Fear and trembling: The UK establishment and the EU

UKIP represents a new kind of politics whose deeper dynamics established parties and old media appear barely to understand. Farage versus Clegg was a historic event and Cameron and Miliband have no idea how much they blew it by not attending

A historic moment
the commentator
On 28 March 2014 09:44

If there is one thing that is clear in the aftermath of Wednesday's live debate between UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Lib-Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on the UK's relationship with the European Union it is that mainstream political society in Britain is nothing short of terrified of UKIP.

That is true in the particular sense of how threatening UKIP is to the Conservative Party (mainly) but also in the more generalised sense that UKIP represents a new kind of politics whose deeper dynamics established parties and old media appear barely to understand.

Both aspects were clear before the debate even started: Where in heaven's name were the leaders of the other two parties? In passing, the point has of course been remarked upon, but without nearly enough emphasis. This was a nationally televised debate on one of the most pressing matters on the country's future place in the world. European elections loom.

The leaders of two of the four most popular parties turned up, the other two ran away. When you pause to think about it, that is quite incredible. They essentially told the British people they weren't interested in talking to them.

Cameron didn't come because he hasn't got an answer to the question of precisely what it is he's going to get back from Brussels to justify staying in; Miliband didn't come because his party is so divided on the question of a referendum that his refusal to support one is something he's scared of talking about in public.

And what they don't understand is that everyone interested in politics knows this, and they're talking about it, and they're forming groups on Facebook to discuss it, and they're Skyping about it with friends on holiday in America, and they're tweeting and they're writing articles on their own websites and those of others. And this is just the beginning, and they don't even know it.

The days when a largely pliant, oligarchic press could offer a manageable degree of control for them over public discussion on matters of "national interest" have gone, never to return.

It is remarkable how the old-media, even its eurosceptic wing, responded to the debate by defaulting back to the old loyalties, even if that meant newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail running high profile (or what they in old-media mode assume to be high profile) pieces drawing an equivalence between Farage and Clegg as hotheads at the extremes.

Quentin Letts, writing in the Daily Mail, asked: "But who, in reality, would choose one of these maniacs to represent them? They were both so weirdly vehement, jabbering, gobby."

Writing in similar, though more elegant, vein in today's Telegraph, Fraser Nelson lamented David Cameron's (almost certainly false) claim he won't be watching the next debate between Farage and Clegg because if Cameron did watch "he’d see the two extremists push each other ever further to the edges – leaving the centre ground wide open for the Conservatives."

Ah yes. The fun surrounding UKIP is now over for committed Conservatives. As we enter the long home straight to the 2015 general elections, UKIP's power to ruin any prospect of a Conservative government is concentrating minds.

As Donna Rachel Edmunds pointed out here yesterday, the slew of pundits, some quite prominent Conservatives, saying Clegg had actually won the debate on Wednesday or at least that it was a draw was something to behold.

The Yougov snap poll gave victory to Farage by 57 percent to 36. This was a two horse race. In US presidential elections a five or six point margin of victory by the winner over his opponent is usually referred to as a landslide. Farage's points margin was 21! Totally and utterly devastating.

True, part of the problem for the mainstream media might have been the clapometer effect: The organisers of the debate invited an audience that was evenly divided between Farage supporters and Clegg supporters.

Inevitably, that meant the applause in the room sounded evenly split. But the wider audience in the country is not evenly split a la Farage and Clegg at all: it is strongly eurosceptic; far more in tune with Farage's thinking than Clegg's, even though euroscepticism does not necessarily translate in the polls to decisive support for pulling out of the EU altogether.

Only "inside-the-bubble" old media types would make such a mistake, allowing themselves to be swayed by applause in a room in central London while oblivious to what the country as a whole is really thinking.

In a sense, that's a metaphor for what is wrong with contemporary politics and old media, not just in Britain, but across the democratic world: they're stuck in a room full of cronies.

And that's another part of this. Watching the extraordinary spectacle of Britain's Deputy Prime Minister pouring out his heart and soul in debate with a man whose party hasn't got a single person in the Commons there was a dimension of it all that was going to provoke some pretty visceral reactions from those most committed to the old politics and the old media.

It's hard to take that point beyond speculation, but whether it was the failed analysts of the establishment think tanks and policy institutes, or the wannabe new generation of pundits and politicians from the established papers of right and left, it did just seem that they were all a little unsure about what this chappie from UKIP was even doing there.

No-one actually said it, but if a "who-does-he-think-he-is" had slipped out from one or other of them you wouldn't have been altogether surprised.

The biggest point of all about this affair is that it isn't about Europe at all. It's about something much more far-reaching. The political and media establishment in Britain is losing control. Much of what they have taken for granted is slipping through their grasp.

Make no mistake about it, Farage versus Clegg was something historic. Things are on the move. And there's nothing the old society can do to stop it.

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