THE BLOG

UKIP's Contribution

02/01/2015 10:06 GMT | Updated 03/03/2015 10:59 GMT

Just as a piece of clay is moulded by the potter's fingers, so the politics of Europe are being reshaped by doubts about the European Union and worries about immigration. In Greece, the left wing Syriza stands ahead in the polls, just a few weeks before parliamentary elections. If they win they are pledged to renegotiate the financial agreement made with the EU and, more importantly, their victory will encourage others to question the austerity measures which lie at the heart of Europe's answer to the financial crisis. In Dresden the demonstration arranged by the anti-Islamic group PEGIDA attracted a crowd of some 17,000. Ok, they only sang carols but the movement seems to be on the way forward and others have felt it necessary to demonstrate against it. Everywhere politics is moving away from the centre as deepening worries push voters to the left and to the right.

What then of the UK? Does it stand rocklike, impervious to the tides which flow about it - an exhibition of stability to those unfortunate enough to live on the mainland. Well no, of course it doesn't. As the UK approaches May's general election, normal alignments have been thrown into disarray by the rise of UKIP, the UK Independence Party, which stands poised to take votes from both Mr Cameron's Conservatives and Mr Miliband's Labour.

There are two main strings to UKIP's bow. The first is its policy of withdrawal from the EU. The Conservatives have already promised the public a referendum on this issue but their strategy is to renegotiate the European treaties into a more acceptable form and then to ask the public to rubber stamp the new settlement. UKIP, on the other hand, really wants out and trades on a general public resentment of rule by unelected Brussels bureaucrats. To exploit this in a general election, however, they have to overcome a "Catch-22". If Conservative voters turn to UKIP - and generally speaking it is right wing Conservatives who are most likely to share their views - they make a Labour victory in the election more likely and if Labour win there will be no referendum on EU membership at all. The anti-European who moves from the Conservatives to UKIP will thus shoot himself in the foot.

The other seam being mined by UKIP is public concern about the levels of immigration. That is fuelled by a perception that successive governments have lost their grip on border control - perhaps unsurprisingly since free movement of people is a fundamental principle of the EU treaty. Actually, as a small trading nation, the UK benefits enormously from hard-working immigrants so decisions need to be reached about how balances are to be struck. How soon should new arrivals qualify for benefits? Should they be entitled to subsidised housing? Should they be able to bring dependents with them? Should those who graduate in UK universities be given work permits? If the government can answer these questions correctly it will pull the rug from under UKIP on immigration too and, since the answers are fairly obvious, there must be a chance that at least some of them will be got right. The interesting question, however, is why they have not been answered properly in the past.

That takes us back to one of the nastiest aspects of UK society. No, not racism. There is racism in the UK to be sure but as a country it is probably more tolerant and welcoming than most. No, it is the political correctness which, by branding anyone who tried to discuss immigration as a bigot, has effectively strangled proper debate on the subject for years. The emergence of UKIP has broken that taboo and the focus can finally move to the question of how to build a constructive immigration policy and whether that requires any changes to EU rules.

I hold no candle for UKIP, a party whose policies on the EU and on immigration seem to me to be mistaken and which, if it is to make an impact in May, will need to attract some very odd people; but neither are they all racists and, by removing the taboo on the discussion of immigration, they have done their country a great service.