Nigel Farage deserves your attention

On May 18th, the Center welcomes Nigel Farage to Minnesota as the guest speaker for our Annual Dinner. Why should you come? Well, he’s actually behind something pretty big. Without him, Britain would not be leaving the European Union.

A brief history of Britain and the EU

There had been schemes to unite the peoples and countries of Europe under a single federal government kicking around for decades. These schemes were given a new impetus by World War II. For the second time in 50 years, Europe had plunged into the biggest war then known and taken much of the rest of the world with it. In the aftermath, it was thought, one way to stop this from happening again would be to put vital war making industries under international control. So, in 1952, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany signed the Treaty of Paris, which established the European Coal and Steel Community.

Supporters of federalism pushed on. They drew support from the United States and a shared fear of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. On top of this, European countries were losing their empires and worried about the impact of this on their economic and political standing. These fears drew the countries’ governments closer and, in 1957, the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC).

Britain wasn’t one of the six signatories; it still saw itself as strong enough to stand on its own as a nation and different enough from its European neighbors to be a bad fit. But by 1961, Britain was feeling less sure of itself and applied to join. Its application was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle similarly vetoed a second application in 1967. A passionate anti-American, he worried that British membership would be a means for the U.S. to control the EEC. He died in 1970, and Britain became a member in 1973, at the third time of asking.

Edward Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister who took Britain into the EEC, said “there are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.” Then, the Labour Party supported withdrawal from the EEC. Elected in 1974, they held a referendum on membership in 1975. Remain won with 67 percent of the vote.

Over the years, Heath’s promise proved to be hollow. The European federalists pushed for still deeper integration. The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 established the European Union—a very different organization from the trading bloc Britain joined. The EU began to take more power from national governments. Fortunately, the UK escaped the worst excess of this push for a United States of Europe—the disastrous single currency—but still found itself ever less sovereign, with the power of the British people residing with unelected bureaucrats in another country.

The main parties all supported this. Margaret Thatcher’s successor as Prime Minister, John Major, rammed Maastricht through the House of Commons despite the bitter opposition of a large part of his own party. Conservative Party membership cratered and has never recovered. The Labour Party saw the increasingly friendly attitude of the EU to regulation and increased taxation, and ditched its old policy of withdrawal. The Liberal Democrats, eager for any issue to be distinctive on, were the most federalist party of all. Bizarrely, Britain’s nationalist parties, the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales, also supported increased control of their countries by European bureaucrats.

The rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage

There was a demand for a party dedicated to getting Britain out of the EU, and the political market supplied it. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was founded in 1993. It quickly became a home for disaffected Conservatives but struggled to make much impact, as Tony Blair’s Labour Party swept the Conservatives from office in 1997.

British discontent with the EU continued to grow as more power shifted away from the British government. In the 2004 European Parliament elections, UKIP came third with 12 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) elected.

In 2006, Nigel Farage became UKIP’s leader. He sought to broaden the party’s appeal beyond the single issue of EU membership. The Conservatives had just elected David Cameron as leader, and he called himself the “Heir to Blair.” He copied Blair’s liberal, metropolitan world view and fatuous style. He went to the North Pole to ride a sled in front of TV cameras to make some point about climate change. In response to rising crime, he urged the public to “Hug a hoodie.” Unsurprisingly, this had little appeal to most conservatives. Farage spotted a gap in the market for a small “c” conservative party which would reduce taxes and spending, be tougher on law and order, and try to get control of immigration as Britain’s population surged. Cameron described these people as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly.” But voters responded. While UKIP continued to struggle in domestic elections, in the 2009 European elections, ironically, the party came second with 16.5 percent of the vote and 13 MEPs.

Between 2005 and 2010, Cameron’s strategy was that if he annoyed the Conservative right enough, he would attract enough “center” ground votes to more than compensate. This strategy failed. At the 2010 general election, amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and against one of the worst Prime Ministers in British history, the Conservatives failed to win. They only entered government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In the election, UKIP polled 3.1 percent of the vote (919,471 votes), an increase of 0.9 percent on the 2005 general election. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP received the greatest number of votes (27.49 percent) of any British party and gained 11 extra MEPs for a total of 24. UKIP won seats in every region of Great Britain, including its first in Scotland. It was the first time in over a century that a party other than Labour or Conservatives won the most votes in a UK-wide election.

Thanks to the rise in UKIP’s popularity, in large part a result of Farage’s leadership, the Conservative Party came to wonder how it could ever win another election. The idea developed that they needed to “shoot UKIP’s fox” by holding a referendum on EU membership. In the general election of 2015, the Conservatives ran on a manifesto promising such a referendum. To the surprise of most, they won. Committed to a referendum, it was held in 2016.

The rest is not yet history. Britain was due to leave the EU at the end of March. This has been delayed. EU federalists in the UK continue to try to ignore or overturn the result of the 2016 referendum. They may yet succeed.

But that result will not go away. It will remain a British declaration of independence. And the role of our Annual Dinner speaker, Nigel Farage, in securing that, was vital.