Last week, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won Britain’s elections for the European Parliament and surged in the vote for its local councils. Since then, British politics has become a lurid frenzy.
Prime Minister David Cameron is wondering how on earth his Conservative Party is going to court its disenchanted base after years of attempted modernization, and perhaps considering a second coat of makeup. Labour leader Ed Miliband is trying to synthesize the disparate factions in his own party, several of which are annoyed with him after Labour lost seats to UKIP. The Liberal Democrats, annihilated at the polls now that there’s another protest party in town, are engaging in the sort of cloak-and-dagger maneuvers against party leader Nick Clegg usually found in John Le Carré novels. And Scottish Nationalist Party head Alex Salmond, fresh off a campaign to paint his country as a neo-socialist Norway West, is irritated that the right-wing UKIP picked up a seat right under his nose.
Not bad for the populist, voraciously anti-European Union UKIP, which until now has been treated as a creature of the fringe. It’s the first time in a century that neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a national election. For UKIP leader Nigel Farage, that means “the UKIP fox is in the Westminster henhouse,” as he put it. For his party’s alternatively apocalyptic and self-satisfied critics, it’s the worst thing to happen to British politics since Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, but it won’t repeat itself. Ever.
That doesn’t seem likely. The revolt that shook Britain also roiled across Europe, where anti-EU parties prevailed in France and Denmark. The common denominator was populist anger with a distant and impenetrable technocracy that voters believe has become too imperious for its own good.
The Tea Party movement in the United States ascended to power for similar reasons, with Washington standing in for Brussels as the source of fury. With the Democratic Party a devotee of big government and the GOP stained by a decade of Bush-era fiscal neglect, the Tea Party gave voters a third way. It isn’t a perfect analogue to Europe’s populism. The EU raises crucial questions of nationalism not present in the American debate and its open-doors policy makes immigration a more potent issue than it is here. But the Tea Party and European populists are still attacking the same creature, even if they’re hacking at different limbs.
Analyzing UKIP amidst a whimpering rhetorical artillery strike of boring clichés about fascism and hating democracy, left-leaning New Statesman writer Robert Webb accidentally blew some grapeshot directly into the truth. “[UKIP’s] business is anti-politics,” he writes, “something they share with those on the left who join in with the chorus: ‘They’re all the same – they’re just in it for themselves.’”
Well, many politicians are just in it for themselves, and anyone who’s ever watched, say, a senator mugging with a wealthy agribusiness executive can see that. But the bit about UKIP being “anti-politics” is intriguing. Opposing “politics” used to have anti-democratic connotations—standing against things like campaigns, elections, and fundraisers in favor of apathetic authoritarianism.
Today politics means the democratic process, but also the governing process of solving problems through the use of federal power. The modern politician comes to Washington expecting to carve a legacy by improving something, whether by further regulating pollution or assimilating more of the education system into the federal government. That these actions usually make things worse rather than better never seems to occur to them, and the result is a government that’s lodged its tendrils into nearly every aspect of our lives.
To be “anti-politics” as the Tea Party and UKIP are is to oppose this all-consuming view of politics; to believe that there ought to be a healthy space in one’s life where ambitious politicians and regulators can’t reach, whether that means telling Washington to back off the health care market or Brussels to let Italy regulate its own pizza ovens. It’s sad that this is derided in many quarters as “far right” and “revolutionary,” and encouraging that so many are now standing up for it.
Whether UKIP will have success remains to be seen. Neophyte groups make more mistakes than established political parties. The Tea Party has endured plenty of dud candidates and UKIP probably will too. Farage has already banished several members for making offensive comments, and yesterday one of his newly elected councilors was expelled for allegedly bigoted remarks.
Populist movements can produce needed change, but they’re also the natural home of street thespians who believe the government is embroiled in a massive conspiracy to poison their radishes. Responsible populisms must distinguish between the two.
Then there’s the media coverage. After the Tea Party’s election in 2010, there was a brief pause while the establishment reeled, and then the press set about waging thermonuclear war. The Tea Party was anti-Washington and the Washington media circled the wagons. Many UKIP supporters have already complained of bias in the London media. They should strap themselves in. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Still, it’s clear that something in Europe has changed, perhaps forever. Henri Malosse, the president of something called the European Economic and Social Committee, recently warned that “this may be the last European election if Europe does not change.” He must be an optimist! Let’s hope Nigel Farage’s earthquake rattles the china for many years to come.