A bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”: this was how Prime Minister David Cameron once characterized the UK Independence Party (UKIP). And now those lunatics are taking over the asylum. In one of the biggest upsets in recent British political history, Nigel Farage and his maverick outsiders beat all three of their mainstream rivals (Conservative; Labour; Liberal Democrats) in May’s European Union elections to become Britain’s dominant party in the Brussels parliament.
UKIP also performed spectacularly well in Britain’s local government elections, in some places capturing as much as 51 percent of the vote. UKIP hit British politics like an earthquake. Were there any seismic indictors? Ought we to have seen this coming? Consider the case of Donna Rachel Edmunds, one of UKIP’s newly elected representatives and local councilor in the South East English borough of Lewes.
Shortly after her victory, Edmunds outlined her views on liberty for a local newspaper. Though personally opposed to discrimination of any kind, Edmunds told the reporter, she believes that business owners ought to be free to choose their customer base. So, for example, gay hoteliers should be able to declare their lodging a gay-only establishment, if they wish. Jewish shop owners should be able to turn away neo-Nazis. And so on. “It’s their business,” she argued. “Why should they be forced to serve or sell to anyone?”
The next thing Edmunds knew, she’d received a letter from the Lewes District Council informing her that she must attend “equalities training for councilors” in order to “gain a better understanding of the Council’s equality obligations.” An anonymous complaint had been made; a self-appointed panel of three councilors from rival political parties had formed a tribunal to discuss her case and chose her punishment. Edmunds wrote back to tell them where they could stick their decision: “We do not live in a fascist state quite yet.”
Not all UKIP’s members—“Kippers”—are hardcore libertarian like Edmunds. Indeed, they hold such wildly varied views that Farage has likened party business to “herding cats.” But if there’s one thing they all have in common it’s Edmunds’ Tea Party-esque attitude. They’re sick of the conventional political class they dismissively call LibLabCon; they’re appalled by the way Britain has ceded its sovereignty to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Union; they want to overturn the status quo of a world run by politically correct, nanny-state types like the ones who harassed Edmunds. Now they think they’ve done it. UKIP, they believe, is the future of democracy.
But is it? The big temptation when writing for an American conservative audience is to overegg the pudding and make claims that owe more to wishful thinking than to observed reality. Yes, there is much that is remarkable and encouraging about UKIP’s rise. But there are reasons to be wary of pinning more hopes on Britain’s fragile, new, and untested Tea Party than it can realistically bear.
For all its recent successes, UKIP remains a party without representation in the place that really matters, Westminster. While it now has twenty-four Members in the European Parliament—eleven more than it did last time round—their role is essentially a ceremonial one. All the European Union’s most important new legislation is enacted by an unelected body of twenty-eight commissioners, not by MEPs. So if the EU wants to create some fatuous new legislation outlawing a key ingredient from Chanel No. 5 perfume, as it did in May, there’s not a damn thing any of UKIP’s MEPs can do to prevent it.
This democratic deficit, of course, is why UKIP was founded in the first place: as an act of protest against an iniquitous system whereby as much as 80 percent of all new legislation imposed on Britain originates not in London, but from those faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.
No one has captured this absurdity more memorably than Farage did in his 2010 welcoming speech to the EU’s newly chosen president, an insipid Belgian by the name of Herman Van Rompuy:
We were told that when we had a president, we’d see a giant global political figure, a man who would be the political leader for 500 million people, the man that would represent all of us on the world stage, the man whose job was so important that of course you’re paid more than President Obama.
Well, I’m afraid what we got was you….I don’t want to be rude but, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. And the question I want to ask is: “Who are you?” I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you.
The speech went viral on YouTube and led to Farage’s being “summoned to the headmaster’s office,” as one UKIP spokesman memorably described the stern rebuke and hefty fine the party leader received at the hands of Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Council. (There are lots of presidents in the EU.) Farage’s remarks may have been cruel but they were hardly inaccurate. How on earth did a nation as proud, independent, and bloody-minded as Britain ever land itself in a predicament where everything from the degree of curvature on its imported bananas to the brightness of its light bulbs is dictated by sallow, dreary, communitarian drones like Belgium’s Mister Rumpy Pumpy?
And the answer: “engrenage.” This is the French word for the ratcheting process by which the European Union enlarges itself by stealth. As the EU’s founder, cognac salesman Jean Monnet recognized from the start, no nation would willingly sacrifice its sovereignty for some pan-European ideal. Therefore, from its inception, the EU was arranged in such a way as to grow in stages, keeping its supranational ambitions a secret from all but the ruling elite. First, it would pose purely as a free trade zone; only when member states were enmeshed too deeply to escape would it reveal its true ambitions for a full political union.
To this toxic brew of Machiavellian deviousness and labyrinthine complexity, the EU’s inventors added one final deadly ingredient: weapons-grade dullness. Like Soviet-era committee meetings, the workings of the EU have been deliberately devised to be so mind-numbingly boring as to repel close scrutiny by the millions of ordinary people who would be appalled if they understood what was really going on.
This was what the surreptitiously Europhile David Cameron tried to exploit when, on becoming leader of the Conservative party in 2005, he urged members to stop “banging on about Europe”—as if somehow it were a tedious issue of no real consequence best swept under the carpet. Tactically this made some sense: Since Margaret Thatcher’s 1990 “No! No! No!” speech rejecting further integration, there had been a huge, potentially election-losing rift within the Tory party between Europhiles and Euroskeptics. Strategically, however, it would prove disastrous, for it enabled UKIP to reposition itself—in contrast to Cameron’s “heir to Blair” Vichy Tory party—as the true inheritor of the Thatcherite tradition.
UKIP was founded in 1993 by Alan Sked, a London School of Economics history lecturer, but until the driven Farage took over as leader in 2006, it had been very much a fringe outfit, riven—as so many small, new parties are—by factional disputes. Farage, a privately educated, Mr. Toad-like former City of London metals trader with an apparently boundless capacity for drink and a charmed life (so far he has survived testicular cancer, being run over by a car, and a light aircraft crash), brought a new energy, mission, and purpose to the party.
He was helped by a number of factors: a better-informed public growing increasingly aware of the menace posed by the burgeoning European socialistic superstate; a breached electoral promise by Cameron to offer voters a referendum on Europe he never subsequently delivered; and, above all, a massive wave of immigration that threatened not only to overwhelm Britain’s hard-pressed public services and infrastructure but also served to give many Britons the uncomfortable sensation of living in a country they no longer felt was their own.
Immigration, above all, was the hot-button issue that UKIP exploited in the recent elections. It was a potentially risky move: Since 1968, when Enoch Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, even discussing immigration has been widely viewed as tantamount to racism. But Farage had cunningly pre-empted this by conducting a purge of his party’s membership. Anyone who had previously belonged to an avowedly racist organization, such as the British National Party, was forbidden from joining UKIP.
This didn’t stop UKIP’s opponents from trying to tar it with the racist slur, anyway. The campaign against UKIP by both the left and right of the political and media class was conducted with a relentlessness and viciousness unprecedented in recent British politics. It even saw an unlikely alliance between Conservative Central HQ and its traditional enemies at the Guardian: The former anonymously leaked stories to the latter, designed to expose UKIP’s candidates as racists, homophobes, and unelectable weirdos.
The campaign backfired badly, cementing UKIP’s image in the public imagination as a group of plucky outsiders speaking up for the common man (and woman) against the remote and monolithic Establishment. And it wasn’t just natural Thatcherite strongholds such as Essex that fell to Farage’s purple-rosetted insurgency. Equally vulnerable, it turned out, were traditional Labour seats in working class Northern towns such as Rotherham, where UKIP won ten of the twenty-one seats up for election.
So far, then, so very good for UKIP. It may not hold a working majority on a single British town council, nor does it have any MPs. What it does possess, however, is a bridgehead. Its strategy now will be to build on its local power base and focus its considerable resources (the party is generously funded by several rich former Tory donors) on capturing marginal seats where the local Tory/Labour/Lib Dem majority can most easily be overturned.
What Farage calls a new era of “four-party politics” in Britain has sent all three of UKIP’s mainstream rivals into a state of panic. Especially hard-hit have been the Liberal Democrats, who lost all but one of their seats in Europe to UKIP and are now in the throes of a leadership crisis. Labour leaders, too, have been completely wrong-footed: They now realize that their pro-EU, anti-austerity message just isn’t carrying the traction they’d hoped with their natural working class constituency.
But Cameron’s Conservatives have the most complicated challenge. Britain’s fast-recovering economy ought to be, in theory, enough to scrape them a working majority at the 2015 general election. This won’t happen, though, if UKIP splits its vote, which puts Cameron on the horns of a dilemma. Some on his party’s right are urging a pact with UKIP, which is highly unlikely. Cameron and Farage cordially loathe one another, and UKIP’s membership are so belligerent they’d probably never allow it anyway. The other obvious solution would be for the Conservatives to toss their frustrated right wing constituency more red meat, but this is equally implausible given Cameron’s mushy centrist instincts.
So this time next year, Britain may reluctantly end up voting in by default a government led by a Labour leader, Ed Miliband, so uncharismatic and odd that in normal times he would be deemed unelectable.
These, however, are very much not normal times. On the contrary, they are what the ancient Chinese curse calls “interesting” ones. Thanks to the UKIP insurgency, almost anything is now possible, from a hard-left Labour administration pursuing the high tax-and-spend policies that have recently proved so ruinous for France, to an aggressively anti-Europe, small-government, pro-liberty coalition of the right, to most permutations in between.
Whatever else can be said of UKIP, one thing is certain: British politics for years hasn’t been half this exciting.