The rise of UKIP
The Scottish Independence debate has disrupted the even tenor of British politics; it’s even persuaded people to vote. But there’s another disruption; it’s a right-wing organization called the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
UKIP’s policies on many important issues such as the economy and health care are fluid and appear to shift on a monthly or weekly basis, but two core policies are solid and unmoving: under UKIP, Britain would (1) renounce membership of the European Union (EU) and (2) impose tight controls on immigration. Last week there were two by-elections in England. In one, previously a safe Conservative seat, the UKIP candidate (formerly the Conservative MP, who stood down after switching parties) was elected with a massive majority, so UKIP now has an MP in the House of Commons. In the other, previously a safe Labour seat, the UKIP candidate came within a few hundred votes of displacing his Labour opponent.
All Britain’s major political parties are recoiling from the shock. A few years ago, UKIP was a fringe group comprising what the Prime Minister was unwise enough to describe as “loonies and fruitcakes”. Now it has a rapidly increasing membership and a hefty percentage of the electorate supports it, implying that several million British subjects are loonies and fruitcakes. Maybe that’s so, but it ill becomes a leading politician to say it if he hopes to be re-elected.
Immigration is a problem. Britain, despite her woes, is a relatively wealthy country with an elaborate welfare system, so it’s hardly surprising (given that EU membership means your borders are open to migration to and from all other member states) that many people from poorer European nations flock here. On the one hand, this is good for the British economy; these visitors make big contributions to the unskilled workforce and also, at the other extreme, to health care and other public services. On the other hand, they place a huge strain on the infrastructure in some parts of the country – schools, hospitals, public transport, even the water supply – and they’ve priced many unskilled native-born Brits out of the labour market. But because of EU rules, nothing can be done to control immigration from the rest of Europe unless we renounce membership of the Union.
This is part of the explanation for the surge in UKIP support and membership, but not the whole. Career politicians in Britain are widely mistrusted. They’re considered remote from the concerns of most people, a self-appointed elite, given to graft and corruption. This is not a fair picture because most people enter politics with a genuine desire to do good, and many MPs are honest and hard-working, but public perception has a much more powerful effect on voting than facts have. Elections have low voter turn-outs because people can’t be bothered, are too cynical, consider these politicians to be all alike. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, is a highly articulate orator with a flagrant “common touch”; he goes to the pub, drinks beer, smokes cigarettes and chats with everyone in a friendly and ostensibly non-self-seeking manner. Many of his followers emulate his example; several of them are eccentric and voice opinions ranging from the extreme to the insane, but as people they’re engaging and likeable. They’re going to win votes because they seem different from the political norm.
And there’s another dimension to the rise of UKIP. The EU was founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for the rights of all people, including minorities. It perceives itself as a moral exemplar to the world. But it has grown to monstrous proportions, and many of its institutions are secretive, non-democratic, highly bureaucratic and very expensive. At the European Elections in May 2014, right-wing anti-EU parties scored huge gains in almost all member states. This should have shaken the EU cocktail, but in the event it’s barely been stirred: trying to change the course of the EU is like trying to alter the course of a supertanker – it’s far too massive to shift in any reasonable period of time. UKIP was one of the right-wing parties that succeeded in May, gaining more votes in Britain than any other party, which says something about the mood of the electorate; but other countries can tell similar stories. At least UKIP isn’t as nasty as some of its European counterparts (consider Jobbik in Hungary, with its explicit anti-Semitism and opposition to core democratic values), but it’s no less a symptom of Europe’s political malaise.
Or of the malaise in Britain’s domestic politics.