A “Pim Fortuyn” for Britain?

The every-five-years elections to the European Parliament will begin tomorrow (some countries vote on Thursday, others on the following Sunday), and polls in the UK are pointing toward a surprising result. The heretofore almost-unknown UK Independence Party (UKIP) stands to post impressive results, which could catapult it up into the company of that country’s main political parties (Labour and the Conservatives) and leave the Liberal Democrats back in a distant fourth place.

The reason why this is alarming to many is at the same time the reason why the UKIP seems to be gaining so much support, namely its call for a “friendly” but complete withdrawal of Britain from the European Union. Up until the UKIP, the most “extreme” position on this issue had been that of the Conservatives, who maintain a suspicious attitude about what goes on within EU institutions, and who don’t want any new European Constitution and certainly won’t give up the pound sterling for the euro, but who don’t go so far as to advocate withdrawal (upon which, in the UKIP’s imaginings, the UK would join the ranks of countries like Norway and Switzerland, who supposedly enjoy much of the trade benefits associated with the EU anyway without having to put up with all that quasi-governmental stuff).

Even if most or all of the new British Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) turn out to come from the UKIP, that would not mean Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But the worrying thing about that party’s seeming rise in popularity is that the British people’s attitudes towards the EU were supposed to get steadily more warm and chummy with time, guided by constant persuasion (propaganda?) from the bully-pulpit manned by a Labour government that has been in power since 1997. After all, referenda are now in store, eventually, on both the questions of switching to the euro and adopting a new EU Constitution (when/if member-state governments finally succeed in adopting one), and the hope had been that attitudes would have softened enough by the time those happen to ensure “Yes” votes. The UK is not obliged ever to adopt the euro – unlike, say, all of the ten new member-states, whenever they meet certain economic and fiscal criteria – but it’s possible (although still unclear at this point) that a “No” vote on the Constitution could indeed mean insistence from the other EU members that the UK withdraw its membership.

A key factor in the UKIP’s new popularity is said to be its new leading spokesman and candidate, Robert Kilroy-Silk, who had an interview show on the BBC up until earlier this year, when he had to resign after saying nasty things on-air about Arabs. There’s an entertaining portrait from the Guardian available, but I’m more intrigued by this analysis as to whether he might be the “British Pim Fortuyn,” from a source best-placed to judge such things: the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

Trouw adds some interesting details about the UKIP campaign. They make clever parallels to the situation in Iraq; in Kilroy-Silk’s words, “There people will get their sovereignty back on 30 June. We Britons hopefully [will get ours back] at the 10 June elections.” There is no shortage of groups in the UK to appeal to, with ready motives to dislike the EU, like the fishermen for instance, who “have seen their entire existence devastated by the European super-state.” But is this Kilroy-Silk another in the line of Pim Fortuyn, the popular (some would say demagogic) Dutch politician, assassinated in May, 2002, by an animal-rights activist, who also brought an obscure political party out of nowhere by advancing opinions which had previously been outside the pale?

Trouw writer Bas de Vries certainly grants Kilroy-Silk Fortuyn-status for the way he is disrupting his country’s established political order (although perhaps he would be better advised to actually await the results of those MEP elections; the polls might be wrong). Also like Fortuyn, Kilroy-Silk comes from a leftist background – at one point he was a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party – and he now claims to speak for voters whose views have been by-and-large neglected by established politics. Kilroy-Silk certainly doesn’t mind being compared to the murdered Dutch politician: “I have a weakness for every politician who is honest, speaks from the heart, and who fights with heart and soul for those who have voted for him.”


On the other hand, De Vries points out, Kilroy-Silk has not (yet?) inspired among the British electorate the same degree of sensation and messianism that Fortuyn was able to evoke. (But compare what is hinted at in that Guardian article.) But the difference, if any, might lie more in the sharpness, the sensitivity of the subjects the two politicians made into their defining issues: for Kilroy-Silk, the EU; for Fortuyn, immigration into Holland of people from other cultures. Fortuyn famously termed Islam “a backward religion” – but, then again, Kilroy-Silk was fired for voicing similar sentiments. And it’s also true that another bone the UKIP has to pick with the EU is the allegedly too-generous immigration policy which Britain’s European obligations have supposedly forced the country to adopt.

For now, those searching for anyone to label a “Fortuyn” will find a better match in France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. The UKIP’s Robert Kilroy-Silk may still make the running – but let’s first see if the impact of his party on the British political establishment turns out tomorrow to be as advertised.

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