Attitudes and an identity
The UKIP ... on the campaign trail in England.
IT would be foolhardy to predict the results of elections which are taking place in the United Kingdom during the week between my writing this "Letter" and its appearance. Furthermore, as C. Rammanohar Reddy has perceptively reminded us (May 23) "journalists are not in the business of making predictions". It is true; the job of the journalist should be to report, and explain, facts.
The British elections are not, in this case, to choose a new government. Rather, they have two purposes: to choose members of district councils, and to choose Members of the European parliament.
Traditionally, the turnout for local elections in recent years has been disgracefully low. So has the turnout in elections for the European Parliament. Concern about the low turnout has led the Government to introduce this time, in a number of constituencies, a postal-only ballot, in the hope that it would encourage more people to vote. This experiment, introduced in four of England's eight regions (against the advice of the Electoral Commission, whose role is far more circumscribed than that of its Indian counterpart) has proved to be an administrative mess. That, whatever effect it has on the proportion of people voting, is likely to be what people recall.
That, I realise, is a prediction. I think I may fairly claim that it is a prediction well founded on the current level of comment on and criticism of the experiment.
One of the features of the European part of this election is the combination of apathy and hostility which colours much of the U.K.'s approach to the European Union - or, to be more accurate, to Europe, because it is usually accompanied by a high level of ignorance about the constitutional arrangements on which the EU is based. Bashing Brussels is not an intellectually sophisticated sport. It is typified by the poster in the window of a neighbour's house inviting support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which urges people to "say no to European Union".
The UKIP has surged into some prominence in this election, and the analysts are engaging in much speculation about whether it will be more damaging to the Conservatives or Labour. I shall, of course, be interested to see if it attracts much support and, if so, to whose disadvantage - but I shall venture no prediction.
What is clear, however, is that the UKIP is a party based on a negative agenda and for that reason wide support for it would be, in my view, a sad indictment of my fellow countrymen.
It is paradoxical that there is so much anti-European feeling at a time when our attention has been focused so positively on Europe by the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the liberation of the continent from Nazi tyranny after five years of war. There were no doubts in 1944 about the rightness of Britain's involvement - at huge cost in lives - in Europe.
Of course that is an over-simplification, because in 1944 the focus was on freedom, not on constitutional detail, or economic policy, or citizenship rules, or a common currency. It is an over-simplification, but the fact remains that the British recognised that we were very much a part of the neighbouring continent.
It is odd that so many of my fellow citizens seem terrified about loss of identity as a concomitant of closer links with Europe - odd, because many people, I suspect, would characterise us as self-confident to the point often of insensitive arrogance.
I have just driven 800 kilometres through France. French roads are good and uncrowded (the country has a much larger land mass than the U.K. with about the same population). The public services work well. The cultural life, even in small places, is vibrant. French food is still French food.
Yes, of course, the effects of globalisation are obvious in many ways, but the French have not lost their identity, and they have clearly gained in many ways from EU membership. So, indeed, has the U.K., though to hear many people talk it has been nothing but a drain on our resources.
My prediction about this week's U.K. European elections is that the turnout will again be low. It is easier to whinge about what is wrong than to take the trouble to ensure that we send MEPs to the European Parliament with a strong mandate to do something about it. If my prediction is right, the contrast between the commitment commemorated in the D-Day celebrations and our current semi-detached attitude does us no credit.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at: email@example.com
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