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Growing Pains

Britain’s UKIP raises the question: Can an anti-political party ever be a political success?

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By TED R. BROMUND
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The Conservative party is very much a permanent institution, and in politics you don’t become an institution without a well-developed sense of paranoia. After all, they really are all out to get you. Cameron has tried to respond to UKIP by promising to hold a referendum on British membership in the EU if he wins the next election, and by pledging to cut net migration into Britain to the “tens of thousands.” But neither appeal has worked, because neither is credible. As Cameron freely admits, he doesn’t actually want to leave the EU, and as long as it’s in the EU, Britain lacks the right to control its borders: Annual net migration jumped by late 2013 to over 200,000, more than half of it from within the EU. 

While UKIP is often described as Euroskeptic—and it is, intensely so—there is no evidence that Britain will vote en masse for a party that bases its core appeal on hostility to the EU. The EU is ignored, disliked, and resented in Britain, but except for a stout band of believers, the preservation of British sovereignty and parliamentary democracy are too abstract to win votes. What mass immigration has done, for the first time, is connect the EU to economic, social, and identity issues, which voters do care about.

And the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, is a genius at making that connection. Like him or not, you cannot watch him without realizing that, as a performer, he is simply in a different league from Britain’s other party leaders. When the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, unwisely challenged Farage to a series of debates earlier this year, Farage squashed him comprehensively. His penchant for troubling remarks—such as his expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s political skills, which made waves in late March—is an unpleasant facet of his appeal as the pint-drinking, politically incorrect disturber of the political establishment. As I found on the doorsteps of Lewes, he alienates three voters for every four he attracts, but that’s still a net win.

The heart of UKIP’s appeal, as Ford and Goodwin rightly put it, is both antipolitical and working class. It bears similarities to Enoch Powell’s rebellion in the late 1960s, in that it comes from the Tory party but, by opposing the EU and mass immigration, appeals strongly to those conventionally held to be on the left. It is anti-EU because the EU is the doyen of Britain’s postwar establishment, and it opposes mass immigration because the elites have—on occasion furtively—supported it. It speaks most clearly to the voters alienated by Tony Blair’s metropolitan liberalism, Clegg and Miliband’s oleaginous insignificance, and Cameron’s Etonian privilege. The prime minister famously dismissed UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” and UKIP supporters—Kippers—return the compliment with interest. Speaking with me over a pint, one Kipper put it thus: “I hate David Cameron, and I hate his fat face too.”

Every calculation of political interest tells the Tories—and especially Euroskeptic Tories, who are in the majority in the party—that they need to do a deal with UKIP before 2015, lest it turn victory from an improbability to an impossibility, lose them their shot at a referendum, and hand the government to Labour. But powerful instincts in both parties are against an alliance. So far, Labour has lost few votes to UKIP: It is out of power, and core Labour voters are more tribal in their loyalties than the swollen Tory vote that won the ambiguous victory of 2010. But in the long run, if Britain’s major parties continue to define themselves as elite, professional, and metropolitan, none will be well-placed to win back voters who have drifted to UKIP.

Yet that doesn’t stop them from trying. If UKIP can be loved, it is mostly for its enemies. There is the EU, of course, but—centrally—there is the British political establishment, which has over the past six months done its unavailing best to rubbish UKIP. There is much in UKIP that deserves rubbishing, but when the Europhile Financial Times argues that UKIP is secretly composed of professional politicians—it’s really not—or when Tory columnist Matthew Paris describes it as an “unpleasant mutiny within the Conservative Party”—as though party members should shut up and obey—they make UKIP’s case for it.

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