurocracy. In no other European country as far as I know has something like Thatcherism been a predominant current of the main conservative party.

  • paulgriffithsuk |

    Suspect much of the Euroskepticism in the UK comes from the right who see the EU as an impediment to more liberal markets in the UK. Consequently there are powerful forces in the UK (much of the press and many wealthy benefactors) who are anti significant aspects of EU policy. In many ways this parallels the left wing Euro-skepticism in Scandavia!

    The main problem however with UK EU policy isn’t however Euro-skepticism per se, its the Euro-phobia that goes with it consequently the way the debate gets polarised. Instead of having a rational debate about how we engage with Europe and where we should collaborate (and where we should push back), the debate gets hijacked by Europhobes who push our leaders/diplomats into going to Brussels with impossible demands.

    One reason for this is because the Euroskeptics often end up courting the Europhobes (and equally pro-Europeans are happy to taint Euroskeptics as Europhobes). A good example of this was the 2001 election where Hague stood on the “Keep the pound” platform (where he used his pragmatic Euro-skepticism to appeal to Europhobes). The net effect is that right wing Euro-skeptics have created a climate where Europhobia has florished and been (to some extent) been legitimised. I suspect in other countries there are a similar number of reactionaries and xenophobes, however, Europhobia probably has never been legitimised in quite the same way!

  • Martin Keegan |

    What this all boils down to is:

    the Eurosceptics have a set of arguments and motivations. Arguing with people necessarily involves taking them seriously. It is not in the interests of some Europhiles for the stronger arguments to be seen to be taken seriously (one, they might convince people, two, they might undermine the Europhiles’ own faith). Therefore some Europhiles concentrate on the weaker members of the set of Eurosceptic arguments, or the ascription of various motivations to the Eurosceptics, or, at an even lower level, engage in word association games investigating the connections between some Eurosceptics (who of course include racists and mentally defective people) and some favoured set of unpleasant things, the so-called “ad hominem tu quoque” argument.

    Why someone makes an argument is irrelevant to whether or not that argument is right. It might be *very* useful politically to consider people’s motivations, but intellectually it’s dishonourable.

    Whether this is the motivation or not, the effect is to prevent the discussion of the strongest Eurosceptic arguments.

  • Antoine B. |

    Jon, this is -once again- an excellent article. I would just add 2 elements :
    - the source on party membership is [Freie Universität Berlin, Oskar Niedermayer, 2011 and The Daily Telegraph (argh !)]; I spotted in the last issue of Fresh Thinking, the FEPS magazine;
    - what you actually refers to is the notion of “trust”, which is dramatically lacking, and which is a major obstacle for economic and social dvlpmt. Fortunately, European social-democracy is aware of the problem :
    http://www.stockholmnews.com/more.aspx?NID=7462

    Cheers from Brussels !

  • Karen |

    Was discussing this blog post with a friend. Perhaps part if what has derailed/made more extreme the EU debate in the UK has been that only the virulently opposed to the EU have had an incentive to discuss EU nationally in the UK. Therefore the debate has started at their starting point each time and this has gradually moved the debate from a more balanced place to a more extreme place when comparing with other EU countries.
    Another element is a more general point about debate in media (“false balance” see Wikipedia link below).
    Media would like to have a pro side and an anti side in each debate. Therefore giving more space and time for the minority side than the proportion of adherents would give. This gives an image of support for either side being more equal than it is in reality. See more here: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_balance

  • Jon |

    @Craig – re. DK / SE. There is also a post-Cold War thing in the decline of EU-scepticism in those countries. In the 1980s there was ‘another way’ – the Warsaw Pact. Once that no longer existed, then the leftist critique of the EU broadly fell away. These two countries have never had the UK’s right wing / sovereigntist scepticism.

  • Jon |

    @Paul H – yes, that’s an interesting point. I think some more work is needed to look at the numbers behind that, because are these younger generations just generally happy by the opportunities that the EU brings, they are just more cosmopolitan, but does this also have a connection to trust and the EU’s political system?

    Also interesting to speculate about this in the context of Ed Miliband’s contention that a new rhetoric about the EU’s rationale is needed, that a peace rationale is no good any more. How does that work with these numbers?

  • Jon |

    @Paul G – there’s also some link between politico-scepticism and politico-phobia that needs to be brought in too, just as the distinction between EU-scepticism and EU-phobia is often blurred. But here I disagree with @Martin Keegan’s point – I am not trying to exclude anything from the debate, I am not in the business of throwing around insults, and there is much of the EU-sceptic critique of the EU on its own terms that I agree with. But while there may be a conscious and logical EU-scepticism, there is also what is commonly called EU-scepticism which draws its rationale elsewhere – in history, or in antipathy to politicians (as I am arguing in this post). I sure don’t think I am trying to close down debate, or closing off avenues for debate.

  • Jon |

    @Antoine B – thanks for the stats! Most appreciated!

    Also note that Marian’s piece examines this further.

    @Karen – maybe, but I think this drags the debate to more of a mediatised / media bias point… which may be right, but is I think a bit beyond the scope here.

  • Richard |

    One thing this makes me wonder is whether there aren’t some parallels with English attitudes towards devolved institutions and to European institutions. With both Prescott’s plan for regional assemblies and Cameron ‘s own plan for Mayor’s in large cities, the rejection of them seemed largely due to a dislike of creating an entirely new class of overgoverning politicians at public expense (whatever the actual merits or demerits of either plan). Where they succeeded in Scotland, Wales and London it was because the people voting saw in them an opportunity to prise off the grip of an even more hated bunch of politicians in Westminster. That’s hardly a route the EU can easily emulate though.

  • Jon |

    @Richard – it’s a fair point, but conversely you could say that Welsh / Scottish devolution shows the opposite. Creation of more political roles, more bureaucracy etc., needs to have a good justification, and at EU level and within the UK it’s hard to find such a justification just now.

  • Peter van Leeuwen |

    I think that you’re on to something with this assumption, and I’ll take the Netherlands for comparison:
    Imagine you live for decades in Stone and you’re enthusiastically pro-EU. In your fptp / “winner takes all” system, how is your MP (Bill Cash) going to voice your pro-EU opinions in parliament? Your vote seems utterly wasted every time again, which must over time lead to frustration. In a proportional system (no treshold) like ours, I may not like it that 1.5 million people voted for Wilders (PVV) which is an anti-EU party, but at least I know that my vote adds to a pro-EU party and thus really counts. Imagine that you have been a real UKIP enthusiast from the start. Even after 2 decades of trying and in spite of significant popular support, your party has not yet scored a single MP (out of 650!). That must make you a real cynic and doesn’t feel like democracy. In the Netherlands, at least you and your 1.5 million friends would have had 16% of the seats in parliament and very real influence on the last government, even though this time round (12.09.12) your anti-EU party lost badly. My point: UK “democracy” leads to people feeling more powerless and frustrated than in other countries, which at least partly explains the politico-scepticism.

So, what do you think ?