19/11/2013 07:02 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Ukip's Empty Rhetoric of Self-Government

British multi-millionaire Paul Sykes recently made the news by announcing that he would help bankroll UKIP's 2014 European parliamentary election campaign. His goal is for Britain "to get back to becoming a self-governing nation" by withdrawing from the EU. But what kind of policy autonomy is realistic for a medium-sized economic power? Self-government is a noble democratic principle with a long intellectual and political history. However, as a motivation for withdrawing from the EU it is a dangerous conceit about what the United Kingdom can actually decide for itself. If self-government is truly the goal, then UKIP and its main backer have to explain precisely what leaving the EU will achieve.

Life in Britain is profoundly shaped by international rules, whether in the form of EU legislation, international treaties covering trade, security, and human rights, or private sector agreements such as those on banking and accounting rules. While the EU looms large in the panorama of this regulatory framework negotiated beyond Westminster, the choice is not simply one between London or Brussels. The WTO, NATO, the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN system itself all have an impact British parliamentary sovereignty. So it is important to discover whether the ultimate aim is to rollback all these constraints and, if not, UKIP ought to justify why the EU is beyond the pale.

It is certainly tempting to blame technocrats in Brussels and judges at the Court of Justice in Luxembourg for chipping away at British self-government. Yet the alternatives do not look that promising. Different degrees of association with the EU are possible as a non-member. Switzerland negotiates access to the single market bilaterally; Norway and Iceland are part of the European Economic Area (EEA), which entails full single market participation in return for domestic implementation of EU rules. There is no point complaining about Brussels' regulatory zeal and then remaining committed to enacting single market rules on a non-voting basis. So EEA membership is certainly not a route to self-government. Bilateral negotiation to access the single market is possible. In the Swiss case though it took years of negotiations, generating the kind of uncertainty British businesses can do without, and necessitated compromises as the EU is the bigger economic power. This outcome does not seem to be a triumphant validation of self-government meaning that it is incumbent on to UKIP to argue otherwise.

Then there is the thorny question of the free movement of people. Switzerland, like the EEA countries, allows for reciprocal free movement by EU citizens. Can the UK really repudiate this arrangement wholesale? UK businesses currently benefit from a larger pool of workers (2.3 million EU citizens live here), while the 1.4 million Britons living in another EU country could suffer from petty retaliatory measures should Britain limit EU citizens' rights to work and study. UKIP and Sykes thus need to consider the price that might have to be paid for self-government.

There are genuine reasons to be concerned about the impact of EU single market regulations on competitiveness, especially for small- and medium-sized companies. The problem is that building a campaign for self-government purely on such grievances is premised on an illusion. The UK's place as a hub for international trade and finance means it has to participate in the formulation of shared rules for business, immigration, and the environment. To think otherwise is logically flawed and to couch opposition to the EU as a vote for self-government is disingenuous.

Unless the terms and benefits of self-government outside the EU are spelled out in detail, the debate over Britain's relationship with the EU will remain fundamentally impoverished. If UKIP wants to prove its credentials as a serious party the onus is on it to actually set out its vision of a self-governing country. Empty rhetoric about self-government is not a substitute for informed policy debate.