UKIP, love them or hate them, have been fairly consistent in one thing over the years – arguing against the EU because it is run by unelected bureaucrats. Just one of their arguments, perhaps – but the democratic deficit claim (though certainly disputable) has long been one of their most popular and successful.
Now, however, on the same day that the new (unelected) European Commissioners have been unveiled, they have chosen as their new leader a man who has never been elected to any public office. In one move, they’ve lost the moral high ground. What’s more, they have often in the past attacked “EU elites” – and to good effect. But now they are being led by an Old Etonian peer of the realm with one of the plummiest accents I’ve ever heard – and I went to a rather snobby public school… You simply do not get a better symbol of “elitism” than an Old Etonian peer.
At the same time as being unelected, Pearson’s obsessions are rather out of kilter with a large chunk of what I had previously taken to be British eurosceptic concerns.
UKIP has long been accused by some of its critics of being a BNP-lite, or a middle-class version of the BNP. I’m not one of them – or, at least, I haven’t been until now. I see most British eurosceptics as being misguided, certainly – but (despite the occasional mockery) I generally respect their concerns about the nature of the EU (and even agree with some of them). I can see why people are worried about decisions being taken in Brussels rather than London, even while disagreeing about it being a problem. I also don’t believe that most eurosceptics are xenophobes, as they are so often accused of being by some.
But with Lord Pearson taking the leadership, I’m not so sure. He was, after all, the person who caused a brief scandal by inviting right-wing, anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders to the UK to show his polemical anti-Muslim film Fitna. (Which I’ve seen and thought was rubbish. Relatively offensive, for sure, but not enough to be worth banning.)
What’s more, Pearson’s obsession seems not so much to be the EU – as you’d surely expect from the leader of a party set up to oppose the EU and advocate British withdrawal – as to be immigration. Take a recent interview with the BBC, broadcast on The Politics Show on BBC1 last Sunday. Transcript:
Pearson: “Immigration is probably the biggest issue outside the south east of England, and the people have been treated incredibly badly by their political class.”
Interviewer: “So is there a danger that you could be confused – UKIP and the BNP?”
Pearson: “We’ve got to be very careful, erm, especially in this area of immigration, erm, that we cannot be confused with the.. the BNP – I… I accept that. There’s a fine line to be drawn here, erm… But I would also want to bring up…”
Interviewer: “I’m sorry, but are you saying that there’s a fine line between UKIP and the BNP?”
Pearson: “Well, I don’t actually know, erm, the intimate detail of… of the BNP policy. What we would be aiming for is zero net increase, erm, in immigration. So obviously we’re… we welcom asylum seekers, we welcome people of all colours and everything, and in that we’re completely different, erm… t-to the BNP. But we think the prospect of the population moving towards 70 million, erm… you know, within 20 years or so is very worrying. Sharia Law, erm… Islamic law is running in this country in fact, erm, in many areas, which is completely unacceptable if it becomes superior to British law.”
Hardly anything there that doesn’t sound like a paraphrase of the BNP. A point that’s made even clearer by Pearson’s acceptance speech:
Please note again his obsessions:
“Of course we will be majoring on leaving the European Union – we can’t control our borders without that, we can’t control immigration… And we must get around the stranglehold of the political class.”
“The political class” is a favourite phrase of a certain other anti-immigration party leader…
In that clip of Pearson’s acceptance speech – uploaded to YouTube by UKIP itself, so surely what the party want the public to see – Pearson spends little more than 15 seconds discussing the EU. The rest is given over to immigration.
So, is UKIP no longer an anti-EU party, but an anti-immigration party? And if it’s both, then what’s the major emphasis – the EU or immigration? And what exactly *is* the “fine line” between UKIP and the BNP?
More importantly, who do British eurosceptics who are opposed to the EU but dislike such hardline anti-immigration rhetoric supposed to turn to now? There are innumerable reasons to oppose the EU that have nothing to do with immigration – yet Pearson seems determined to make this the party’s primary concern. In the process, he is confirming everything nasty that has ever been said about British eurosceptics. And, what’s more, he may well be about to split the party in two. Again. Witness fellow UKIP leadership candidate, Cllr Alan Wood (transcript from BBC Politics Show last Sunday):
Interviewer: “Do you respect Lord Pearson?”
Wood: “No I don’t. I think he’s totally off the wall with his remarks about Muslims and Sharia Law, and for that I can’t respect him”
Inteviewer: “Are you saying that if he’s elected people will think that you’re too close to the BNP?”
Wood: “Yes, yes. People already think we are the BNP. Erm… It’s tragic. It’s tragic that we’ve been painted into this corner.”
Interviewer: “And so if he’s elected, you’re leaving, you’re off?”
Wood: “I cannot stay with Lord Pearson, with those views, and I don’t think he’s the right man.”
Wood will not be alone in this. Members of my family have been known to vote UKIP – some of them as recently as last summer. None of them will approve of the party shifting towards an anti-immigration position – certainly not if that becomes the party’s primary focus, as Pearson seems determined to make it.
There is a place – indeed a need – for a strong, anti-EU voice in British politics. Poll after poll shows the public’s concern on this issue. UKIP – especially after the fall-out from Cameron’s decision about a Lisbon Treaty referendum – was the obvious choice to be that voice. By picking Lord Pearson as leader, I’m afraid that British eurosceptics are being very poorly served by the party. This is bad not just for eurosceptics, but for politics as a whole.