Much cyber-ink has been spilled following last week’s strong UKIP showing in the English County Council elections – it might seem superfluous to add to it. I think the strength of UKIP’s “surge” is overrated – these were partial elections in which the major centres of population did not vote (along with Scotland and most of Wales, where nationalism has a very different political hue), and UKIP gained 25% of the vote on a 30% turnout. Such little evidence as there is suggests that UKIP has very little traction in the big conurbations.
The real story is the way in which the Coalition parties – and particularly the Liberal Democrats, who once located their real strength in local government, have been decimated; counties that the Liberal Democrats controlled or were close to controlling no more than a few years ago (like Devon or Oxfordshire or East Sussex) no longer return more than a handful of Lib Dem councillors. Labour did not lose a single seat to UKIP – this looks less like a politcal surge, more like a realignment on the Right. There is certainly nothing here to justify the wall-to-wall Farage-fest that the BBC in particular has launched (and one can only reflect on the irony of the BBC claiming that UKIP had “come from nowhere” when barely a day has passed in the last six months without Farage appearing on a BBC news programme).
But I have yet to see an analysis that decisively links the rise of UKIP to the political and economic failure that Britain has experienced in the last couple of decades – the post-Thatcher age. There has been much talk of specific issues – Europe and immigration – and some about demographics (UKIP supporters as white, male, older, without university education) and nostalgia. Above all, it’s seen as a protest vote against the existing political system, seen as remote and corrupt. There are varying degrees of truth in all of these. But how does one tie all these together?
I think the starting point has to be austerity economics, and the way in which a generation that had come to expect security in later life has been shafted by the current economic and political orthodoxy. I’ve blogged before about how people who took out private pensions in the Thatcher era in a mood of big-bang optimism have found their retirement funds devastated by the 2007 collapse and by the naked greed with which fund managers have helped themselves to fees and commissions and bonuses; but the issue of a secure old age goes much further than that. The real value of state pensions is falling and the cost of essentials like power has soared; moreover, uncertainty over the future of a privatised NHS hits older people hardest, as they are the people who need to rely on it most. Yes, the changing cultural mix in society presents challenges to some older people’s perceptions; memories of Imperial red on schoolroom atlases die hard. But it seems to me that the cultural nationalism can be seen as a proxy for economic uncertainty; in this case by people who, in many cases, are not poor (but may have very low fixed incomes) but fear poverty and uncertainty. Others may be people who fall for the rhetoric of “hard working families”, or even just work very hard for low pay and cannot get past the capitalist rhetoric that hard work brings rewards, and look for other reasons why in a world of falling wages and mass unemployment it often appears to bring the opposite.
History, as that incomparable exponent of “history from below” Raphael Samuel wrote, begins at twilight. He could have said the same about nationalism. It is a truism that you see the flag of St George far more these days – especially during football tournaments – but I think the same is true of all sorts of national symbolism (including last year’s Jubilee celebrations). None of this seems to me to be the behaviour of a confident nation; and it seems to me that the changes at the root of that uncertainty are not immigrants, or European bureaucrats, but white men in suits advocating a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon economic model that has seen the optimism that, on the whole, one’s material circumstances would improve over time replaced by uncertainty and the reality of falling living standards. It is often said that UKIP is fuelled by nostalgia for the 1950s; yes, one can point to the fact that we were a whiter, less cosmopolitan, more culturally limited society, one that still saw itself as completely separate from Europe and which saw a white Commonwealth as its natural ally. But it was also a society with full employment, decent affordable housing, an expanding welfare state and educational provision, with the Robbins report and the mass expansion of higher education around the corner; a society in which there was grounds for optimism that, year on year, the future would be better and that one could look forward to a reasonably secure old age.
And the contrast with what had gone before was so positive; a depression that had given way to war. No wonder with hindsight it can look like a golden age. The genius of the Right – whether UKIP or the right-wing newspapers that express many of its values – is to strip away the economic dimension from that nostalgia; to present that society as if its was its whiteness, its deference and its social hierarchies and accepted gender role, pulled apart by the pernicious Sixties, that were the things that produced that contentment, not the fact of growing economic security. Indeed, as the economic consensus moves away from the kind policies that made such security – in the West at least – possible, it is almost inevitable that nostalgia will be rationalised in this way. One of the advantages of flag-waving and nationalism is that it provides capitalists with somewhere to hide, someone else to blame.
Moreover, the increasing homogeneity of the British political (and media) class – more remote, more privileged and less politically differentiated than at any time since the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee first made possible the election of working class MPs at the very end of the nineteenth century – has provided a focus for the discontent. It is this homogeneity that has made possible UKIP’s positioning of itself as a party of protest challenging the British establishment, when in reality it is nothing of the sort – as Chris Dillow has shown in this brilliant blog post, UKIP’s policies are neoliberal and pro-establishment to the core – for example its advocacy of flat taxes. For all its sabre-rattling about immigration and Europe and even (faced with the Etonian tendency at the heart of Cameron’s government) class, it offers nothing to assuage the root causes of the discontent of slightly-privileged England – the economic dislocation that has been wrought by the neoliberal experiment.
At one level, then, UKIP is a threat to the prevailing political order; it strikes at the heart of the modern Conservative party, not least because its appeal is primarily to those who form the Conservative Party’s organisational base. (It’s interesting to note that one of the areas in which UKIP polled best was along the route of HS2, the high-speed rail grand projet that brings no real economic or environmental benefits, threatens huge destruction along its route through hitherto true-blue Tory middle England – and which is backed unanimously across the Westminster political spectrum). David Cameron is a fundamentally weak leader who is mistrusted by many in his Party – the same people who see UKIP as being much closer to their idea of a true Conservative. At another level, UKIP is about the continuation of the existing political order; not only does it not challenge a political consensus build around the market, privatisation, reducing the welfare state (including universal provision) and the size of the state – it actually endorses all those things. Its position on Europe and immigration lie outside the consensus, but represent no more than extreme positions on a policy continuum that the Westminster consensus can unite around (immigrants are valuable insofar as they serve economic ends). Of course, UKIP has more than its fair share of colourful bigots and fringe neo-Nazis; it draws on a similar constituency to the EDL and the now largely-defunct BNP; their politics is, in my view, deeply obnoxious and must be resisted at all costs. But they’re not perhaps the most important thing about UKIP. UKIP is the party that sets itself up as anti-Establishment, the party that says the things that “political correctness” would make unsayable, but in reality is no more than a cheerleader for the biggest Establishment stitch-up of all. It is about mainstreaming and neutralising the sort of dissent that might interrupt the sleep of those who wield real power. Looking at UKIP, Aneurin Bevan’s comment that the art of conservative politics lies in persuading poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power comes overpoweringly to mind.
The point about UKIP then is that they are part of the same essential phenomenon as the mainstream Westminster consensus – by promoting a political economy that is based on ideology rather than empirical reality, and which concentrates power in the hands of an increasingly homogenous and privileged political class. While they act as the vehicle for a group of essentially quite privileged people who see their privileges being eroded, their role as a party is to reinforce, not challenge, the things that erode those privileges.