The tectonic plates of British politics are shifting. Ukip’s resounding victory at the European elections is a seismic tremor which saw Labour and the Tories pushed into second and third place, and the Lib Dems into fifth place behind the Greens.
This electoral earthquake is a warning to our mainstream parties, who, rather than reacting with astonished denial, need to accept a great deal of the responsibility for it. A lot of people are feeling disenfranchised from the decision-making process. Chief among voter concerns that benefited Ukip was immigration: there is a sense beyond the confines of any one party that net migration from inside and outside the European Union has been too much too quickly, and that many of our new residents have not fully integrated into British society. This view and the anxieties associated with it have all too regularly been attacked as xenophobic by large and influential sections of the political establishment.
This is a counter-productive approach to tackling the potential rise in the ugliest forms of political extremism. More importantly, it misses the point that how a nation state effectively manages its own borders is a legitimate question for debate within a modern democracy.
Managing economic migration within the EU is primarily a question of subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity – that political power ought to be held by the smallest, lowest, and least centralised authority capable of addressing relevant matters effectively – is essential in helping Catholics to grasp how we might react to the rapid rise of Ukip.
When it comes to free movement of workers across the EU, many Catholics revert to a humanitarianism that is vital when it comes to the welcome we ought to give those facing persecution but is less relevant in regard to what is ostensibly a policy derived from free-market capitalism.
Perhaps the free movement of workers is the right policy; I for one welcome our Polish brothers and sisters, who have done so much to enrich the Catholic Church here. However, closing down a vital debate on the correct geopolitical authority to decide European economic migration, on the grounds that questioning the status quo is somehow lacking in gospel values, is hardly an authentic Catholic approach.
We may decide as a country that we are perfectly happy to have relatively porous borders but that does not mean that such decisions must necessarily be pooled within the EU rather than decided at the nation-state.
Why should the influx of relatively cheap labour that suppresses inflation and boosts economic growth be viewed mainly in terms of liberal-minded humanitarian tolerance when it is so obviously a policy founded on free-market ideology that primarily benefits the established middle classes? Working-class people who have seen their wages stagnate – and their value drop – are understandably concerned about immigration; and no doubt take umbrage at the accusation of racism that is typically levelled at them by those same middle classes for whom the free movement of labour has benefited.
In his Christmas message of 1944 “Democracy and a Lasting Peace”, Pope Pius XII said of the European vision that “each state retains an equal right of its own sovereignty” but that in certain areas this would be exercised through “an organ invested by common consent with supreme power”. We need a serious, calm discussion about whether European economic immigration should be a competence completely ceded to that supreme supranational authority. Catholics should be wary of assuming that the answer is an unequivocal “yes”.