I’ve just finished watching the BBC documentary Meet the Ukippers. A few thoughts occurred to me. Try as I might, I find it difficult to greet Ukip with the same level of fear and loathing as many of my leftist friends, for whom the party are quite obviously tweed-wearing fascists. Mostly, I feel a bit sorry for them. These are people who feel left behind by the modern world, and ignored by mainstream politics. They feel alienated by the demographic, economic and cultural changes that have transformed the country in recent decades. I don’t feel that way myself, but neither do I think it a crime to bristle at the turbulence of an ever changing world.
If I can’t quite bring myself to hate the Ukippers, it is in part because I know them. I grew up in Kent, just along the coast from Thanet, among the white working class, so I’ve heard people talking like Nigel Farage all my life. When I learned he had chosen Thanet as a place to stand for Parliament, I wasn’t at all surprised.
Lots of people seem convinced Ukip is a racist party, and I can see why, but I don’t think it’s as clear as that. They are not an explicitly racist party, in the way that the British National Party are. Wanting to limit levels of immigration is not the same thing as wishing to repatriate immigrants. At the same time, racists tend to share the reactionary worldview of the average Ukipper, so the party holds obvious attractions for them.
This tension was borne out in the documentary, in the notorious remarks of ex-Ukip councillor Rozanne Duncan, who said that although she wasn’t racist, she “had a problem with people with negroid features” (honestly – you couldn’t write this stuff). Incidences like this, which come with an alarming regularity, certainly give the appearance of a racist party, but what the documentary also showed was other Ukippers who seemed genuinely horrified by what she said. Farage condemned Duncan, and she was duly expelled from the party.
In Martin Durkin’s interesting if slightly hagiographic documentary about Farage, there is a telling scene in which the leftist writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown admits to being baffled as to why anyone would vote for Ukip or fall for Farage. Her cluelessness, I would suggest, is symptomatic of the vast gulf that exists between the liberal intelligentsia, who view the state, immigration and the EU as unqualified goods, and those millions of ordinary Britons with rather more unfashionable opinions. The metropolitan elite, with their visceral loathing of the ideals and values of provincial Britain, just don’t get it.
That Farage is able to connect with such people in a way that other politicians are seemingly incapable of doing, ought to be an alarm call. Comparing him with Oswald Mosley and Nick Griffin simply won’t do. Farage resonates because of his populism – his old fashioned ‘common sense’ persona – not because of his latent fascism. Sneer all you want, many people share those values. Our political class has developed a way of speaking that sounds utterly artificial to the average ear. In that uninspiring context Farage’s rhetoric sounds like a rare example of political plain speaking. Though I disagree with his politics, I can see why he cuts through.
In the south, Ukip naturally have the greatest appeal among those who traditionally voted Conservative. In the north, where I now reside, Ukip are cleaving votes from Labour. I know several such Ukip voters myself. Labour no longer speaks for them or to them. I think they are mistaken in seeing Ukip as a viable alternative, much as I think my comrades north of the Border are mistaken in believing heady nationalism is the answer to our current woes, but, really, can anyone blame them for turning away from a Labour party so moribund, so seemingly free of ideas?
The sense of panic felt by Conservatives about the damage Ukip pose to their electoral chances is palpable, and, from the left, a joy to watch. The Labour party, on the other hand, so used to automatically winning in the north and in Scotland, are still in denial. That level of complacency worries me far more than Farage’s turtle grin and his jolly band of reactionary old fudders ever could.