The UKIP rebellion
Published in The Australian, June 24, 2014
WITH less than 11 months left to persuade a sceptical British public he deserves a second term as prime minister, David Cameron has decided to charge shoppers five pence for a supermarket plastic bag.
In April the Eurocrats declared a jihad on plastic bags, a holy war they prefer to call “a Binding European Union Target”. All member nations have been ordered to reduce their use by 80 per cent in five years.
The environmental logic of making customers pay for plastic bags is baffling enough. The political logic of caving in to the latest moral Euro-crusade, instead of simply ignoring it, is even more abstruse. If Cameron’s bacon is to be saved next May, it will not be by the grace of the hessian bag carriers of Hertfordshire, the compost makers of Kent or the chattering classes of Chatham.
The votes Cameron needs to chase are in middle Britain, where honest, decent folk shunned the major parties and voted for UKIP in last month’s European parliamentary election. They voted en masse for a party that wants Britain to leave the EU and its petty obsessions.
The rise of this politically incorrect force has reshaped the landscape of British politics. Eight years ago Cameron dismissed them as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. It is doubtful that he would be foolish enough to do so today. Yet in playing to sensitivities of middle-class, floating voters, both Labour and the Conservatives have strengthened UKIP’s hand.
Should the Cameron government introduce plain packet cigarettes, for instance, as it has been threatening to do, it will be a vote-winner for UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Farage stages press conference in the boozer, holding a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He has contempt for “the cardboard cutout careerists in Westminster”, politicians “who daren’t say what they really mean”. In turn, the cardboard cutout careerists have the upmost contempt for Farage. In Britain, as in Australia, the professional political clique that runs the show resents the intrusion of an outsider.
The rise of UKIP has thrown the widening cultural gap between London and the rest of the country into sharp relief. In the European elections, UKIP won a third of the vote in the East Midlands, pushing the Conservatives into second place and Labour into third. UKIP topped the poll in the southwest (32 per cent), southeast (32 per cent) the West Midlands (31 per cent) and Yorkshire and Humberside (31 per cent). It came a close second to Labour in the northwest, northeast and in Wales.
In every corner of Britain, UKIP secured well over a quarter of the vote. Everywhere, that is, except Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalists capture some of the dissenting vote, and in the capital. Londoners elected four Labour MEPs, two Conservatives, and one representative each for UKIP and the Greens.
The Guardian, that repository of British smugness, lists reasons not to vote for UKIP. First, “its stances are bonkers”. Second, “it has nasty friends in Europe”. Third, “it’s a magnet for unsavoury types”, people “who say racist, Islamophobic or plain offensive things”.
Farage refuses to kowtow to political correctness and claims that “normal, decent people have been bullied out of the debate”.
“None of the London commentariat has noticed what’s going on out there in Telford, and Aylesbury, and Kettering, and Buxton and Harrogate,” he said. “It’s a long way from London.”
Support for UKIP does not fit neatly into traditional definitions of Left and Right, as political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin note in a new book on the party. Instead, it “reflects a divide between a political mainstream dominated by a more financially secure and highly educated middle class, and a more insecure and precarious working class, which feels its concerns have been written out of the public debate”.
Farage articulates their unease about the direction modern Britain has taken and presents himself as the defender of common sense. He shares the popular irritation at the finger-wagging nanny state and is troubled by mass immigration, graffiti, vandalism, law and order, the quality of education and the welfare state.
Farage is patriotic, which, perversely, is an unfashionable position to take. Britain gave the world the rule of law, habeas corpus, parliamentary democracy, the industrial revolution and the Scottish enlightenment. It fought with extraordinary courage in two world wars against tyranny. Yet to express pride in one’s country is regarded as ghastly by Britain’s hand-wringing cultural elite who turn a blind eye to the rising tide of national pride.
“It’s the little things,” says Farage, “the turnout at Remembrance Day parades. They go up every year. A younger generation, an under-45 generation, is hungry to know about their history.”
With the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats, UKIP is effectively the official third force in British domestic politics judged by its share of the vote, if not in the number of seats it holds. Some in the Conservative Party favour an electoral pact. UKIP, however, will not be easily bought.
“Politics, for the voters who back UKIP, has ceased to be defined primarily as a battle for economic resources,” write Ford and Goodwin. “They do not consider mainstream politicians to be the people who can protect them from the effects of the financial crisis, but rather as part of the corrupt and distant class who inflicted this crisis upon them.”
The UKIP insurgence is no less of a threat for Labour’s Ed Milliband, a leader who has struggled to connect with the popular mood. UKIP is not, as some like to imagine, just a home for disgruntled Tories from the shires. Blue Labour voters, conservative, patriotic working-class people who felt alienated by Tony Blair’s New Labour, have joined the revolt.
While the first-past-the-post system makes it hard for a new entrant to win more than a handful of seats, both parties are likely to lose votes to the newcomer. The winner will be the one that loses least skin.
Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain, Routledge, Abingdon, 2014.