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Nigel’s only making plans for Nigel

Nigel’s only making plans for Nigel

🕔07.May 2013

You could have knocked me over with a feather as I picked up today’s Times newspaper to discover that Nigel Lawson believes Britain should leave the European Union.

Yes, that’s right, Lawson, the former Tory Chancellor who in 1987 began a policy of permitting sterling to ‘shadow’ the German deutschmark in a high-risk venture to prepare the UK to enter the exchange rate mechanism, a pre-cursor for joining the single currency, now believes the European experiment is a not for us.

That’s the same Lawson who resigned in a huff as Chancellor after his shadowing policy was described as “half-baked” by Prof Alan Walters, Mrs Thatcher’s special economic adviser.

Lawson, writing from France, where he now lives (honestly, I’m not making this up), contends that the EU is intent on forming a European Superstate and, furthermore, has become a “bureaucratic monstrosity”. Gosh, the EU bureaucratic? You don’t say.

He goes on to confess that he was a keen supporter of European integration all those years ago, like many others of his generation on the grounds that a venture of economic and political cooperation seemed the best way of preventing another war between Germany and France.

However, this involved then and still does today each and every member state ceding its powers to Brussels. The UK parliament is no longer a supreme law making body and has not been for years.

The much-quoted claim that we can always exercise subsidiarity, pushing decision making down to the lowest appropriate level, is something to which the European establishment merely “pays lip service”, Lawson alleges. He goes on to make an economic case for leaving the EU, claiming that in an age of globalisation there will be a long term “positive advantage” to quitting the single market.

Why has Lawson chosen this moment to announce that he will vote for Britain to leave the EU if a referendum is held on the issue? After all, the EU’s progression to a political body rather than a trading bloc has been clear enough for 20 years or more.

It would appear that Ukip’s tremendous performance in last week’s English county council elections has stirred one of the Tories’ big old beasts into action. Lawson is merely joining his colleagues in fretting about how to position the Conservative party to protect the votes that will otherwise leach away to Ukip at the 2015 General Election.

A Tory friend of mine said Ukip reminded him of the Conservative party in the 1970s. He is possibly thinking of the Selsdon manifesto drawn up by Ted Heath in 1970, which committed the Tories to a right-wing programme based on a radical free market agenda. The policies were quickly dropped by Heath, when he became prime minister, at the first sign of trouble from the trade unions.

Meanwhile, a Labour friend took to Twitter a few weeks ago moaning about what he regarded as unnecessary media publicity afforded to another Nigel, this time Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He just couldn’t understand why television, radio and newspapers would favour right-wing populist Farage with his fedora, fags and pint over the studious but oh-so boring Ed Miliband.

Ukip has both Conservatives and Labour well and truly rattled for the very good reason that Mr Farage has the potential to appeal greatly to the vast swathe of working class voters that any political party must get on board in order to secure an overall Commons majority. Labour cannot win the next election, neither can the Tories, without the backing of ordinary working folk, those with and without jobs, and most vitally those that haven’t been bothered to vote in the past.

It has been suggested that Ukip is the mirror image of the Social Democratic Party in the late 1980s, in that the SDP’s existence forced Labour to backtrack on extreme left wing policies thereby making the party electable once more. The claim is that Ukip will similarly kick the Conservative party back on to a hard right wing agenda. This is an idea that Mr Farage has been keen to nurture.

I do not accept this comparison. The SDP was a serious political party with well thought through policies and a substantial heavyweight leadership team consisting of a former Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Education Secretary. Ukip has, well, Mr Farage, who for all of his attractiveness to the media can hardly be described as substantial.

Ukip is more of a movement than a party. Its economic policies, such as they are, do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny, but since Mr Farage is never likely to have to implement them I don’t suppose he is particularly worried.

Farage has been described as the ultimate saloon bar bore. The sort of chap you’d find sounding off about the awful state of the country in any golf club on any day of the week.

So, where better to test Ukip’s appeal than at the 19th hole?

In an entirely unscientific survey I asked members of a Midland golf club what they thought about our political leaders. And, no, this isn’t one of your snobby clubs. It is in a former mining area and the membership numbers a fair proportion of what Lenin, if he was alive today, would sneer at and call the working class aristocracy: skilled tradesmen, car workers, plumbers, electricians, builders, namely the people likely to decide the result of the next election.

No one rated Mr Miliband. Even Labour voters did not think him to be prime ministerial material.

Few rated Mr Cameron, although there was recognition of “the difficult job he faces”. More than one person described Cameron as a bureaucrat, or faceless manager.

Mr Farage attracted strong support, based on a feeling that he was different, not a “career politician” and not part of the political establishment. Everyone knew that Ukip wanted Britain out of the EU and wished to clamp down on immigration. There was widespread support for both policies, particularly from Labour voters.

And that sums up why the establishment is so worried, and rightly so. Two populist policies, including anti-immigration, which Labour can hardly bear to bring itself to talk about without a swift sniff of the smelling salts, will win votes for Ukip.

If Mr Farage can continue to present himself as an amiable ‘ordinary bloke’ who thinks that gay marriage is a bit iffy and that the smoking ban is the nanny state gone mad, then he can indeed perform the useful trick of pretending to be a non-politician in a non-politics age. The first past the post voting system will deny Ukip seats in the Commons, but Farage’s real threat is to take votes away from Conservative and Labour, while at the same time forcing both parties to track rightwards.

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