So, Britain finds itself “isolated within Europe”. I’ve never been happier. For all the problems in our world – recession, war, riots, the album sales of One Direction – I end this year with a greater sense of hope in the future than I’ve had in a long time. Britain has regained a little bit of her independence. From self-governance flows ambition – and the bride of ambition is hope.There’s always a temptation for Eurosceptics to say, “I don’t hate Europe, I just dislike the European Union.” Conservative MEP Dan Hannan (made famous in the US by Glenn Beck) does it all the time. Whenever he’s interviewed, Hannan will say something like, “I speak fluent French, Spanish, and Ukrainian; I married an Albanian chicken farmer; I holiday regularly in Latvia; and I never say no to a plate of paella.” Tony Benn (an old fashioned socialist Eurosceptic) will tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s a “passionate European”. Both men insist that it’s the undemocratic structures of the EU that have alienated them from the enterprise, not the culture of the continent itself. In reality, the two phenomena are inseparable. The EU is undemocratic because it is a European construct. The British are not European, and that’s why we don’t like it.Of course, like Britain itself, I am a little bit European. I am of Dutch, French, and Irish extraction. My language and thought owes much to the continent. I prefer European movies to Anglo-Saxon cinema (I’ve spent a happy week rediscovering Fassbinder and Visconti), and then there’s the delights of German beer, Italian opera, Russian literature, and whatever it is that the Swiss do. I once spent a happy Christmas in Vienna, watching Bellini at the State Opera – directly behind a huge man with steel-tipped shoes that he tap-tap-tapped on the marble floor.But there is a fundamental difference between the Brits and the Europeans. I sensed it during a televised discussion I took part in this week. Most of the continental speakers made the same, idealistic point: that it would have been wise to sign the latest European treaty because it was good for Europe. I reiterated that I don’t care about Europe – whatever you define it as – I care about what is good for my own country. Diplomacy is supposed to be governed by self-interest: economic negotiations especially so. Interestingly, the only two guests who agreed with me were from the outskirts of the continent: Finland and Bulgaria.The point of democracy is to represent the people who elect you. The MP for Woking is duty bound to represent the interests of Woking and Woking alone – not Andalusia or the mountain folk of Carpathia. Yet there is an attitude within the Eurozone that a noble goal beyond the process of democracy calls us to sacrifice sovereignty and material wealth for a higher cause: the blessed United States of Europe. The MP for Woking should, say the true believers, sacrifice his constituents’ interests for the benefit of a wider ideological project. This is what my opponents seemed to be saying. “It is bad for me,” I’d argue. “Ah,” they’d reply, “But it is good for Europe.”These contrasting attitudes towards political representation are the product of two different cultures. In Britain we’ve made a fetish of the individual; we loathe anything collective and worship eccentricity. Since the 16th century (arguably before), we’ve jealously guarded our sovereignty – going so far as to rewrite the Bible and build a national church so that we can dispense with Popes. That everyone deserves to be tried by their peers, or that a man is innocent until proven guilty, has dominated English law far longer than the imported notion of “universal human rights”. If the American legal and political systems seem close to our own then that is because the American Revolution was fundamentally a civil war between Britons. Consider that the intellectual father of British Toryism, Edmund Burke, actually supported the revolutionaries. The single aim of foreign policy from the late 16th century on was to engage in European affairs only in so far as it protected our interests elsewhere. Our eye was on the globe, where our commercial interests have lain ever since. Railways through Africa, banks in Hong Kong, dams across the Amazon – this empire of goods made us rich in the 19th century. With the rise of India and China, it is in the developing world that our future lies. As an old sun sets in the West, a new one rises in the East. This is not, as the Europeans think, a doomsday scenario. It is a challenge.But Europe’s instinct is to protect. It believes that by clubbing together, it can create a trading superpower to challenge America and defend itself against the globalized greed of the emerging nations. Combine that narcissism with a history of collectivism of the statist kind and you have a recipe for something very unEnglish. The guiding principle of Western European history in the last 300 years has been centralization. The French Revolution abolished local governments, created a national conscript army, and terrified the continent with its dreams of egalite. The Italian Risorgimento crafted an artificial Italy out of a patchwork of republics and monarchies. The Prussian state first cultivated a German Empire and then the domination of Mitteleuropa. The result of all of this is a culture that leans towards bureaucratic authoritarianism. The idea that the problems of an entire continent can be solved around a boardroom table appeals to the European mind. Of course, it contradicts the English belief that diversity is strength. One might argue that this is reflected in our rather more successful experiment in multiculturalism. The British obsess about how obsessed we are with immigration but, in fact, where is the British electoral equivalent of the French Front Nationale or the Hungarian Jobbik?The British Labour Party is arguing that David Cameron could have negotiated harder, gained bigger concessions, and signed the new treaty. But Cameron’s use of the veto was inevitable. It was inevitable because the French and Germans didn’t want to negotiate, and the offer they put on the table would have led inexorably to the crippling of our finance sector and the stagnation of our economy. But it was also inevitable because Britain is not a culturally European country. The single market suited our passion for free trade, but we have no interest in joining a centralized, bureaucratic unitary state. And we not interested in serving the interests of some future utopia – a metric land of milk and honey. It is enough for us to govern ourselves, and to do so as lightly as possible.
At the sidelines of British life, everything is okay. Ann Widdecombe is starring in panto and 80’s comic due Cannon and Ball have published a book called Christianity for Beginners. In other news, Neil Hamilton has joined UKIP. I found out by mistake when I saw a link for an online video labeled “Neil Hamilton – I’m coming out”. It turned out to be a speech to this year’s UKIP conference (presumably in a lockup in Cornwall?). Neil was wearing a union jack bowtie he’d had made for himself during the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the Common Market. It’s incredible to think that thirty six years later … Neil Hamilton’s still wearing bowties.For American readers, who are these people and why do they matter? Neil Hamilton was a former Conservative MP who was accused of taking bribes. Evidence now suggests that he was innocent, but that didn’t stop his career spectacularly crashing. Bankrupted by legal fees, he and his fantastic wife, Christine, were reduced to appearing on game shows and painful self-parodies. One of the strongest memories of my adolescence was watching Neil host a show about political scandal. The producers had him whip the camera with a cat-o-nine-tails and whisper, “s-s-s-sex!” I swear it left me impotent for life.UKIP is the United Kingdom Independence Party, and it’s a perfect fit for Mr. Hamilton. It was founded by Right-wingers who quit the Conservative Party in the 1990s in protest at its post-Thatcher drift to the center. In particular, they felt it was too accommodating to the European leviathan. What the contemporary UKIP does precisely stand for is up for debate, but it can no longer be dismissed. Having come second in the last European elections and attracted one million votes in the 2010 general election, it is now officially Britain’s fourth party. If the UK practiced proportional representation, there would probably be about thirty UKIP MPs. The House of Commons bar would never be empty again.UKIP is home to hundreds of thousands of disenchanted voters. People who are disenchanted with the process of UK politics tend to join the Liberal Democrats. People who are disenchanted with its lack of humor or ideology swing to dear old UKIP. Voting UKIP is white people’s way of telling the Prime Minister to “kiss my black ass”. Polls suggest that it pulls in surprisingly even amounts of support from Labour and Conservative voters. Despite its populist appeal, UKIP is blighted by an image problem. It has come to be seen as the party of the golfer – the Right-wing, retired stock broker with diabetes and a wife who is fanatically devoted to Bridge. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is the epitome of the classless Tory. He talks openly about going to lap dancing clubs and there’s something about his cheerful patter that is more redolent of the race track than the polo circuit. Farage is the best weapon UKIP has at the polls. The previous leader, the perpetually bored Lord Pearson, would admit to only a passing knowledge of his party’s manifesto and exhuded a kind of resigned good humor. Farage, in contrast, crashed onto the British political scene like a populist tornado.If I write jokingly of UKIP then it’s not for the usual, disingenuous reasons (most British commentary on the party is filled with snobbery and spite). It is innately funny because it wallows in its own outrageousness. Its central proposition – that the UK should leave the European Union “NOW!” (regardless of the cost) – is a powerful magnet for a perverse mix of bloody-mindedness and commonsense. The European Union is a disaster that has ruined several member states. There is no good sense in trying to harmonize the economies or governments of Germany (a strong economy based on export) and Greece (a weak economy based on selling dirty rags to tourists). And yet the Union has tried to do just this – for reasons of political ideology. The fundamentalists driving forward European integration care nothing for its economic cost. Still less do they care about concepts like national self-determination or self-governance. They see the desire to rule oneself as an Anglo-Saxon eccentricity. Incredibly, some British people see it that way, too. There are Brits who fly the European flag on their front lawns. To what do they feel they are committing their allegiance? The metric system?UKIP has become a lightning rod for people angry with European integration, whatever their reason. Old socialists reject the single market’s anti-regulatory impulse (it is essentially illegal under EU law to nationalize an industry, and the EU has forced terrible spending cuts on member states). Tories and nationalists abhor its collectivism and assault on sovereignty. A fair few Britons will admit that they just don’t like the French. The feeling is mutual.What makes Europhobia so potent is the fact that the British political class has ignored it. Despite strong public support for withdrawal, no party with run on that platform. Countless politicians have promised a renegotiation of the terms of our membership and failed to deliver. Anger at Europe has been internalized into anger at Britain’s gutless politicians. This is something UKIP’s establishment critics don’t understand about the party: it has as much to say about Britain as it does Europe.If UKIP’s real issue is political corruption, the problem is that it isn’t united on the solution. Certainly, every single member wants some degree of withdrawal from the EU. But one of the reasons why it has failed to set a domestic agenda might be a lack of unity beyond that point. Farage and Hamilton represent the dominant wing of the party, which is shamelessly libertarian. They basically want UKIP to pick up where Mrs Thatcher left off: free trade with the developing world, social liberalism (read: lap dancing), the deconstruction of the welfare state, and taxes lower than a dachshund's belly. But there is another side to the party, one which approximates more to the populist conservatism of Gianfranco Fini or Jorg Haider. Their presence is obvious in UKIP’s opposition to the wearing of the Muslim veil, its anti-immigration rhetoric, and its demand that church and businesses be free to discriminate against gays. There is absolutely no evidence to support this assertion, but I’d bet good money that the libertarians tend to be middle class golfers and the populists are more working class.Ironically, UKIP’s coalition is rather more European in flavor than it is British. It is common in Europe – particularly the Latin countries – for a coalition of wildly different activists to form around a single idea or person. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (defunct since 2009) was an example. It combined liberals, Christian Democrats, and former communists - all united by the need to modernize the country’s political and economic structures. Each faction enjoyed control over an aspect of policy, satisfying everyone by giving in to their most passionate demand. UKIP has achieved a similar degree of harmony by allowing the populists to govern immigration, the libertarians to decide tax policy, and everyone to unite around withdrawal from Europe. This is only new in the British context, where parties are traditionally motivated by ideology or class. Having attended a UKIP Christmas party, I can attest that it attracts an extraordinary mix of people. The only things they had in common were a hatred of foreign governance and a tendency to drink and drive.If I had one wish it would be this: that UKIP becomes the British Tea Party. We have no independent conservative movement in Britain because the Conservative Party saps its energy and money. Without a real primary system, there is no effective way to protest Conservative policy or hold the party to account. By threatening to take away votes at a general election, however, UKIP could force the Conservatives back to the Right. If they finally won seats in Parliament, a coalition could ensure some meaningful renegotiation of our relationship with Europe. The use of external pressure is what forced the Republican Party to the Right in the 1970s: the independent candidacies of George C Wallace encouraged it to think again about states’ rights and taxes. Likewise, the Tea Party’s domination of the current GOP primaries demonstrates how an independent movement that teases candidates with seductive offers of support in return for hardcore policy commitments can change the national political discourse. That is what UKIP must try to become: an American style independent conservative movement that blends anti-government and Moral Majority fervor. The question is, does UKIP have the degree of seriousness and depth necessary to do this? The arrival on the scene of Neil Hamilton suggests not. Pleasant and witty though the man is, for millions of Brits he is associated with exactly the kind of corruption UKIP exists to wipe out. God bless him for re-entering our lives, though. There’s something so wonderfully English about a career that begins in Parliament and ends on television. In America, it’s so often done the other way around.