As the lights dimmed on a televised debate ahead of the UK election, a group of four candidates clustered together at the side of the stage, shaking hands and even embracing each other. At the other extremity, a fifth candidate stood alone, peering down at his notes.
The huddle represented the parties on the left in this campaign, some of which could be part of a government after the May 7 vote. The lonely figure was Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). He had just spent an hour and a half being berated by his opponents for his controversial views on immigration and the European Union and was now steering clear of post-debate pleasantries.
But while much distances him from the pack, he shares one important trait with two of the leaders grouped on the left. Their emergence at the forefront of British politics is down to the re-emergence of nationalism on the electoral scene in the UK.
The new nationalists
On the left, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party are pushing their small countries to the fore in the general election. The former wants more devolved power in Wales and the latter, ultimately, independence for Scotland.
The movements represented by Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leanne Wood (Plaid) do not equate greater independence with a withdrawal from Europe or other international organisations, though. Instead, their popularity has been built on what they see as positive and inclusive images of nationhood and people. Wales and Scotland want to win influence in a central British government that has long overlooked their needs.
Although it offers a rather different proposition, UKIP also claims to speak to people who have been overlooked by the increasing internationalisation of their country. The party won the European elections in 2014, securing more than a quarter of the British vote, with promises to break the EU from the inside. Its victory has been held up as a forceful demonstration of how euroscepticism is spreading in the UK.
The more established parties have been struggling to formulate their own responses ever since. And now, in the run up to the 2015 British election, the Conservative party has made holding a referendum on EU membership a central campaign promise.
After the crisis
As Europe continues to struggle to emerge from the global economic crisis, reactionary attitudes like those espoused by UKIP are increasingly prevalent across the continent.
On the whole, apart from the left-wing movements and parties that have gathered steam in Greece and Spain – two of the countries most damaged by the crisis – progressive movements with an international outlook have failed to gain much ground in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Instead, the more illiberal form of nationalism has gathered momentum as the crisis took its toll on Europe’s love affair with globalised politics. A sense of chauvinism and ethnocentrism has trumped left-leaning and inclusive alternatives.
In one of the more ironic examples of this trend, the European Parliament is now populated by almost a third of nationalist and eurosceptic members – politicians who represent their people in an organisation they want to destroy.
Euroscepticism has increasinlgy become linked to the far right. Traditional parties such as France’s Front National and the Danish People’s Party have hyped their anti-Europe discourse to target both the European elite (in a populist manner) and immigrants (in a traditionally xenophobic manner). Other parties founded on a hard eurosceptic platform such as UKIP and the Alternative for Germany have moved closer to the far right by focusing increasingly on the issue of immigration and the control of their borders in a populist attempt to broaden their appeal.
Most recently, Finland’s pro-European government was ousted in the national election to be replaced by a centre-right party that opposes European bailouts and wants to focus on the national economy. The far-right True Finns came second and may find a place in the government as a result.
But a softer type of euroscepticism has also become mainstream, and it is now increasingly popular in many centre right and conservative parties. As distrust in the electorate increases, these parties tend to argue that the European union undermines the power of national governments by imposing supranational rules on its members. Such posture is of course contradictory as many of these parties have been in power and overseen the very policies they denounce. This can be seen in Nicolas Sarkozy demanding a reform of the Schengen Treaty, or David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU.
The failure of what is seen as an increasingly globalised system, led by an elite who seem far removed] from the day-to-day lives of citizens has led to the return of nationalist sentiments we thought were on the wane.
The immigration game
These concerns have often been simplistically linked to the issue of immigration. This has started a vicious cycle that simplifies a very complicated issue. Mainstream politicians claim voters want them to focus on immigration – and when they do, the issue is further reinforced in the minds of voters.
However, this negative picture of the electorate is somewhat belied by the available data.
When asked what the most important issues facing the EU were in a 2013 survey, 16% of respondents answered immigration, which was the 4th most cited issue on average. When asked the same question about their own country, immigration as a central issue fell in most cases, with the notable exception of the UK (12% on average, 6th out of 13 issues).
When asked about the two most important issues they were facing personally, the contrast is staggering. Immigration fell to 3% on average, to the 12th most important issue. The more European citizens considered their daily lives, the less immigration seemed prominent as an issue in comparison to inflation, unemployment, the economic situation of their country and taxation.
Going global to going alone
This indicates we should not necessarily understand the rise of nationalism as a desire to close borders to other workers, but instead to regain control of local democracy and create a fairer environment for all.
As alternative and positive visions of globalisation fail to take shape or win over the public imagination, nationalist nostalgia has provided a comforting narrative for some. People can reminisce and embellish their fantasised memories of the good old days when “we” felt at home, politics was not corrupt and politicians listened to “us”.
Despite this, it seems clear that UKIP will at best only win a handful of seats in the British election, but the media coverage of the party and its success in the EU elections has greatly amplified its message.
On the left, though, the Scottish nationalists appear poised to make big gains and are pitching themselves to voters as being a potential force for social democracy across the UK. Their rise has shown that a large part of the population want politics to be done differently, and that such demands should not be merely seen as reactionary calls.
The rise of these movements defined by regional and national identity across the spectrum has shown that a large part of the population wants politics to be done differently, and that such demands should not be merely seen as reactionary.
With assorted potential crises looming and ambitious and urgent action needed on issues such as global warming, exclusivist forms of nationalism such as that on the far right could have dramatic effect on the future of Europe and beyond. It is therefore crucial not to simplify the contestation of the current political system (both at the national and EU levels) as a wish for a return to closed borders and politics.
As collective international action has become unavoidable, it is crucial for Europe to regain a sense of unity and common purpose, based on a more positive and inclusive understanding of globalisation.