Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The End of UKIP

The general view is that UKIP has slid into irrelevance because it succeeded in its primary goal: securing victory in the 2016 EU referendum. Rafael Behr in The Guardian is not convinced: "Its finances and membership have dwindled as its purpose has become obscure. But why is it obscure? Brexit isn’t done yet. Is it inevitable that an organisation with a single vast ambition should atrophy the moment that ambition captures the state? Surely that is the time for such an organisation to thrive. Seen through the eyes of future historians, it is weird that the locomotive party of a revolution should shunt itself into a ridiculous siding". Of course, there are plenty of examples of organisations that have gone into a rapid decline once their political goal was achieved, from the Suffragettes in the UK to the Prohibition movement in the USA. To make his case, which is ultimately a charge of the betrayal of the electorate, Behr has to convince us that UKIP was more than a mere campaign with a narrow goal; that it amounted to a political movement that sought to reorder society more generally, despite its inability to make political headway outside the special circumstances of elections to the European Parliament. This means reviving the claim of Matt Goodwin and Rob Ford that UKIP's rise represented a general discontent with politics and the established parties; a theory that was clearly disproved in 2017.

Looked at in terms of political dynamics, the cause of Brexit has simply moved from the extra-Parliamentary field to the Parliamentary. It is now official (if vague) government policy and the Tory ultras offer loud resistance to back-sliding. You could view this as either the UKIP-ification of the Conservative Party or the return of a "lost tribe", as Boris Johnson put it, that had been alienated during the post-Thatcher years, but neither story is convincing. The ultras were there all along, cheering Enoch Powell's condemnation of the EEC well before they started sniping at John Major, while UKIP's rise to prominence didn't happen until the 2004 European Parliament elections (when it increased its seats from 3 to 12), which was more than a decade after the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty. And while this date coincides with the start of increased migration from the EU, the rise of immigration as an issue of public concern began in the late-90s, amplified by a hostile media focus on asylum-seekers. Tellingly, Nigel Farage did not become leader of UKIP until 2006 and the party did not achieve pole position in the European elections (24 seats) until 2014. Seen through the eyes of future historians, the Tory ultras are a dissenting faction that can be traced back to the Macmillan years while UKIP was a political mayfly.

Behr questions whether it was ever really a party, though only in order to denigrate its cause: "A party founded on a big idea should be able to survive a change of leadership. It should grow when its idea captures the mainstream. And if that party shrivels into a ball of congealed venom, what does that say about the wisdom of its idea?" There is a gulf, both organisationally and conceptually, between a "party of revolution" and "a party founded on a big idea". For a start, political parties tend towards the fox rather than the hedgehog, in Isaiah Berlin's formulation, because they need to institutionalise a broad base of support to secure power. Even if they are driven by a core idea - the inevitability of class conflict, the primacy of individual liberty etc - the political dynamic requires that its impact be worked out in detail across all areas of society: a revolution is general, not particular. This translation of theory into practice was something that UKIP signally failed to do. Its vision of society never quite came into view beyond an incoherent nostalgia and an obsession with quotidian trivia like smoking in pubs, much of which was simply a reflection of the personality of the then leader.

Nigel Farage's success in that role owed much to his projection of an unflappable character that was part spiv, part city gent, part mein host. His appeal for the media was colourful presentation as much as views congenial to the assumed prejudices of consumers. The failure of his successors to achieve a similar prominence wasn't simply a case of pygmies following a giant. After all, Farage as a politician was a one-note gobshite and a practical failure. Not only did he never manage to get elected as an MP, but his record of indolence and financial abuse in Strasbourg would have shamed the beneficiary of a rotten borough. In retrospect, it looks like Paul Nuttall's embroidery of the facts of his history was as much about trying to invent a character sufficiently colourful to maintain media interest as it was a reflection of his inner Walter Mitty. The over-riding impression that the recently defenestrated Henry Bolton gives has nothing to do with his racist girlfriend. It is that he is a dull man with delusions of significance. He reminds me of a 1980s sitcom.

UKIP clearly wasn't a party in the conventional sense, hence its repeated failure in Parliamentary elections (the exceptional circumstances of Douglas Carswell notwithstanding) and its notorious volatility in local government, where its councillors have frequently split or defected. Its mix of jejune libertarians and crusty reactionaries precluded any coherent ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, while its attempts to develop a programme beyond Brexit were repeatedly undermined by eccentricity and the intervention of the racist and Islamophobic right. So was UKIP more a single-issue campaign than a party? There's obviously truth in this - Brexit was the overwhelmingly dominant concern for reasons of unity as much as conviction, while the behaviour of the party's MEPs in the European Parliament never graduated beyond protest - but this doesn't explain how UKIP came to dominate politics in 2016. Behr's attempt to cast Brexit as a complex, emotional spasm over which neither UKIP nor the Tory ultras have much control doesn't answer the question. He seems reluctant to acknowledge that UKIP during the Farage era was a creation of the rightwing media rather than an organic, populist uprising - again repeating the error of Goodwin and Ford.

That Nigel Farage quickly went freelance after the referendum as an all-purpose spokesman for the gammon tendency was less opportunism than a case of advancing his career to its next logical stage: from leader of the band to solo artist. Farage has always depended more on the indulgence of newspaper editors and broadcasting producers than on the support of the party. It is clear that his seat on the BBC's Question Time will remain available for a good while yet, but that might not be the case if he were shackled to UKIP's corpse. Contrary to his loud assertions, he is probably happy that there will be a Brexit transition as it will extend his relevance for a few more years, perhaps longer. That he has sought to internationalise his brand, first in the USA and now in the Republic of Ireland, is an irony that appears to be lost on the Little Englanders of UKIP's fast-diminishing rump. The challenge for Farage is that media interest is shifting towards Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is an even more artificial character but has the advantage of a seat in the House of Commons. That the Tory ultras have settled into a routine of performative protest might look like a tribute to UKIP's salad days in Strasbourg, but it's really just the lasting influence of Enoch Powell.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment20 February 2018 at 17:07

    I am developing a 21st century programme for the European Socialist party, I am staring with the cultural section. Here is what I have so far:

    European Socialist party programme

    Cultural Section:

    Russia Today to be made compulsory viewing in all secondary schools

    A secular version of Ramadan to be created as a show of solidarity with the global poor and a celebration of planet Earth

    A new call line to be created where people can report extremist’s in their neighbourhood. By extremists we mean those who spend frivolously, for example have more than 2 cars or replace windows regularly etc etc

    Global climate science and energy usage by nations to be taught in all primary and secondary schools, with all scientific sources to be made available to students. Also to be taught what would need to happen to have equal energy usage among all peoples.