The UK long backed European integration in theory, but has always been less certain about involvement itself. Winston Churchill backed a United States of Europe, but when the European Coal and Steel Community was started his successor as PM, Clement Attlee described it as made of “Six countries, four of which we had to save from the other two”.
The country initially joined EFTA, but as that trade agreement fell behind the nascent EEC, it began to be attracted to membership. The country applied for membership in the EEC first in 1961, but its membership was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle who feared the UK diluting its leadership role within the EEC.
The UK eventually joined tin 1973, but controversy within the Labour Party over whether to stay in led to the UK’s first nationwide referendum in 1975, with two thirds of the public voting to stay in the EU.
British history is predominantly notable for its stability. The UK has not seen an overthrow of its government since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. While major events have happened in the UK the country has not had to deal with the revolutions, coups, or foreign occupations of other European states. The country has tended to slowly reform rather than overthrow. This has left the British state with features that may seem odd in a foreign context such as its lack of a codified constitution or an upper house of parliament which still includes representatives of the clergy or the aristocracy.
The UK has tended to be historically rather homogenous in many respects. There is no substantial religious cleavage in the country. Protestantism has tended to be the dominant religion in England especially, and the relationship between Church and State has long been settled with State assuming dominance.
The UK may seem odd for being a unitary state theoretically composed of four ‘nations’ or ‘countries’. However, England is by far the most dominant part of the UK, with 84% of the UK’s population. This central population imbalance makes federalism deeply difficult to sustain.
In any case, Scottish and, especially, Welsh nationalism have historically tended to be rather weak, only gaining representatives in the UK parliament in the late 1960s.
The exception to this is Ireland, which had been the victim of 800 years of invasions, colonisations and bouts of repression from England. The whole of Ireland was once within the UK, but in the complex events following WWI, it became partitioned with the South becoming an independent Republic.
The six counties of the North had a largely Protestant, British unionist majority, the result of centuries of attempted colonisation. However a sizeable Catholic, Irish nationalist minority exists in the North.
Northern Ireland was initially given a Parliament, which quickly became Unionist dominated and which proceeded to set about gerrymander and rig the political system to keep nationalists from power. Catholics and Protestants became de facto segregated. The 1960s saw the rise of a Catholic civil rights movement. Brutal repression of that movement led to the outbreak of The Troubles, a thirty year terror campaign by organisations Irish Republican Army and unionist groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association.
That led to the suspension of the Northern Irish Parliament and the imposition of direct rule from London. It also set into a process a series of events which saw the Northern Irish party system completely separate from the UK one. UK parties do not typically run in Northern Ireland and when they do their vote is near non-existent.
The UK was the first country to experience the Industrial Revolution. Due to its comparative homogeneity in other regards this set into pace the creation of the infamous British class system. British politics has traditionally been divided very strictly along class lines between the working class Labour Party and the middle class Conservatives.
In the 1951 general election these two parties together received 97% of the vote. The third party, the Liberals, were largely only able to hang on in isolated regions in the ‘Celtic fringe’ in Cornwall, Scotland and Wales where the Liberals tradition connection to Methodism kept them strong and where the industrial revolution had not come and developed a sense of class identity.
The UK has experienced, like almost every developed democracy, vote fragmentation since the 1960s, however. Class identity has weakened and become more complex. There is a growing ethnic minority population. Scottish and Welsh nationalism have become major parts of the political spectrum. Most recently Britain has seen the rise of a right-wing populist party, UKIP.
The 2010 election saw the formation of Britain’s first coalition government since the Second World War, a serious change to the traditional way of doing things in the UK.
2011 saw the election of a majority SNP government in Scotland, despite an electoral system for the Scottish parliament (created in 1998 to give Scots more of a say over their own laws). After some negotiation with the UK government, Scotland will see a binding referendum on independence in September of this year, threatening the territorial integrity of the British state itself.
The country was hit moderately hard by the 2008 financial crisis, due to the country’s reliance on financial services. In particular the country opened up a major budget deficit of more than 10% of GDP.
However the country has not experienced the same kind of difficulties as other EU member states, particularly in the Eurozone. The country is experiencing a bout of austerity, but so far this seems to have been broadly accepted by the population at large, though there are concerns about the spread of food banks and some individual government policies.
The economy is now widely seen to be in full recovery with the IMF expecting the economy to grow by 2.9% in 2014. Unemployment is now 6.8%, higher than pre-crash but still low by comparison to other European states. Unemployment is also on a clear downward trend. The deficit is still high but has been substantially cut since 2012.
The current government holds a mixed view in the public imagination, however. While the public sees it as economically credible, there are deep concerns that it is ‘out of touch’ and headed by members of a political elite which do not understand British people or their lives. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, who is of aristocratic lineage and who was famously educated at the elite boarding school, Eton.
The government fails to inspire, and despite tough policies on immigration many voters do not believe that enough has been done in this area.
Since 2010 Britain has seen a surge in support for UKIP, a right-wing populist party which combines its traditional issue of Euroscepticism with anti-immigration stances and populist discourse against the political elite. UKIP represent a revolt against the established political class.
The UK has historically been seen as one of the most Eurosceptic EU members, if not the most Eurosceptic. Separation from mainland Europe by the 20 miles of English Channel have given Britain a certain feeling of distance from the rest of Europe. This is also aided by Britain’s experience of WWII. Whereas most of Europe feels a commonality of experience of occupation under Nazism, the UK has a unique national myth of itself as a last bulwark against Nazism.
Since the late 1980s there has also been a perception of the EU as a bureaucratic organ, forcing Britain into ‘red tape’ and tying up its economy. This has been particularly encouraged by Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘Bruges Speech’ in which she denounced the EU.
British political elites have tended to promote a looser form of the EU, and have tended to promote EU expansion over integration. The UK is often one of the most in favour of new EU member states. It can be argued that this is to ‘water down’ the EU and make it harder to come to collective decisions and hence integrate further.
Nonetheless, while the struggle over the EU is a recurrent theme in British political discourse polling suggests that most Brits would vote to stay in in the event of a referendum, and that leaving the EU is mostly the obsession of a small minority.
In the event that the Conservatives win the next election, Britain will hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017.
The UK will elect 73 MEPs, the same as it received under the Lisbon redistribution. This is the third largest MEP delegation, with France larger by just one MEP.
The majority of UK’s MEPs, 70, are elected using a closed-list system in regions. There are eleven of these regions, consisting of Scotland, Wales, and nine English regions electing between 3 (North East England) and 10 (South East England) MEPs. In each region voters vote for party lists with pre-ranked candidates. Seats are assigned to parties on the basis of the broadly proportional d’Hondt formula, which tends to slightly advantage larger parties.
Due to differing size the regions have vastly different effective thresholds, with around 6.8% of the vote needed to win a seat in the South East and 18.8% needed in the North East.
This makes the system fairly disproportionate. However, the regions allow Scottish and Welsh nationalists to win seats without concern for any kind of national threshold which they would be unlikely to pass.
An interesting note, the territory of Gibraltar is included in the South West constituency even though it is not technically within the EU.
The three remaining seats in Northern are elected using the Single Transferable Vote system. This is a preferential system also used in Ireland and Malta. Voters rank candidates on the ballot paper. In this system success is calculated based upon a ‘quota’ of votes equivalent to around 25% of the vote. Any candidate who wins more than 25% of the vote is deemed elected, and votes above the quota are redistributed to their second choice. If no candidate reaches the quota than the worst performing candidate is eliminated and their votes are redistributed. This carries on until all three seats are filled.
This complex system has an important property in Northern Irish politics, it does not just maintain proportionality within political parties, but also within the nationalist and unionist blocs. It is theoretically possible that two nationalists could win seats when the unionist bloc wins more votes for instance, causing problems in Northern Ireland’s delicate cross-community balance.
2009 Election Result
Great Britain and Gibraltar:
|Party||European Political Party||Votes||Seats|
|Conservative Party||European Conservatives and Reformists||27.9%||25|
|UK Independence Party (UKIP)||Europe of Freedom and Democracy||16.6%||13|
|Labour Party||Socialists and Democrats||15.8%||13|
|Liberal Democrats||Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe||13.8%||12|
|Green Party||European Green Party||8.6%||2|
|British National Party (BNP)||None||6.3%||2|
|Scottish National Party (SNP)||European Free Alliance||2.1%||2|
|Plaid Cymru (PC)||European Free Alliance||0.8%||1|
|Party||European Political Party||Votes||Seats|
|Sinn Fein (SF)||European United Left||25.8%||1|
|Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)||None||18.1%||1|
|Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)||European Conservatives and Reformists||17.0%||1|
The elections are widely expected to be won by UKIP, surfing a combination of low turnout, anti-EU strategic voting and a view of European elections as unimportant and therefore fine for use as a protest vote.
Labour are likely to be in a relatively close second place, with the Conservatives coming third.
The Lib Dems are battling to retain fourth place, and may be surpassed by the Greens. It is likeliest that both will win only 2 seats.
The BNP will lose its seats.
The SNP could win a third seat but Plaid could lose its.
In Northern Ireland, the three seats are almost certain to remain static.