As mad as Hell: UKIP’s political success

Frederick Cowell 

Image© IndependentThinkerUK

Nigel Farage is the most dangerous man in British politics. Why?  He leads a party with no MPs and his party’s most well known policy, a referendum to leave the EU, is so popular among Conservative MP’s that should they win the 2015 election they’re offering their own version of it.  On TV he often comes across as a charming pub bore, the sort of chap who begins an argument midway through the second round saying “look, I’m saying what we’re all thinking here”. Yet as they manage to gain a quarter of all votes cast in this month’s local elections they are turning into a fourth force in UK politics and a real political headache. Even before the May election their influence on UK politics, outside of a vehicle of protest against the EU, had been growing steadily; at both the Eastliegh and South Shields by-elections they came second and since the start of 2013 have been absorbing defections of councillors from the Tories at the rate of one a week 

The left often misread the UKIP threat either tactically reasoning that it hurts the Tories or as a band of cranks plugging an esoteric Europhobic obsession on the fringes of British politics. This view however pretends that it is 1997 and Euroskepticism is still some sort of crank project being run by the heir to the marmite fortune. The 2010 Eurozone crisis has allowed UKIPers to claim near messianic prescience or at the very least give credence to their “we were right all along” claims.  The other perception of UKIP, and one shared by the Prime Minister, is that UKIP are a bunch of slightly loopy fanatics. Some of their leaders have made some appalling statement; Lord Pearson the former party leader saying, “Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us,” he said. “I don’t know at what point they reach such a number we are no longer able to resist the rest of their demands”. And one candidate for council has written that the Second World War was a “Zionists conspiracy”. But at the same time the party isn’t simply some unreconstructed manifestation of the National Front, it is much more complex than that and often left wing arguments attacking UKIP as racist tend towards generalisations, which in turn allow UKIP supporters to respond angrily by pointing to examples of diversity and internal policies that prevent former BNP members from joining.

UKIP profess to be libertarian in their outlook favouring a small state and push ever downwards to local governance; it has been rumoured that Nigel Farage has professed to wanting a minimal or nonexistent  welfare state and open immigration – the libertarian dream. They are ostensibly non-racist in their opposition to the EU, just anti-statist and Farage’s deputy Paul Nutall often extols the virtues of close trade ties with Brazil and Australia. But here’s the catch. That is not how they are currently raking up opinion poll leads and scaring the Tories in by-elections.

That is done by pushing a nihilistic, nimbyist anti-poltical screed at a weary electorate, who are fearful in an uncertain economic climate. Diane James their candidate in the Eastleigh by-election proudly told an interviewer that she had gone to door to door in Eastleigh with a simple message: “enough is enough.” Focus groups of UKIP’s supporters reveal that the only thing that many of them like about Britain at the moment is “the past”.  Their recent popularity has seen them surf a wave of small –c conservative resentment; sometimes explicitly and sometimes subtly grabbing at fragments of anger and discontent and then calling it policy. After all what libertarian party would propose banning the Burka or circulate wildly homophobic propaganda leaflets as part of an election campaign. A desire to harvest populist anger explains the crazy candidates and supporters in the County Council elections;  three BNP members, two homophobes and an electoral  fraudster in a pear tree. Before the Conservative Party went on the attack Farage pre-emptively said that the party couldn’t vet all candidates for Council and that some would fall through the cracks.  But part of UKIP’s claim to authenticity is that they aren’t real politicians, they are common people saying ‘what we are all thinking’ – and many on the right who are fed up with David Cameron, in particular the right wing press have been giving them an easy ride as a consequence.

Whilst not being the National Front they fit into their political tradition. The National Front went from an obscure backstreet organisation in the 1960s to an electoral force in the late 1970s because they explained the runaway inflation, industrial strife and social change of the era through the prism of race. Dominic Sandbrook in his book Seasons in the Sun cites a 1976 television play made (and later suppressed) by the BBC  about the National Front where the lead character emotionally confesses his reason for supporting them as being a longing for “the England I remember as a younger man.”  That is what UKIP are basically offering people; a return to the half remembered world of 1957, when the English Channel, a stiff British upper lip and a twitched lace curtain kept the world at bay. A world in which all evils can in one way or another be traced back to the EU.

The problem is that world doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. The rise of China, the sovereign debt crisis and dwindling natural resources means that Britain need every competitive advantage it can get including EU membership.  All politicians to some extent benefit from discontent but UKIP are different. They duck hard choices by having a set of manifesto and spending commitments that are contradictory nonsense – such as raising benefits for everyone whilst at the same time having sweeping tax cuts. They are a receptacle for anger not an agglomeration of ideas about government or an ideological platform. This is why thinking about them as lost Tory voters is a bit of a waste of time. The Tories can’t be a governing party and offer UKIP supporters what they want; in fact they offered a UKIP-lite platform to the electorate in 2001 and were annihilated. But that doesn’t matter. The point is if you are voting UKIP you are, to paraphrase the anchor from the 1976 film Network, ‘as mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.’

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