The centre-right’s lights are going out all over Europe

Despite conspiracies about folded ballot papers, the chances are UKIP will do well in the European elections, to be declared Sunday. Many will interpret this as a growing intolerance of immigration in the UK, especially England. Others may note that, across Europe, populist parties are on the rise (usually combining anti-immigration with a dislike for Brussels bureaucracy) – whether in France, The Netherlands, Italy or Denmark.

Across the continent, it seems, the established order is being shaken by the rise of new parties with a distinctly unpleasant tinge. Yet I can’t help thinking this isn’t the emergence of a revolutionary new movement at all (as was the case with both Communism and Fascism in the 1920s-30s). Rather, I think it’s the death rattle of the old, “small-c” conservative, order, though one that poses a major dilemma for the centre-right.

The accusation being levelled at parties such as UKIP – as well as their supporters – is that they have rather retrospective attitudes towards gender equality and sexual orientation, as well as race and anything appearing foreign. In fact they’re bigots, many claim: whether racist, sexist, nationalistic or homophobic.

True, some are. Yet there’s another aspect to this that’s rarely discussed: the fact the divide appears to be generational. I cannot help noticing that most of UKIP’s supporters – and certainly most of its candidates – are of a certain age.  A YouGov survey in 2013 bears this out. Although the data is incomplete, the survey noted that some 38% of the electorate is aged between 18 and 40, while only 15% of UKIP’s voters fall into that age group. Meanwhile, UKIP voters are more than twice as likely as the general population to be over 60 (48% as opposed to 28%).

The inference is clear – far from a radical movement, this is the grey vote signalling its discomfort with the way politics and society has changed since they came of age.

Indeed, anyone coming of age (i.e. turning 18) before, say, 1975, has witnessed their country change beyond recognition – something that’s as true in France and Holland as it is in England. They’ve seen their essentially white and Christian country become multicultural. They’ve seen homosexuality move from the shadows to become accepted and mainstream. And they’ve witnessed growing female participation in the most influential parts of society.

As a child in the 1970s, theirs was a world I can vaguely remember. Both my junior and senior schools were 100 percent white; we boys routinely accused each other of being “homos” or “bummers” (the word “gay” being unknown in the windy and litter-strewn Essex playgrounds of my childhood); and, while the mums caught the bus to go shopping for groceries, the dads drove the family car to work at Marconi or Fords.

That felt like the established and unchanging way of things. And, of course, it’s a world that’s now largely gone. Essex playgrounds are as multi-cultural as the London ones we’d pass when visiting “Nan and Granddad” in East London; even Tory cabinet ministers and FTSE-100 CEOs are openly gay; and, while Marconi and Fords employ a fraction of their former numbers, gender-irrelevant clerical jobs have been created in their 1000s (especially down the commuter lines to the City).

Of course, for those coming of age after the mid-1970s (including myself) these changes represent significant improvements in choice and freedom, as well as a massive step-up in potential living standards. For us, the liberalisation of society, along with “globalisation”, has been a fantastic boon. Travel has opened our minds while wealth has given us a taste for the exotic. For the most part, our lives are more exciting, better paid and more fulfilling (though housing costs have soared). Meanwhile, for older generations, Benidorm was exotic, Blue Nun was sophisticated and the closest most got to multiculturalism was the O Sole Mio Italian restaurant just along from the Odeon Cinema.

For them, the changes in our society since the 1970s represent an affront to their certainties. Gone are the steady jobs in core industries, gone are the differentiated gender roles that told you how to behave and in what to aspire, and gone are the clarities regarding what’s morally right and wrong. Of course, their world contained a dark Jimmy Savile underbelly – now being exposed in all its gory detail. But they’re not the people voting UKIP.

Given all this, when I hear privileged people such as Kirstie Allsopp on the BBC’s Question Time accusing UKIP (and therefore their supporters) of racism, sexism and homophobia, I inwardly wince. Not because such elements are not lurking within Europe’s growing populist parties (including UKIP). They clearly are. But because I’m looking at it generationally – and I think it unfair to write-off an entire generation of working class and lower middle-class people as crypto-fascists.

My grandparents (now dead) were not bad people. They worked hard in a society with few openings. They even fought in the war or at least endured the nightly bombings. My parents’ generation were also not bad people. Many aspired to better themselves through hard work – using (limited) educational opportunities to climb on to the lower rungs of professional life, usually through science or trades left free for them by the rapidly-liberalising (and therefore more artistic) upper-middle classes.

Sure, their views now seem dated, but so does Benidorm. Meanwhile, no one drinks Blue Nun and the O Sole Mio has become a Thai noodle chain located above a nail bar. The world’s moved on, in other words, and this group – who are living longer and longer – have failed to adapt: though not so the political parties they once supported.

Labour worked it out first, back in the 1980s: embracing diversity in all its presentations. That said, the Tories beat them when it came to economic liberalism (Thatcher’s somewhat forgotten creed at the time). By the late 1990s, however, it was clear that the Tories were losing ground because they were viewed as a party intolerant of the social liberalism now flowering nationally and internationally, no matter what your socio-economic background.

This was only properly addressed once David Cameron – a genuine social-liberal – became leader. Good for him, although his every move to make the Tories more inclusive alienated their older support base (witness the furore over gay marriage), with UKIP gaining ground because of it.

Not just here, but also in mainland Europe, the centre-right are failing to address this conundrum, simply because they can’t. If they become liberal (to reach the young) – as the 40-something leaders all want – they lose the grey vote to the populist right. If they track back, to keep the old and traditionalist vote happy, all the good work they’ve done to attract the young is lost, probably for another decade.

Never before has the main political cleavage in society been so generational. And never before has the centre-right faced such an existential dilemma. Indeed, I cannot help thinking that, all over Europe, the centre right’s lights are going out. And we’ll not see them lit again in our time.


Comments 3

  1. Hi Bob,

    I can’t help but disagree with a couple of the points you’ve made here.

    Just because something was acceptable at a certain time in history, doesn’t make it okay.

    I think racism is racism, no matter what the age of the person who holds the view.

    “Sure, their views now seem dated, but so does Benidorm,” – I think this belittles the struggle of so many ethnic or sexual minorities who have fought hard for equal footing and in many cases, who have yet to get there.

    Also, comparing the embrace of social liberty with economic liberalism seems somewhat skewed.

    Economic policy and human rights are hardly apples for apples comparisons. I would like to think that the “embrace” of diversity by both parties was driven by a moralistic realisation, rather than realpolitik (but perhaps I’m naive).

    Anyway, just my two cents.

    Great blog, keep writing.


    1. Thanks for the feedback Finbarr,
      Yes, that phrase about Benidorm could look dismissive on its own. It’s not meant to be and I’m aligned with your view on the struggle. I was reacting to posh “enlightened” ones (such as Allsopp) condemning a generation for values out of step with today. As stated, these were not bad people. They just had a narrow view based on their narrow lives and opportunities. Younger generations enjoy a breadth of experience that make their values look appalling. But we not should fight prejudice with prejudice.
      As for liberalism: this may again be generational. From my perspective as someone 50 next month I’ve spent my adult life watching liberalism triumph: the left having to move economically, the right socially. In 1980, what looked like economic fundamentalism on one hand and the ravings of the “looney left” on the other, are now mainstream. It’s the West reconciling its contradictions, and they’re utterly bound together, although those uncomfortable with either aspect – economic or social – will no doubt disagree. For me, liberalism is a holistic enterprise, and one I embrace.

  2. A similar state of affairs exists in the U.S., with the TEA Party (a hard right catch-all driven mostly by its upset with societal change) comprising mostly older people. Here, though, we have the added dimension of an urban-rural split. The younger Republicans who would make the party more inclusive can’t get a foothold because the Republicans can’t win (even despite the egregiously gerrymandered voting districts they’ve created) without radical right TEA Party support. Consequently, hard-right-leaning Republicans tend to win in the rural and rural-suburban districts (of which there are many). They have a harder time when the voting districts are geographically larger and consequently more inclusive (for instance, at the Senate level) and, as recent elections have shown, they have a harder time still winning a national election. Time and demographics will have an effect as older TEA Partiers die off and younger, more progressive citizens will command a larger say, for both parties, at the voting booth.

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