For Merrie England, against the Dreary EU.
Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
UKIP already stands at some 7-10 percent in national opinion polls, something that cannot just be put down to midterm disillusion with the Tories. There is a wide and growing disconnect between the pedantically centrist, tiresomely PC prime minister and a good number of his party’s natural supporters. Many of these are euroskeptic, and so this breach is only worsened by Cameron’s refusal to respond with anything other than curiously arrogant disdain to mounting British disgust with an EU that displays an ambition only exceeded—thanks to the flailing euro—by its troubles. One recent poll showed almost half of all Britons wanted out of the EU, while only under a third preferred to stay in. Making matters worse still for Cameron, however unfairly, is the U.K.’s failure to emerge from the economic mess his government inherited. Put all these circumstances together and UKIP’s allure is not hard to understand. Nor is the fact that the party’s appeal is reinforced by its plague-on-all-your-houses outsider status.
And that’s no act: The Birmingham conference was a long way in thinking and in feel from Britain’s political establishment. From the endearingly self-deprecatory remarks that accompanied so many speeches, to the occasional organizational glitches, to the misfiring microphone at the conference’s Friday night “gala dinner” (tickets cost all of $55), this was a gathering that featured little of the bombast and none the slickness of the larger parties’ shindigs. The auction that accompanied the gala included some cheaper items—tea bags in a fancy box, a woven silk portrait of the queen, and a painting that would have been unforgivable even had the artist been blind—that only underlined the distance between UKIP’s grassroots essence and the political establishment some UKIP members refer to as the Lib-Lab-Con.
At a desk near the entrance to the conference, some volunteers—including Mrs. Farage (a German, as it happens)—could be spotted selling Ukitsch: umbrellas, pens, mugs (“The EU is NOT my cup of tea”), tote bags (“The EU is NOT my bag”). Then there was the moment when Mr. Farage—no velvet ropes here—started hawking “Belgian damp rags” to a delighted crowd at five pounds each. (Full disclosure: I bought two.)
Autographed by Farage, these, uh, striking kitchen towels are decorated with the dispiriting features of Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU’s European Council. They are an allusion to the one event, more than any other, that made Farage the YouTube star that he is today, a status he cemented with a series of speeches that did much to ensure his recognition by Der Spiegel as the “seventh most dangerous politician” in Europe, no small honor. In 2010 Farage, an MEP since 1999, greeted Van Rompuy—world famous in Belgium, if nowhere else—to the European parliament shortly after the former Belgian prime minister had been appointed the quasi-head of the EU’s quasi-state. After asking who Van Rompuy was, and how he had been picked for this job, Farage compared the new potentate’s charisma to that of a “damp rag” and his appearance to that of “a low-grade bank clerk” (Farage apologized later to bank clerks). It was a virtuoso, deftly theatrical performance, but, as so often with Farage, there was a knife concealed within the knockabout. After the laughs there was this, delivered more quietly:
This display of unruly parliamentary vigor was too much for the EU’s mausoleum of democracy. Farage was fined $4,400 for his lèse-Rompuy, not a bad price for the publicity it brought.
Farage, 48, a smoker (despite a bout of cancer in his 20s) who enjoys a drink or two, is well aware of his naughty, none-of-the-above appeal. The Belgian damp rags were also decorated with a small, impish photograph of UKIP’s leader roaring with bad-boy laughter. UKIP’s antiestablishment message was a familiar refrain from the conference floor. The term “political class” was a frequent punch line, repeated with more resignation than anger, the exasperated lament of passengers who have found themselves on a peculiarly poorly run vessel but are still debating how violent the mutiny should be.