Should my website come out as an open supporter of the UK Independence Party? Should I train this mighty cannon on the enemies of UKIP? There would be no money in this, I hasten to add, but there seems to be no money in anything I do. A few years ago, supporting UKIP would have seemed as outlandish a prospect as visiting a brothel or attending a church service. It has recently surprised me by popping up at my side, suddenly something to think about.
I like UKIP and its members. As a political party, they have a quality which is excruciatingly absent from all of the other parties: they seem realistic. At their best, they resemble a random collection of ordinary people. Within post New Labour politics, they usually look as dismayed and indignant as a coach party of English pensioners who are lost in the corridors of a Transylvanian castle. David Cameron is swishing about, appearing briefly on a balcony overhead with an arch remark; whilst his hordes of Romanian serfs are roaming beyond the drawbridge.
Peter Hitchens compares UKIP to the 60’s sitcom Dad’s Army, and the party exhibits a gentle, rather dotty hopelessness that cannot fail to be endearing to anybody who has grown up on BBC sitcoms. Hitchens in fact regards UKIP as being a con: a bunch of social conservatives who do not realise that they are being led by a libertarian. Nigel Farage, in Hitchens’ view, comports himself like a lifetime regular at your nearest Coach and Horses, when he actually favours the decriminalisation of drugs and free-market economics. If most of his party are recolonising the 1950s, Farage has slipped out of the time warp midway and bunked off to the 80s.
In this interpretation, Farage appears curiously similar to Tony Blair or David Cameron, in leading a party which looks upon his values as being remote or even distasteful. Blair was a free marketeer with grassroots support from trade union members; Cameron is a social democrat with a conservative activist base. In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, Farage is rueful about his party, as if they are only a hand that he has been dealt. He describes himself as “the odd one out” within UKIP, and admits that it would be “completely impossible” for him to win the party over to his favoured drug policy.
I like Farage and I feel that I have a personal connection to him, since both of us are overly fond of using the word “ghastly.” He seems a beery man, but in a contained way, in always appearing to be surrounded by advisors who are more stiffly sober than himself. His estrangement from his party members may not be the result of bad faith, but ideological overstretch. Farage has previously stated that UKIP should be “broadly standing for traditional conservative and libertarian values,” which is to bite off more than anybody can chew. Libertarianism has never been traditional, and conservatism in practice requires people to give up or to at least not care about their freedoms.
I am interested in an argument advanced by the blogger Boiling Frog, who is pro-UKIP but anti-Farage. He insists that Farage’s recent dismissal of UKIP’s 2010 manifesto as “drivel” is “quite a smack in the face to UKIP members” and “further evidence that UKIP is Nigel Farage’s plaything.” Yet UKIP policy remains sensibly fluid for the moment and Farage’s apparent disinterest in all of the people who campaign for him bespeaks an eagerness to appeal directly beyond this captive audience.
Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s excellent UKIP Watch feature on Telegraph Blogs may affirm the wisdom of Farage’s tactics. You may be dismayed, incidentally, that the electorate’s views have to be now hunted in the field by these pollsters and professional researchers, rather than being absorbed into politics from the grassroots. UKIP Watch nonetheless identifies another clear step down from UKIP’s members to its voters: the former may be “southern and suburban former Tories,” but the latter amount to “Britain’s most working-class party. Blue-collar workers are heavily over-represented. Middle-class professionals are scarce.” The Left is occasionally aghast that UKIP’s voters are working class rather than Tory, which is to make the mistake of believing their own propaganda. Outside of Scotland, an awful lot of Tory voters have been blue collar as well (UKIP has far less of a hold on Scotland than its Euro-scepticism should warrant, but this seems to be only because the party remains English from top to toe). The working class, whatever they want or do, are still evidently out there. Perhaps Farage has gambled upon rousing this rabble through campaign urgency alone, without recourse to cumbersome party machinery.
Within Westminster politics, UKIP is increasingly regarded as being something like the Peasants’ Revolt – a darkly alien, predominantly rural, “swinish multitude” which is amassing beyond London’s borders. With UKIP’s proletarian tendencies now apparently out of the closet, the political class are obviously nauseated, but they remain limited in how they can express this loathing. A great deal of UKIP’s representation in the media teeters on snobbery – the good old, bottled Victorian stuff – but since our system is still technically a democracy, it comes under strain whenever our politicians begin to survey the electorate with contempt.
Even though it has been de rigueur for years to dismiss cabinet ministers as automatons who read jargon from imaginary autocues, UKIP are being presently slated in the media for their want of robotic smoothness. They are associated with a sinister, lurid eccentricity, as if they have all walked straight out of the League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey. The word “racism” is increasingly used as a sort of torturous euphemism to try and express what the political class think about UKIP’s members. “Racist,” when fired in the direction of UKIP supporters, often seems to be shorthand for unsophisticated, rural, dirty, envious, and poor. From the Telegraph to the New Statesman, UKIP have been roundly indicted of “racism.” Not “racist” towards any identifiable race(s) or with any worldly consequences; more as a grimy existential disability, a mental leprosy. Crying wolf so freely only devalues the word until it is used with the same glee and precision that schoolchildren call each other “gay.”
Thankfully, UKIP’s phantom proletarians fade away in the light. You would not have realised from much of the media coverage of last year’s May elections that UKIP had won just 7.1% of the entire national vote (23% of a 31% turnout). They have only 34,000 members, when the Lib Dems have 43,451 (and not even NASA can know from which deranged planet such an enterprise could have recruited 43,451 supporters). 253,600 Conservative Party members voted for David Cameron in 2005 and there were a mere 134,000 left in 2013 (many had probably died of old age), so UKIP’s recent membership – 19,500 as late as 2012 – signifies more of a Tory nosebleed than a haemorrhage. UKIP’s share of the vote may be rising, but only in elections in which the turnout is declining or depleted. UKIP seem increasingly like our equivalent of the Tea Party: a tiny pimple on American democracy which the British media frequently magnifies into its most distinguishing characteristic.
If UKIP is so wretched, then why am I entertaining the prospect of supporting it? To me, this squalid party is still handsome and still a vision of mucky purity. The idea of achieving power for its own sake remains wholly alien to UKIP. This stands in contrast to the SNP, who often look like they are on the make and coveting a whole administration full of juicy new jobs. Farage is not a career politician, or even completely a sort of adventurer, but (in his own words) “a full-time campaigner. Different psychology.” As the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead attests, “When he tells me he has no personal ambition for high office, and cares only about seeing Ukip policy implemented, I believe him.”
Ah, you will interject, but so much of what you believe in is directly opposed to UKIP’s agenda. You want to see borders flung open and British nationalism buried under the hills. Contemporary politics is currently so dire, however, that even pragmatism is worth a shot. My defence of contractual democracy can be plausibly superimposed over UKIP’s nationalistic and generally nostalgic challenge to the EU.
UKIP’s well-worn line that they want to “take back control of our borders,” for example, is only an attack upon mass immigration if you are bigoted enough to think that the British people cannot be persuaded to vote for open borders within their own domestic elections. If you look to the EU to safeguard open borders, then fine, but you also concede that everybody you meet with on a daily basis is too backward to agree with your more progressive outlook. That’s a prize Catch-22, at once progressive and abominably conservative. I look to Britain to take control of its borders and I trust in our democracy to keep them open.
In the long term, Farage’s decision to wander beyond a defence of national borders and into his crooked protectionist economics, which connives to starve our economy of labour and consumers, may be a miscalculation. Just as Alex Salmond is careful to distinguish between the procurement of Scottish independence and future policies within an independent Scotland, Farage might find it easier to build support for UKIP if he parked his rhetoric at an EU exit. The right can scheme for immigration controls, the Left can fight for open borders, but UKIP should remain above it all.
I have flirted with UKIP and I find them charming. They perk me up and put a song on my lips and leave me feeling more sanguine about British politics. Yet there is no worldly reason why all of the creaking infrastructure of the Left, its unions and Labour party, cannot be made over with UKIP materials. I am not “a Eurosceptic” – the term is superfluous when one is a democrat – and I am not about to quit the Left on the basis that it cannot be reconciled with democracy. It can.
[Good to read EdinburghEye for a different take.]