Who cares about Europe?

In the debate about Britain’s role in the European Union, following the Prime Minister’s recent speech, I have been struck by two facts.

Firstly, a Populus poll for The Times, found that 35% of Liberal Democrat supporters would vote to leave the EU if there were a referendum. That’s right; one third of the supporters of our most avidly Europhile political party want to leave the EU. The reason, I suspect, is that there are several reasons to vote for the Liberal Democrats. The EU just doesn’t feature on most voters’ radar.

The second fact came from polling by Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative donor and peer, in December 2012. Ashcroft wanted to look at whether, and why, voters appeared to be turning to UKIP. He found that the recent increases in UKIP’s support had little to do with policies; and virtually nothing to do with Europe.

Only 27% of those considering a vote for UKIP felt that Britain’s relations with the EU were one of the top three issues facing the country. That figure is only 10 percentage points higher than the rest of the electorate.

Instead, the reason that some voters are considering UKIP has more to do with outlook than policies. These are people frustrated that schools can’t seem to hold nativity plays anymore, that you can’t fly the flag of St George any more, or that you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you come from an ethic minority. And of course, these people think that anyone who speaks up about these issues is labelled a racist. These examples may be real or imagined, but the effect is that a substantial proportion of the electorate do not feel represented by the mainstream political parties.

So the increase in UKIP’s support is caused by a feeling of disenchantment with politics and political parties. The movement towards UKIP is a statement of a growth in anti-political sentiment, which is only marginally affected our relations with the EU.

This adds up to an interesting conclusion. The supporters of neither periphery in the EU debate, either Europhile or Eurosceptic, really care about Europe.

So, who does care about Europe?

There is an element of oligarchy here. The leadership of UKIP have stronger views about Britain’s relationship with the EU than many of their supporters appear to have. There are also Conservative backbenchers, such as Bill Cash or Douglas Carswell, who have a strongly held views on the EU. On the other side, there are senior Liberal Democrats who genuinely feel that the EU is a positive project in which the UK should play a full part.

But, for the most part, this is not really a debate about Europe.

In the Conservative Party, Europe is a proxy through which different factions are wrestling for control. Those on the Right are using Europe to pull David Cameron in their direction and open a gap between the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Many on the right of the Conservatives never felt represented by David Cameron, and feel even less so now he is in Coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

For the Conservative leadership, Europe is an opportunity to stand up to the rebellious Right. By announcing a referendum, the Prime Minister was able to demonstrate leadership and confront the unruly elements in his party. The referendum is a chance to bring his party together in the run up to the next general election.

But, most importantly, Cameron’s announcement was a chance to neutralise Europe as a political issue. Voters do not vote for divided parties, and the old split over Europe threatened to engulf the Conservatives in infighting. The Prime Minister will hope that this announcement keeps Europe out of the headlines.

David Cameron has grasped that the voters just do not care about Europe. He knows that a Party which talks about little else will struggle to win votes.

For Nick Clegg, Europe can be used to make bigger political points. He can differentiate himself from the Prime Minister and appeal to his party’s core supporters. Ed Miliband, on the other hand, can use the Europe debate to present himself as a statesman. Miliband claims that, unlike the Prime Minister, he is not shackled by party disunity and is free to pursue Britain’s national interest.

I have an uneasy feeling as I conclude this piece; that I have spent several hours writing an article on how nobody cares about the subject of my article.

But while there appears to be a debate raging about Europe, there are actually a plethora of other debates under the guise of Europe. Whether it is about the disillusionment of the white working class or the fight to control the Conservative Party, Europe is the proxy for almost any other issue.