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The real victories of last night’s by-elections belonged to UKIP. But what might this signal and how will  Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg translate the messages?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

 – ‘The Second Coming,’ W.B. Yeats

After last night’s by-elections, the only party that has cause to celebrate is UKIP. Coming second place in both Rotherham and Middlesbrough, and third in Croydon, is no small achievement for a party that has worked tirelessly along the tributaries of British politics into the mainstream in only a matter of years.

That Labour won in all three seats is no surprise, but as Daniel Hannan has remarked with regards to Rotherham in particuar, ‘I don’t want to hear any Rotherham Labour voters moaning about the arrogance of the political class’, since it was under the governance of that party that Denis MacShane resigned after criminally obtaining public money by deceit, and it was also the party that saw inactivity over child grooming cases and the removal of foster children from UKIP-voting parents [1]. Tribal voting is the stuff of primitive thinking, so of the 9,866 voters in Rotherham who voted Labour, it is probably fair to claim that some did so with only half their wits.

It is also no surprise that the Conservatives should made no progress in these areas. That the Liberal Democrats lost their deposits in Rotherham and Croydon proves beyond doubt that they are the party of insignificance and that they can no longer be used to amplify the voices of discontented voters. Expect them to be annihilated at the next General Election.

What of this? In a previous article, this blog suggested that UKIP’s ascent in Corby was not the result of a mid-term blues protest suggested by the Conservatives, it was the result of long-term disenchantment with useless politicians and their discredited parties. UKIP’s showing in Rotherham and elsewhere would seem to underscore this notion.

Mr Miliband need not break the habit of his leadership; he need do nothing, nor come up with credible policies – the coalition are perfectly adept at blustering incoherence and unravelling without the aid of parliament’s odious Chief Scout. Heaven help the UK when Prime Minister Miliband has to actually make the ‘tough decisions’ he bleats on about. Yet what the Rotherham vote has shown is that UKIP are not just a party of and for the right, they are increasingly a party of and for all political colours. If they can succeed in Labour ‘safe’ seats at the same level as they have in Rotherham, Corby and Middlesbrough, then Mr Miliband may actually have to call an inquiry into thinking about the direction in which he is heading.

And what of Mr Cameron? He is the best publicist of his own stupidity. He continues to alienate the sort of Conservative voters his party has haemorrhaged to UKIP under his leadership, not only because of his dogged determination to make social democrats out of the Tories, but also by refusing to  retract his typically immature remarks that UKIP members are mostly ‘closet racists’. The truth is that ‘centre ground’ politics is not only unpopular, it is inherently damaging to democracy. Yet it is clear that Mr Cameron is just a less uncomfortable looking version of the unhinged Gordon Brown: he is intractably stubborn, to the extent that an easy victory in the 2015 General Election will not be his for the taking. He will sooner listen to the likes of Matthew D’Ancona, who wrote in a wildly inaccurate and faintly bizarre recent article:

…the very worst thing Cameron could do now is to rip up his centre-ground strategy and hurtle off to the Right in search of these voters. Not many of them would come back. And many more centrist waverers would be lost in the process. [2]

Though this is precisely what Mr Cameron would want to hear – and certainly the only advice he is likely to listen to – it is at the cost of his own party and democracy. So Mr Cameron’s likeness to Mr Brown is evidenced once again: when a person (let alone a politician) cannot be seen to fight for their own survival, then it rings as defective. By heading off in the right direction, Mr Cameron could outflank UKIP’s ever growing number and bring under his wing the working class vote that UKIP appeals to: immigration, crime, withdrawal from the EU. Since the moribund Lib Dems have had their life support terminated, what consideration need Mr Cameron give to them? Yet he persists in targeting none of these matters, which appeal to all voters. The consequence is a further disenfranchised electorate and the collapse of his vote. As Yeats wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

UKIP may yet have to win parliamentary seats, but it signals the direction in which any successful party or thinking person should be heading: a politics of consent, of decisiveness, of the nation state. Under their current leaders, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are interested in ideology, not practicality. Ideology is cheap and easy, since it exists in the mind. Practicality and workable policies are much more credible victories, but intellectually beyond the reach of those on parliament’s front benches today.

© thepanopticonblog, 2012

Notes

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‘To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary’ – Edmund Burke’s description of the Romantic sublime has never been more pertinent as this article suggests parallels between both this and the EU. 

One of the Romantic period’s greatest philosophers, Edmund Burke, in his celebrated discourse A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, attempted to articulate the nature of the sublime. This sensation, which today we take to describe a state of almost transcendental perfection, held a different meaning for Burke and his contemporaries and is encoded in much of the great poetry and writing of the period.

In essence, the Romantic sublime is at once the combination of fear and awe. In our own time, we might suggest that some of the natural disasters we see on television, like those powerful images of the tsunami in Japan in 2011, provoke in us a feeling of awe at the power of nature and fear of that very power. More specifically, the Romantic sublime suggests that it is to be within the proximity of like danger (real or imagined) but to be just safe from harm that we recognise the unquantifiable and the reconciliation of the individual self to it. In this spirit, Wordsworth wrote that in his youth he was ‘Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;’ and ‘sanctifying by such discipline | Both pain and fear until we recognise | A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.’ [1]

The sensation of the sublime is not restricted to encounters with the natural word. Indeed, Edmund Burke notes that the sublime can be used to political ends and that obscurity is key to power:

To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. [2]

To offer a more recent frame of reference, one need only consider the figure of Big Brother in Orwell’s great novel; whether he is real or not is immaterial, because he is unseen (obscured) save for propaganda, he can be both everywhere and nowhere, obliging the citizens of that dystopia to normalize and regulate their behaviour in the most oppressive fashion. Thus the figure or idea of Big Brother elicits both awe and fear alike.

Away from literature, this idea of the sublime conveniently translates into both the perception and the reality of the EU. Its governance operates remotely (literally in another country) and its politicians and bureaucrats are, too, remote. They are unknown, indeed, obscure quantities ruling from afar; because they have not been voted in, they cannot be voted out and so they are utterly unaccountable.

Generally, those in awe of the EU are not experiencing a pleasant sensation, rather they are struck by the self perpetuating bureaucracy, the job justification and the disparate often vested interests at work within this institution. So, too, one has a legitimate right to experience fear; those making laws, those passing legislation or enacting are doing so without the mandate of the people, let alone their consultation. Indeed, professional obscurity is no bar to occupying professional office: look at the example of the European Court of Justice. As Daniel Hannan remarks ‘it doesn’t require its members to have served on the bench in their home countries. Many of them are academics, politicians and human rights activists who happen to have law degrees. And some are quite blatant about using the institution to advance an agenda that would be rejected at the ballot box.’ [3]

Time and again, when those such as Mr Farage remind the likes of Mr Barosso, Mr Van Rompuy or Mr Schulz that they have not been elected by the people to hold the offices they hold, they respond that they were voted for by colleagues and peers within the EU as if this equates to the same thing. At the most fundamental level, therefore, democracy is replaced by obscurity, since there is no correlation between the electorate and the people who claim to rule in their name.

The fear of the EU is not just in its meddling and efforts to standardize and legislate, it is, most obviously, to be see on the world stage where the effort to salvage the credibility of it economic prowess have floundered. Yet, day in, day out, it issues face-saving propaganda to claim success – but success for whom? Generations have been saddled with insurmountable debt to prop up countries that should have never joined this ill-conceived economic project. The EU’s own ideology has, therefore, become obscure, yet it still wields ‘fearful’ power over the nations and peoples it claims to serve (cf. ‘Weltanschauung: The Destructive Nature of the EU’s Ideology’). It is, in the Romantic sense, sublime.

The list of likenesses between the EU and Burke’s understanding of the sublime are many and varied. Perhaps the most potent sensation is the fact that in giving away practical powers to an unknown quantity, the UK has lost something far more worrying: its own symbolic value. Just as the idea of Big Brother or omnipotence  is powerful enough to regulate and normalise the actions of citizens, so we forget that the idea of the UK, with its independent, individual, pioneering and innovative spirit is more powerful than the sum of its policies. The economic or political ends of a nation state are never as valuable nor as powerful as its symbolic value. When one talks of the UK government failing to stop its ceding of powers to the EU, we cast our politicians as the victims of some obscure plot – but make no mistake – these are powers that have been given away with alacrity to serve an ideology conceived of by the passions of men.

What the obscure EU has to fear is exposure. It is sensitive at precisely the point where normal democracy should be strong – it is neither open, nor democratic, nor accountable –  which is why it is necessary to cast a floodlight over the shadowy machinations of this institution and its politicians, the men and women who keep themselves as much as may be from the public eye.

© thepanopticonblog, 2012.

Notes

Daniel Hannan’s speech likening the EU to King Lear is a concise and damning attack on the EU that is unlikely to be put quite as eloquently by others within that institution, or by politicians in the UK. The Panopticon laments that such eloquence or displays of learning, as we see with Mr Hannan’s speech, are not only absent from politics in the UK, but that when they are exhibited, they are condemned as elitist. In 2 Henry VI, the leader of a peasants’ rebellion, Jack Cade, says of Lord Stafford ‘He can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor’ (4.2.161-2). Later, of Lord Say, he is no less unforgiving: ‘Away with him! Away with him! He speaks Latin’ (4.7.55). The Jack Cades of our own time practice a form of populist inverted snobbery which casts education as a vice, or displays of knowledge as somehow eccentric or removed.  It is little wonder then Mr Hannan works in Brussels, for he would receive short shrift for such displays in his own country , even if in the European Parliament he commands ‘the power of speech | To stir men’s blood.’ (Julius Ceaser, 3.2.223-4)