In defence of UKIP

22 May

The first thing to say is that this is not a blog post in support of UKIP. They pass the test for being racist and their manifesto is antithetical to almost everything I support. They are small-minded little-Englanders with a political philosophy based on a lack of generosity and the protection of a romanticized England that never existed in the first place. Barely a day goes by without a UKIP European election candidate exposing themselves as a racist, homophobe or bigot.
This blog post sets out a defence of UKIP as a political phenomenon in UK politics, but might also apply to a number of other polities too. It will restrict itself to three points.
Firstly, for a number of years I have been uneasy about the barely concealed racism, homophobia, and aggressive anti-Islam-ness of parts of British society. I should stress that this is just parts of British society (other parts are incredibly generous and open-minded). The racism, homophobia and Eeyore politics has been best illustrated by the relentlessly miserable headlines on the pages of the Daily Express and Daily Mail newspapers (see today’s Guardian for a letter by David Wearing on this point). It is not much of a caricature to sum up these headlines as: ‘You pay for EU to fund gay Romanian migrants undergo Islamic terror-inspired sex-changes’. But there is a serious point behind all of this. There is a substantial racism in society that inhabits much of the mainstream. Previously people were content to say that racism occurred only on the margins and was represented by the fringe politics of the National Front or British National Party. But the apparent rise of UKIP shows that racism is more widespread than many had wished to acknowledge. Crucially, UKIP will take votes from the Conservatives and Labour – showing that these parties drew substantial support from people who hold truly undesirable views. It is actually good to have this out in the open rather than Labour and Conservative politicians conducting their stealth racism through immigration policies. Let us have a genuine debate on these issues (and take a cold hard look at the policy vacuum that was ‘multiculturalism’). In order to have a serious debate, we need to know what the problem is and I think UKIP is useful as a diagnostic tool.
Second, UKIP’s rise (according to the opinion polls and media attention) is a sign of a deep dysfunction in the UK political system. Large swathes of people feel genuinely disenchanted by London-based machine politics. There are many on the left (and on other spectrums) who feel that Establishment politics serves no purpose other than enriching an elite (see Russell Brand’s Newsnight interview). UKIP (despite being London-based and having a savvy PR machine) gives the impression of being anti-Establishment and has managed to tap into a strain of the generalized disenchantment. Excellent research by Robert Ford at the University of Manchester has illustrated how the UKIP research base is not primarily motivated by anti-Europeanism, but instead is driven by a sense of loss. Its supporters tend to be white working class who excluded from the knowledge economy and cultural and social trends that are enriched by globalization. UKIP is a ‘left behind’ phenomenon. The world is not going to stop being globalized. It will still keep turning at an even faster rate. But a UKIP moment (and let’s hope it is a moment rather than a long term trend) may just encourage political parties and others to reappraise how politics can reconnect with people. Of course, the most likely thing that the mainstream parties will do is try to move onto UKIP’s territory. But if they were clever (a big if) they might think of the ways in which they could reorganize politics so that it is not dominated by plastic apparatchiks whose only goal is to perpetuate a failing system.
The third silver lining in the UKIP thunderstorm cloud is that the European election results will illustrate that this is largely an English phenomenon. UKIP are standing across the UK, including Northern Ireland. UKIP will actually show the diversity of the UK by failing to make any headway in Scotland and Northern Ireland (I have no knowledge of Wales). This is somewhat ironic as UKIP wants to depict a picture of the UK (as a single political entity) standing up the EU.
It is worth concluding that this blog post is NOT supportive of UKIP. But it is an attempt to look behind the UKIP phenomenon and see what it tells us about the wider political system. That political system is under severe strain and more of the same will not help address its problems.


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