The United Kingdom elects 73 MEPs to the European Parliament every five years, from twelve regional constituencies. Each region has a number of MEP’s, proportional to their size. Proportion is important, because it’s one of the few election processes in the UK which does not use First Past The Post.
No UK European Parliamentary Election turnout has ever exceeded a turnout of 38.2%. In the eight elections between 1979 and 2014, the UK’s turnout has consistently been lower than the rest of Europe.
Britain never took the European Parliament seriously. It was seen as a place where politicians who couldn’t win a proper seat, using a proper system like FPTP, were sent by their party to get experience. Who’s your local MEP? Well, there’s four or five of them from different parties. Right.
Quite often the complaint was that MEPs got paid handsomely, and they do get reimbursed very well, for doing nothing. Except they weren’t doing nothing, but you’d rarely hear about their efforts from them or their parent party in the UK.
The Parliament itself was in another country, easily dismissable. The political media bought into it. Election results weren’t viewed in terms of relevant to the European Parliament itself, but as indicators of the popularity of the Government in Britain, or the popularity of Opposition parties. The idea that the elections themselves were a way to voice discontent, to protest vote, began to take hold.
It did not go un-noticed. UKIP gained 100,000 votes (1% of the total) and no seats in their first tilt at the European Elections in 1994. By 2014 that had swelled to 4.3 million votes (26.6 of the vote). In 1999 the BNP mirrored UKIP by gaining 100,000 votes. A decade later they’d polled just over 800,000 - before they imploded in spectacular and satisfying fashion.
This matters because Nigel Farage, the most visible member of UKIP, and Nick Griffin of the BNP could not buy a seat in the UK Parliament during this time. And they tried. Each time they did, the unvarnished racist fascism of the BNP proved too unpalatable for the electorate and Farage’s slightly more bonk-eyed euroscepticism failed to attract enough disenfranchised Tory and Labour voters.
Those same voters were happy to send them to Brussels though, highlighting a particularly bloody-minded attitude towards both the right-wing and Europe. Sending parties whose sole aim is to sever ties with the European Union to serve in the European Parliament. Very British.
A friend of mine working for an NGO in Brussels once bemoaned us sending the worst people over to Brussels as our representatives. The relationship was being soured by the refuseniks who took their Parliamentary seats, only to play to the cameras back home.
Electing politicians who refuse to engage with the political system they are elected to be representatives to, and who leverage off their refusal to gain populist support at home. While at the same time the other, traditional, parties of Government failed to effectively communicate just what it was their MEPs were doing across the North Sea. That's a recipe for a democratic deficit and a democratic disaster.
Brexit isn’t a sudden seismic event, it's not a political earthquake. The language being used by politicians of all stripe implies that it is though. But it’s not. It’s more of a slow erosion process, but admitting that would mean that those who were in positions of political influence during the long goodbye would have to accept responsibility for their utter failure to engage on the European Union.
As I mentioned previously, when the European Parliamentary elections were held, the talk was always about how it would affect the Government of the day or the opposition. The warning signs of the BNP’s 800,000 votes in 2009 were only seen as problematic for local councils, not for the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
That’s why there’s an awful lot of people openly expressing regret at the Leave vote, despite having voting in favour of it. They’d become accustomed to using votes on Europe as a protest, and also used to protest votes not really changing anything in a First Past The Post system.
By not taking the European Parliament seriously, political parties and the media ensured that it didn’t really mean anything to British voters. The only people who took it seriously and were vocal about it were those seeking to leverage political capital from it, like Farage and UKIP.
People complain that the Remain campaign were muddled and uninspiring. That’s hardly surprising given that no political party had managed a full throated and authentic defence of the European Union in over a decade. Instead they attempted to align themselves as understanding the concerns of eurosceptics, attempting to triangulate their way to regaining votes they’d lost to UKIP instead of attempting to actually defend the European Union.
Meanwhile, the Leave campaign spent nearly twenty years practising their lines and establishing a track record of solid xenophobia, nationalism and right wing popularism.
The voters never took the European Parliament seriously. Neither did the big political parties. UKIP did, they saw an opportunity to gain political authenticity, secure a sweet funding stream and gain nationwide profile through their positions as MEPs. Trotsky’s French Turn re-purposed for Little Englanders. There’s no small irony in that.
In a political environment where news-cycles and term limits create a short-termism, Farage and UKIP have played the long game. So too have Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and the SNP, who have seen UK Governments come and go while remaining committed to their cause. Both parties have benefit hugely from the traditional big parties of Labour and the Conservatives taking the electorate for granted, viewing certain areas as ‘theirs’ and not noticing the disintegration of trust in them.
There are echoes of the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014 in the Brexit result and its immediate aftermath. The winning campaign has immediately hit reverse and is backing out of the core promises made to voters should they choose Leave. Voters are understandably angry at this, much in the same way the Scottish electorate were. In that case their wrath was reserved for Pro-Union Labour, who lost almost all of their Scottish seats in Westminster in 2015 and nearly all of their Scottish Parliament seats earlier this year.
Where will voters target their wrath should Brexit fail to deliver the no immigration, money for everything, good old Great Britain promises that were made? David Cameron has already resigned, going from the man who helped save the Union in 2014 to the first Tory Leader to win a majority in 23 years in 2015, to the guy who fucked a pig and then the Union. When he first arose to prominence, it was joked that the ‘heir to Blair’ as he was then couldn’t possibly out-do Blair in terms of resentment. Nobody’s laughing now.
The leadership contest should see Boris Johnson fulfil his destiny, having establishing his public-school buffoon reputation, and become leader of the Conservative Party. He’s an intensely dangerous politician, a smart man doing an impression of an idiot. Michael Gove is also in the ascendancy, which I can only assume is final proof that God does not exist.
That said, it won’t be all plain sailing. Only ⅔ of Conservative MPs backed Leave and there’s talk of an anti-Boris candidate. The eventual decision will be made by 100,000 or so Conservative Party members. That’s comforting. They elected Cameron last time.
The Parliamentary Labour Party is blaming Jeremy Corbyn, but they’ve been blaming him for everything since he was elected leader, against their wishes, by the party membership last year. They seem to be looking for a miracle leader who can solve a decades worth of decline within the Parliamentary Party, who are at least partly responsible for it.
Then there’s outside of England. Nicola Sturgeon attempting to retain Scottish EU membership should England and Wales leave and preparing for Indyref 2: Electorate Boogaloo. Sinn Fein calling for a unification vote for Northern Ireland, given Brexit wholly undermines the Belfast Accord of 1999. The sight of Ian Paisley MP, son of the Doctor, advising Northern Ireland residents to get a Republic of Ireland passport.
Spain offering joint sovereignty of Gibraltar, lest border controls make life unbearable for its British residents. Calais demanding that the UK take back the border to Dover, meaning an end to the refugee and migrant camps at the French port. The EU indicating that if Britain wants to leave then it should do so quickly, given it doesn’t want to stick around. Oh, and the world economy lost $2 trillion dollars - and that’s just on the vote outcome.
(I’m half expecting Argentina to make a dash for the Malvinas while everyone’s busy)
There’s the possibility it all grinds to an anti-climactic back down, that Article 50 is not activated and the UK doesn’t leave the E.U at all. That doesn’t make the disenchantment, disregard and outright hostility towards Europe and Westminster any less of a problem though. Nor the racism, xenophobia and divisions that the referendum has starkly illustrated. An MP was MURDERED during the campaign by a right wing fascist, for heaven's sake. Cameron came to power speaking of Broken Britain. As he departs, it seems it is more broken than ever.
It is, without doubt, an exciting time for British politics. Exciting like the rush of adrenaline you get when you’re about to bin your car into a wall. Well, at least they’ve got control of the vehicle now.