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Wednesday March 9th 2011
British politics
Bagehot's notebook
The Barnsley by-election
Barnsley: the emergence of a nationalist protest vote?
Mar 4th 2011, 17:37 by Bagehot
WHEN it comes to drawing firm conclusions about the state of British politics, some parliamentary by-elections are like flashes of lightning over a darkened plain—illuminating the whole landscape in a single instant. Others like the by-election held yesterday in the South Yorkshire seat of Barnsley Central offer something much less definite: a hint, at most, that the weather may be about to change.
The headlines this morning focus on the desperate fate of the Liberal Democrats, who fell from second place at the May 2010 election to sixth place (losing their deposit last night into the bargain). That is fair: as is the interest provoked by the second place showing of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), an unprecedented result in a Westminster contest for this Eurosceptic party.
That said, there are good reasons for not reading too much into the result in Barnsley. It is such a safe Labour seat that—though the contest was triggered by the conviction of the former Labour incumbent, Eric Illsley for expenses fraud—the party managed to extend its majority a bit, to 11,771 votes. Between the 2010 general election and yesterday's poll, the turnout plunged to just 36.5% of eligible voters.
The full results look like this:
In effect, any analysis of these results amounts to parsing a series of protest votes, inasmuch as every vote not cast for Labour in Barnsley is a protest vote.
After speaking to a couple of thoughtful MPs whose opinions I value and scanning the blogosphere, here, then, are some necessarily tentative thoughts.
1. Under Ed Miliband, Labour proved itself disciplined (or at least sensibly risk-averse) in its choice of candidate: a clean-cut, articulate ex-Parachute Regiment officer with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
2. The big crisis for the Lib Dems is that they are no longer seen as an acceptable vehicle for protest votes. That may seem obvious, and indeed Lib Dem grandees were all over the airwaves this morning saying that this result means very little. It is, they intoned, a natural consequence of being in government, taking the tough decisions necessary to sort out the economic mess inherited from Labour, had they mentioned the disastrous economic mess they inherited from Labour, in government, tough decisions, and so on. But if the Lib Dems are no longer a party for protest votes, what are they for? In the dead of night, Mr Clegg must wake up in a cold sweat and worry that his party will never break out beyond its irreducible core vote. And how many diehard Lib Dems are there, once you strip away people who could not bring themselves to vote Labour or Tory in previous elections. Perhaps 5% of the population?
3. There is a painful irony for the Lib Dems here. Every vox pop interview with an ordinary voter generates the same complaints. Now that these Lib Dems are in coalition with the Tories, the voters thunder, they have been exposed as opportunists willing to sacrifice truth and principle to gain power. Here is the odd part. That is a perfectly accurate description of the Lib Dems before they came to power. They spent decades on doorsteps shamelessly attacking big party incumbents from the left or the right (depending on the seat), sucking up to every interest group that staggered into view and generally saying whatever they thought voters wanted to hear. That is why the Lib Dems, for all that they enjoyed a rather saintly image among the general public, have always been loathed by Labour and Tory politicians. Nothing, but nothing, they will tell you with a shudder of real distaste, stoops as low as a Lib Dem campaign pamphlet.
Now the sainted ones have joined the Conservatives in coalition (a decision that was arguably imposed on them by the electorate, which did not see fit to grant Labour and the Lib Dems enough votes between them to form a government), they are actually having to ditch the opportunism, keep their word and vote for endless unpopular policies that form part of their coalition agreement. And as a result they are hated up and down the land. As I said, there is an irony in there somewhere.
4. There is some evidence that this result is alarming for Nick Clegg personally. Mr Clegg's own seat of Sheffield Hallam is nearby, and Labour is adamant that part of the anti-Lib Dem backlash in Barnsley was specifically aimed at the Lib Dem leader. Writing for the New Statesman, the neighbouring South Yorkshire MP (and former Labour minister) Denis MacShane says today:
10 months ago the Lib Dems came second to Labour. Now they got fewer votes than the BNP. There is a South Yorkshire element to this. Nick Clegg is now known locally as the "Sheffield Fraudmaster" after the decision of his Lib Dem colleague, Vince Cable, to axe a £80 million loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters firm
5. Though Barnsley is a poor gauge of anything, as discussed above, it is certainly no comfort to anyone who worries that the slow decline of two party politics may pave the way for the sort of angry identity politics common on the continent of Europe. In country after country on the continent, parties that offer a palette of tough, negative messages about national identity, immigration, Islam, globalisation and/or the European Union pick up around 20% of the vote. In Barnsley, the combined vote share for UKIP and the British National Party (an outfit that until recently was closed to non-white members) came to just over 18%.
Now, nothing makes UKIP crosser than being described as the "BNP in blazers". And if you apply the useful French political shorthand of "clean right" versus "dirty right", UKIP sits on the clean side of the line, while the BNP is on the dirty side, along with the still-nastier English Defence League. Nor does UKIP peddle an anti-capitalist message of the sort popular among far-right parties in, say, France. The party wants to pull Britain out of the EU, but it is in favour of free trade.
But nonetheless, UKIP has started stressing some pretty tough policies on immigration as it attempts to move beyond its image as a single-issue party that is all about Europe. Euroscepticism is a poisoned chalice in British politics: the British public simultaneously dislike the EU, in the main, but also strongly dislike hearing about it. That means a party can be punished for over-emphasising EU-bashing messages, even when those messages chime with majority opinion.
Those worried about the rise of identity politics in Britain point to polling commissioned by an anti-fascist campaign group, Searchlight, which found a (surely exaggerated) 48% of Britons would, in the words of a Guardian newspaper report:
support an anti-immigration English nationalist party if it was not associated with violence and fascist imagery... A Populus poll found that 48% of the population would consider supporting a new anti-immigration party committed to challenging Islamist extremism, and would support policies to make it statutory for all public buildings to fly the flag of St George or the union flag
I found the polling somewhat more convincing when it broke voters into six camps. In the words of the report's authors:
The Searchlight research has broken down attitudes to race, identity, immigration and nation into six groups. On the left are "confident multiculturals" and "mainstream liberals", comprising 24% of the population. On the far right sit "latent hostiles" and "active enmity" (totalling 23%), who share antagonistic attitudes to others and differ only in the degree of their antipathy and tolerance of extremism.The centre of British politics are the "identity ambivalents" and "cultural integrationists". Cultural integrationists accept diversity as long as there is an integrated national culture, the rule of law, and respect for authority. This is the group to which David Cameron's call for a "muscular liberalism" is targeted. They are a quarter of the population. But the real swing voters are identity ambivalents (28%): economically insecure, worried about their local community, feeling threatened but open-minded and accepting of diversity - as long as their security is not threatened. So they feel more wage and job pressure from immigration, are anxious about their family's financial future, but are, for example, much less likely to think "Muslims create problems in the UK" than cultural integrationists.​Labour's vote is more weighted towards this group than any other. More black and ethnic minority voters are to be found here, and almost half of people who don't identify with a party are also identity ambivalent
Now, I do not believe that one poll, written up by an overtly political campaign group, can capture the intricacies of British views on race and identity. But that image of a public splintering into many groups suggests, to me, a potential problem for UKIP, as that party's leaders celebrate their second place in Barnsley.
IF UKIP's glass is half full, their strength lies in their ability to straddle different voter groups, and appeal to them all as the best place for a protest vote. Supporters of UKIP include social liberals and libertarians like their leader Nigel Farage, but also pretty angry nationalists: the sort of people who leave comments on blogs like this which casually refer to the dictatorship of the EUSSR snuffing out the last vestiges of British democracy. That group, I would argue, overlaps to an extent with Britons who worry about the weakening of British national identity in other ways, notably by multiculturalism and/or what they see as the dangerous power of Islam in Europe. Some self-identified UKIP supporters are, for example, admirers of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a populist who has called for the banning of the Koran.
But UKIP also appeals to mainstream Conservative voters who feel that David Cameron and his coalition government have betrayed core Tory principles over Europe, and that they have nowhere else to turn if they wish to stop the erosion of British sovereignty. That is an observation you will hear framed as a warning from Tory MPs such as Bill Cash, a veteran Eurosceptic. Writing today on ConservativeHome​, Mr Cash says:
It was always obvious Labour were going to win Barnsley Central – but the result sends a clear message to the Coalition and the Conservative Party on their failure to deal with the European issue
Yet here is where the glass looks half-empty for UKIP, I would argue. Because—though I happen to think that the most strongly Eurosceptic Tories are wrong in their judgement of the relative costs and benefits of EU membership—such Tory Eurosceptics are not extremists. They are mainstream politicians, motivated in part by a strong attachment to parliamentary democracy (though I disagree with their over-gloomy assertion that British democracy is wrecked by EU membership).
And my hunch is that for UKIP to move much beyond its current core vote, it would have to dilute its message on, say, Islam or immigration, to pick up many more mainstream Conservatives. And that is precisely the opposite of what many core UKIP supporters want.
6. A final thought, from a Conservative MP who is actively involved in the Tory campaign for a No vote in May's referendum on switching from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections. Though in general AV is seen as favouring smaller parties, a Yes vote on AV would make UKIP less dangerous for almost all Tory MPs, he says (because a typical UKIP voter would be likely to place UKIP first, and unlikely to give a second preference to either Labour or the Lib Dems).
The weather is on the turn. But a nationalist storm is not inevitable.
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cyclam wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 6:30 GMT
I'm intrigued by "And how many diehard Lib Dems are there ... [p]erhaps 5% of the population?" Where did this figure come from? I expect Economist journalists to be able to back up their numbers.
"They spent decades on doorsteps shamelessly attacking big party incumbents from the left or the right (depending on the seat)". Well yes, the LibDems are in the centre of their two larger rivals, so they attack Labour from the right and the Conservatives from the left - how is that shameless?
"The slow decline of two party politics may pave the way for the sort of angry identity politics common on the continent of Europe." Angry identity politics has been just as prevalent in Britain as anywhere. Try talking about the Conservatives in the poorer parts of Yorkshire, or Labour in the richer parts of Surrey and you'll find plenty of angry identity politics. Getting rid of the two-party non-democracy has nothing to do with it.
"Though in general AV is seen as favouring smaller parties, a Yes vote on AV would make UKIP less dangerous for almost all Tory MPs, he says (because a typical UKIP voter would be likely to place UKIP first, and unlikely to give a second preference to either Labour or the Lib Dems)." Yes, and that is precisely why AV should be introduced. It has nothing to do with favouring smaller or larger parties, it has to do with enabling voters to properly express who they want to vote for instead of having to gamble on where their vote will be most effective.
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matthewggreen wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:30 GMT
The Lib Dems are not passive players in this, as you seem to be suggesting. Their obvious response to the slump in their support from marginal Labour supporters is to go after leftish Tories, for whom they will have earned some cred in the coalition. That puts Mr Cameron in the delicate position of responding to pressure from his party worried about defections to UKIP while not losing hard-won centre supporters to the Lib Dems. All the more reason for him to support AV, of course.
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TomNightingale wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 9:25 GMT
tough, negative messages about....immigration, Islam,"
Why are tough messages negative?
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Humphrey Bear wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 6:11 GMT
"...such Tory Eurosceptics are not extremists. They are mainstream politicians, motivated in part by a strong attachment to parliamentary democracy (though I disagree with their over-gloomy assertion that British democracy is wrecked by EU membership)."
I must disagree with your disagreement. The number of diktats promulgated by the non-elected lawmakers of Brussels is increasing on a daily basis. The European Parliament is not the law-giving institution of the EU, the bureaucrats of Brussels, un-moderated by having to go to the electorate on a regular basis, issue their 'requirements' on the people of Europe without discussion, without thought for the consequences, then stand aside as other non-elected officials throughout the EU apply them with varying interpretations and thoroughness.
Time to go.
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lookingandistening wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 11:32 GMT
The 'right' just to remind you, is transnational capital
And transnational capital loves immigration; it equals cheap labour and the destruction of people power.
Pragmatically, the 'national' is the only place that there is any potential for democracy - certainly not in the corporate manipulation that is the EU. And not in 'global democracy'- democracy has to be bounded. So democracy is in which people self governing which entity.
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schlagmich wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 11:58 GMT
"In country after country on the continent, parties that offer a palette of tough, negative messages about national identity, immigration, Islam, globalisation and/or the European Union pick up around 20% of the vote."
Well, not in the biggest EU-country, nor in Sweden, Spain or Portugal and if I'm not mistaken not even in Ireland. Bagehot has kept his disregard for everything German from his time in Brussels... btw, regarding UKIP and also some of the commentators here I cannot help but come to the conclusion that the brits have an OBSESSION with the EU and Brussels. The important decisions that are made on the European level are made by the national governments in negotiations before EU summits which take place in various cities (though often in Brussels) according to the rotating presidency of the European Council - installing van Rompuy hasn't changed that. Also, only the anglosaxon media think they cover everything important that happens in Europe by sending someone (albeit with some knowledge of French) to Brussels - possibly because they created Belgium and kept it alive until now? Belgium is a very good example that the roughly "20 %" of the vote going to the extreme right have very specific national reasons and are not part of Europe-wide anti-muslim let alone anti-"globalisation and/or the European Union" movement... on the other hand both in Britain and in Flanders they despise the French, don't they? Maybe that's the core of your identity politics: heh, the French!
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Edward Harkins wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 1:30 GMT
Two elements make this by-election a matter en passant.
First the Labour offer was, as you said Bagehot, “at least sensibly risk-averse”. But the offering of “a clean-cut, articulate ex-Parachute Regiment officer with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan” is not a serious proposition for Labour returning to power.
It may well have been a sensible offering at a by-election where the main business was the stirrings of a significant protest vote; but it’s also an offering that in a nation-wide contest the Tories could easily equal, and probably with some added (and more authentic) bells and whistles.
It does indicate that post Blair and Brown there is, as yet, no new and authentically Labour offering constructed by the Party. Is that a positive factor in-that it may be evidence of a deeper, more thoughtful and longer-term debate and reconstruction still going on inside Labour?
The second element abroad in this by-election was the, probably historic, process of significant and permanent repercussions for the Lib Dems arising out of their participation in the Conservative-led Coalition.
I say this because of what I learned in the recent, and excellent, programme on coalitions in 20th century UK politics, broadcast on the BBC Parliament channel. There were for me two main learning outcomes. The first was the substantial period of time that the UK was indeed ruled by coalition governments.
The second was the more significant lesson – that participation in the inter-war National Government was what in the end truly ended the Liberals’ credibility as a UK governing party. (The more conventional view being that it was the preceding rise of the Labour Party alone that was the fatal factor for the Liberals).
That coalition was, of course, led initially by Ramsey MacDonald, but was quickly suborned by the Conservatives.
Not only the electorate at large rejected the Liberals because of their coalition with the Tories; a large element of their own (still significant) party also did so. The consequent rift generated the so-called ‘National’ Liberal Party and the other one.
Liberals continued to serve in the National Government and the subsequent Administrations right up until the end of the WW2 wartime coalition.
But the party was never again a credible contender for power, until David Cameron’s ‘Big Offer’ came along. The Liberals’ acceptance of that offer now seems, ironically, to have ensured a repeat of the scenario where they are shunned by the electorate and many erstwhile party members alike.
The issues might now be, will the Lib Dems survive this time around as anything other than a very marginalised, narrow-constituency, small party aka BNP. UKIP etc.? And, given the incipient/potential anti-Tory backlash, what would the impact be in the Lib Dems’ traditional strongholds in Scotland and the West Country etc?
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Nirvana-bound wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 3:57 GMT
Oh, stop your pompous & meaningless hair-splitting, for crying out loud!
The immortal words of the Bard, spring to mind: "A tale told by an .... signifying nothing".
Get real!
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srafcolin wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 4:58 GMT
If British democracy is "wrecked" by EU membership, then so are the democracies of all other EU member states. How can the loony right-wing nationalist xenophobes really pretend to believe that the UK is the only country whose population attaches great value to its democracy?
When you sign and ratify any treaty, you give up a fraction of your national sovereignty, especially if the treaty involves membership of a supranational entity. That is just how public international law works. The same applies to membership of the United Nations or NATO, for instance.
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Cutters wrote:
Mar 5th 2011 7:42 GMT
srafcolin: Let s see... The Italians gave us Fascism, Germans Nationalist Socialism, Spain was under Fascism for most of last century, and Portugal and Greece were dictatorships. France and Belgium have both pushed the boat out in terms of 'Islamiphobia' in banning an item of clothing, while most of central and eastern europe are fairly new to the idea of democracy.
To the UK, Democracy is old and established, on the continent, it is new or has been disposable.
You are a clear example of the Nationalist Expansionists created by the EU, an EU that even Barroso has called an Empire!
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Des Modromic wrote:
Mar 6th 2011 8:21 GMT
The observation that the Barnsley by-electon was about protest votes and that LibDems are not longer a valid protest vote is insightful.
The LibDem and Conservative leaderships are carving out a new space in poitics. New, that is, unless you go back to Gladstone.
Thinking people want free trade and freedom of action and expression; and a small, economically literate government. For the first time in a century that is on the agenda.
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Reluctant Polutter wrote:
Mar 6th 2011 9:29 GMT
"Bagehot is a xenophobic racist
I don't agree with a lot in this Bagehot's article, but couldn't find anything in it which would allow this slur of yours. Shane on you, Cutters, you'd know better.
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Reluctant Polutter wrote:
Mar 6th 2011 9:44 GMT
The so called “protest vote” is mentioned in the article several times without any clue as to what the protest is against.
Are Lib Dems suitable vehicle for the protest vote or are they not?
Looks like Bagehot contemplates a universal vehicle for protest, which strikes me as a ludicrous idea. If the protest is against, say, Mohammedan flooding of the English hinterland, then a Euro skeptic party like UKIP is suitable for the goal, and Lib Dems who are aping all the Euro multi-culti stupidities, are not.
And of course the life long Labour voters, who are nevertheless fed up with the plague of political correctness imported from the Continent, would readily go after the Mid East veteran smartly chosen as the Labour's candidate.
Milliband and Co have bought themselves some more time: voters will start to drift towards British National Party in droves (they've already more vote than Lib Dems) after Labour betray their hopes another election cycle or two.
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Cutters wrote:
Mar 6th 2011 9:53 GMT
Reluctant Polutter: Bagehot has already come out as a Europhile, liking Euro things and shamefully supporting putting tariffs on the developing world. Such a mentality is xenophobic and racist, particularly when there are 2nd and 3rd world nations with a better record on corruption than some in the EU.
Bagehot has no respect for the UKs continued relationship with its former colonies, and tries to tarnish parties that do take such a global view as some how 'nationalist'... Bagehot clearly has an ignorant mind as far as the meaning of that word, and in such a view, mine is supported of Bagehots shameful bigotry in his Nationalist Expansionist propaganda.
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srafcolin wrote:
Mar 7th 2011 8:07 GMT
Excuse me, Mr. Cutters: "The Italians gave us Fascism, Germans Nationalist Socialism, Spain was under Fascism for most of last century, and Portugal and Greece were dictatorships."
Yup, that's all true.
Here's the rub: are you saying that those countries do not NOW have well-established and generally well-functioning democratic systems? Systems which are just as highly valued by their populations as our democracy is by ours, or am I hallucinating?
And, Mr. Cutters, what part of my remarks concerning treaties and sovereignty is untrue?
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Anthony Z wrote:
Mar 7th 2011 8:58 GMT
On cyclam's comment, I think Bagehot is just guessing, but if you look at D66 in the Netherlands, and FDP in Germany, 5% is a pretty reasonable guess for a centrist middle-class liberal party.
And UKIP is not nationalist in the sense of racist, but nationalist in the sense of putting the nation-state first (its attachment to the old Empire as a trade zone is hardly evidence of internationalism). I prefer the word "sovereigntist", because that's the key obsession, but it doesn't really exist in English. "Eurosceptic" is possibly the worst of all words, because it implies calm intellectual engagement with evidence rather than passionate partisanship.
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Corporateanarchist wrote:
Mar 7th 2011 10:39 GMT
How you can claim that any party which has the name of the nation in it is not nationalist, e.g The United Kingdom Independence Party, is beyond me.
I'd say that most of the current parties are Nationalist (The Conservative and Unionist party definitely so), with the possible exception of the Greens and maybe the liberals. Internationalism doesn't sell at the moment.
Although Nationalism is not my preferred ideology as I don't agree with national borders I don't really see it as a pejorative term. I’m also confused as to how it can be applied to a pro EU viewpoint, there has never been a European nation, there isn’t one now, or do you think a European nation exists?
Personally I’d quite like a European empire to help counterbalance the American, Chinese and Indian empires as I think much of what we have in Europe is to be admired (plus its less borders, step 1 in my global anarchist conspiracy to unite the world).
It would certainly be more useful to the modern world than the ephemeral dreams of an empire, that nobody wants any more, except for a few deluded folk in the UK.
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Corporateanarchist wrote:
Mar 7th 2011 3:41 GMT
The bigger question is how many votes for the Liberals were Labour party voters who were disenchanted with the Labour party but couldn't ever vote Tory.
Many of these people seem to feel betrayed now because they never expected the Liberals to go into coalition with the Tories (I have no idea why not).
Where will their votes go?
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Cutters wrote:
Mar 7th 2011 10:36 GMT
Corporateanarchist: "How you can claim that any party which has the name of the nation in it is not nationalist, e.g The United Kingdom Independence Party, is beyond me."
Maybe it so they don't get confused with the other Independence Parties: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_Party
"I’m also confused as to how it can be applied to a pro EU viewpoint..."
The EU is an Empire, Barroso confirmed this. Supporters of the EU are Nationalist Expansionists as they are in favour of expanding the power of the EU Empire over members of the EU and countries considered European.
srafcolin:"are you saying that those countries do not NOW have well-established and generally well-functioning democratic systems"
Well established? Lol! Functioning maybe, democratic... well I guess you get to vote.
"My remarks concerning treaties and sovereignty"
Define... your remarks were open, and meant to mislead. An agreement is only as enforceable as the parties involved are to enforce it. UN does not have political wings, nor does it have its own tax, nor does NATO. Being a UN member does not mean that one is bound by all treaties, like the NPT. So broadly speaking no, if you want to go in to details, then it can do, depending.
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Corporateanarchist wrote:
Mar 8th 2011 11:53 GMT
I'm in danger of counting dancing angels here.
Not looked too closely but from a quick look all those independance parties look like nationalist parties to me. I believe the major goal of UKIP is to for the United Kingdom (a nation) to become independant of the european union if that isn't a nationalist objective I don't know what is.
If the EU is a nascent empire then pro EU people would surely be Imperialists not Nationalists wouldn't they? There is no EU nation nor has there ever been one.
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