With a poll showing the U.K. Independence Party leading the pack heading into the European Elections next month, much attention has been turned on them. This is the culmination of a surge in publicity and—if the polls are correct—support. This extra attention has not gone exactly swimmingly. Whether it was the councillor who detected the hand of god in the floods because homosexual marriage had been legalised, the bizarre joke about “cash-strapped Muslims” needing more wives and women not working, or another “racism” row—this time with Lenny Henry at its centre—it had confirmed the image of UKIP as an essentially crankish outfit, and given plenty of scope to the other parties who are understandably rather panicked by a gain in support that seems to damage both parties about equally.
At the helm of UKIP is a man, Nigel Farage, who can apparently do no wrong. The press have not been exactly hostile. The rather inexpensive question put to him by the BBC—why was his German wife occupying a British job while he preached so furiously against Britons being displaced by foreigners—was treated as a major affront, and it has so far been the last.
It is exactly with Farage that most of my doubts about UKIP lie. The riff-raff who think sodomy leads to a downpour we will always have with us, and, paradoxically, the ability of these cranks and extremists to get loose of party whips speaks to the decentralisation of UKIP: it is this very lack of professional slickness that is part of its appeal. They can also be dismissed as speaking for nobody but themselves. But in Farage one has somebody who can be pinned down as representing UKIP and his approach to campaigning has always struck me as somewhere between contemptible and vaguely sinister. For all the talk of UKIP being the only party to stand for something, its leader chose to make his stand not on ideas but on a cult of personality. Populism—that most vulgar disease of democracies—would be his instrument; the ever-present pint and the Cheshire grin would be what he offered Britain.
The only thing that could ever be said for UKIP was that against a set of party machines who speak for nobody it did at least have some character and it was ostensibly committed on the right side of probably the single most important issue of the moment: secession from the European Union. If one supported secession for democratic and liberal reasons—against the increasing arrogation of power in Brussels by unelected commissioners, the imposition of Continent-wide regulations that probably shouldn’t even be imposed at a national level, the cut-off of Britain from its wider trading partners in the English-speaking world and Commonwealth by a shrinking customs union—one got rather short shrift in UKIP circles. But still, the ends justify the means—or at any rate, something like that.
The “racism” business too always seemed very cynical; a short-cut from the other parties. Rather than dealing with the issues—immigration, the professionalisation of politics, the indistiguishability of the three main parties—that provoked what was essentially an anti-party surge rather than a pro-UKIP one, the accusation capped the drain in support by declaring this outlet illegitimate; there seemed very little real concern for the persecution of a minority community in it. Even some Guardian contributors belatedly realised that this was a counter-productive means of argument.
One problem is the very word racism, which is rather vaguer than the older term racialism. Racialism is the belief that the human species is divided into races—which it is not—and that some of these races are superior to others i.e. that there is an antagonism between races as demarcated by skin-colour. The exclusion of non-white people from public services or shops or jobs would be a demonstration of this belief. Racism on the other hand can mean anything from favouring a restrictionist policy on immigration to a distrust of the ideas of the Islamic religion—to say nothing of its “institutional” variant, which seems to make its appearance when hard evidence of actual racialism is lacking.
There is certainly evidence of bigotry within UKIP’s ranks. The reference to “bongo bongo land,” ignorant and stereotypical if not exactly racialist, by Godfrey Bloom, a publicity-seeking old buffer who has now been given the elbow, is probably the most obvious example. That remark is a classic from UKIP: an appeal to peoples’ more ruinous temptations while not being explicitly hateful—put in the form of a deniable “joke”. The idea, however, that UKIP is the “BNP in blazers,” as some put it over the weekend, seems a little bit of a stretch. Among other things, while no evidence has yet surfaced of a direct cross-over between the BNP and UKIP, Labour does have an ex-BNP member running for councillor. Who will say that this implicates the party as a whole or its leader? How, then, will this charge be made to UKIP if and when such a connection emerges?
What UKIP is above all is a party of the elderly: of that species of cringe-inducing-but-not-threatening bigotry you get from your grandparents. When something callous is said about black people or homosexuals you understand it as a lack of social progress. But you also know that they would never see harm done to an actual human being. While these are obviously not the people to whom one hands the government it is still different from the pathological hatred of a Nazi-stained outfit like the BNP that revels in incitement and inter-communal violence.
This demographic fact of UKIP’s support also explains their contradictions. Not unlike the Tea Party in the United States, there is the use of libertarian language in defence of the incumbent beneficiaries of the welfare state—namely the elderly and to some degree the rural. And this of course is the real problem with UKIP. It is not—whatever the state of individuals—a movement of determined bigots, but a party of flakes. These are people who feel a vague alienation from a country that has changed a great deal over their lifetime and who believe that simply willing the “good old days” to return can make it so. It cannot. The past is gone. The party has no ideas for solving the real problems of Britain now—and where it has proposed ideas they are contradictory and/or impractical. Farage, for instance, has mused on abolishing the laws against narcotics and on a secular constitution for the country, while his voting base consists of those who would vote against him on both counts.
As to Farage himself, he shattered what little credibility he had when he defended the Russian dictator and blamed the desperate people of Syria, in revolt against a merciless dictatorship, for the massive chemical weapons attack made upon them last August that murdered 1,400 people in a few hours. At a time when aggression from Moscow is very much back on the agenda, it will not do to put a man with such a warm relationship with that regime’s propaganda apparatus within range of power. The worst part about the Syria comments is that Farage might well not believe them but many of his supporters do—egged on by witless hysterics like Seymour Hersh and columnists like Peter Hitchens who would rather lie to exculpate Bashar al-Assad that risk Western military action to stop his atrocities. Unable to offer solutions, willing to appeal to the basest element of the population, will say anything for a round of applause: this seems to complete the case for a resounding repudiation of UKIP and its leader.