Roving thoughts and provocations

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Britain Lurches

Facundo Arrizabalaga/epa/Corbis
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage celebrating local election results, South Benfleet, Essex, United Kingdom, May 23, 2014

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)—with its anti-immigration, frankly xenophobic agenda—has just become the largest British party in the European Parliament, winning almost 30 percent of the country’s popular vote in the May 25 election. It has also just secured 163 more councillors in the local elections in England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales were not voting). This does not mean that the UK has suddenly lurched to the right.

Nor does it mean that Europe has lurched to the right, despite the success of some superficially similar parties in other countries. Beyond Euro-skepticism and a general opposition to immigration, UKIP has relatively little in common (thank heavens) with Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and has refused to join her European Group of far-right parties. In fact, one of the consequences of UKIP’s British success is that the really far-right British National Party has lost its two seats in the European parliament.

The UK Independence Party, it seems, has drawn its support from across the political spectrum. It attracts—in addition to the xenophobic—the socially conservative (against same-sex marriage and in favor of “traditional British values”), and those who are deeply suspicious of the European Union (“Why be run by Brussels?”). Certainly it includes among its supporters and party candidates some people of extreme right-wing inclinations. But most of all, UKIP appeals to those who feel distanced from modern politics and politicians. They hate the sense of a political class, which consists of those who have never worked in anything other than professional politics, who speak only in carefully controlled, on-message sound bites, and never really engage with “us voters.”

This explains the extraordinary popularity of the party leader, Nigel Farage—a privately-educated, ex-city financial trader who left the Tory party in 1992 to set up UKIP, and who since 1999 has been a Member of the European Parliament, an institution which he is committed to undermining. Farage appears to speak his mind without concern for political correctness (and it is, of course, largely appearance). He relishes nothing more than being photographed outside a pub, with a pint of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There’s hardly another British politician who would be seen dead in public within ten yards of a packet of Marlboro Lights, whatever their secret smoking habits. This looks like a breath of fresh air.

And Farage is not averse to offering his German wife as a defense against the suggestion that there is any personal hatred of “foreigners” in the UKIP campaign – whether on his own part or that of his followers. The party’s official message (and it is, I have no doubt, sincerely believed by some members) is that they are personally a pretty tolerant bunch; they simply want to end the dominance of the EU over British politics, and they want to stop the inflow of EU migrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, who are taking British jobs.

This is troubling enough. But the real danger of UKIP’s success is not its own policies, but the reaction it draws from politicians and supporters of the other parties. On the one hand, there is a tendency to brush their success aside, as merely a fairly insignificant protest vote, which will soon evaporate, as such protest votes usually do, and will not turn into votes in next year’s general election. Besides, it is often argued, UKIP is really a one-man band. Beyond the eloquent Farage, there is little talent in the party; and, to make their electoral gains, they have had to turn to a dreadful rag-bag of candidates, including some quite unsavory types, whose incompetence, or worse, will be quickly revealed.

This is not entirely wrong. Already, only a week after the local elections, UKIP has had to expel from the party one of its newly elected candidates for talking about gays as “perverts”, “poofs,” and “dykes,” and with a record (so it is reported) of complaining that he was not allowed to use the term “Paki.” To the party’s credit, it has expelled him. But how did he become a UKIP candidate in the first place?

Those who sit back and assume that UKIP will self-destruct, however, avoid asking themselves the question of why this xenophobia can claim nearly one third of the popular vote. It is not enough to say that recessions always encourage people to look askance at outsiders and wait for more prosperous times. One of Farage’s most popular lines has been about language. It is not nice, he claims, to be on public transport and to be surrounded by people jabbering away (my word, not his) in a foreign tongue. Others have complained that in areas with a high concentration of migrants parking regulations in public parking lots are written not only in English, but also in Polish or Romanian. You feel like you don’t belong in your own country, is their cry.

Such complaints ought to prompt all of us to do more than sigh and pass on. We surely have to reflect, for example, on the erosion of foreign language teaching in British high schools. If you have never learned another tongue to any degree of proficiency, of course you feel unsettled by what might seem as a Babel of incomprehensible languages being chattered around you. And if all you learned in your history lessons was that Germany was “our enemy,” from Kaiser Bill to Hitler (not to mention all those “escape from Colditz” movies and BBC sit-coms), you are not likely to be predisposed to listening to what Mrs. Merkel has to say. A rigidly British curriculum (which the current Education Secretary seems to be determined to make even more British) is not a good basis for being a citizen of a multicultural European Union.

On the other hand, there are also clear signs of a dangerous overreaction to the UK Independence Party by the main political parties—and so of a drift toward an increasingly rigid policy on immigration, at least for public consumption, even if their heart is not really in it (for there are some who think that policing our borders will be a big issue in the 2015 election). Whereas a couple of years ago, the front bench politicians on both sides of the House of Commons were dismissing UKIP as a load of nutters, now they are repeatedly saying that they too are determined to reflect the voters concerns about immigration and Europe. It is all starting to sound a bit like government by focus group (if the public want us to get tough on migration, then so we shall, in order to get elected). There is very little sign of that equally important democratic duty that rests with our elected representatives: namely the duty to try to persuade us, rather than simply reflect our prejudices (we voters might still say no the persuasion, but at least they should try).

There is very little sign, in other words, that the strong arguments that might assuage a fear of immigrants, EU migrants, or hostility to the EU, are being effectively put. It is highly debatable, for example, that migrants from the EU are taking British jobs on any major scale, or that the UK loses more than it gains from its membership in the EU. Certainly the projected flood of Bulgarians and Romanians into the country, after the transitional restrictions were lifted on January 1, never materialised (and there were in fact some slightly comic scenes as journalists hung around airports waiting for some Romanian migrant to interview). But it seems hard to find a parliamentary voice insisting—against popular mythology—that the EU is not spending its time trying to ban Marmite or Stilton cheese, nor is it trying to make all tomatoes and bananas rectangular for easier packing. To be fair, Nick Clegg—the leader of the Liberal Democrats, in a now uneasy coalition with the Tories, and a man with nothing to lose—did try to take on Farage in a series of television debates, but he failed dreadfully.

And that points to the uncomfortable fact that we have few politicians capable of winning in an oratorical contest with Farage. Ken Clarke (a liberal Tory, now so left wing that it is hard to see how he can sit at the Cabinet table) does not do badly, with his slightly dry air of irritation at the hype. But the best opponent is Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayor of London and reputed to have his eye on David Cameron’s job. Parodying the famous “You turn if you want to…” speech of Margaret Thatcher, he came out with the nice quip “You kip if you want to…” And lots of people for the first time laughed at Farage’s UKIP.

The irony, of course, is that the Oxford classicist Johnson is about the closest of any mainstream politician to the populist loucheness of Farage himself.

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