They are still there, the English of an older England, frequently overlooked, frequently looked down upon, stubbornly hitched to an unruly history too grand just to be packed away.
On May 2, in local elections in a large swath of England (and a small slice of Wales), a good number of them did what the English — a less genteel lot than Masterpiece Theatre might suggest — do when provoked too far: They pushed back hard, casting their votes for the United Kingdom Independence
party (UKIP), an eccentric homebrew of euroskepticism, “commonsense” conservatism, and anti-establishment mutiny.
Let’s get some caveats out of the way. Local elections halfway through the life of a parliament (the next general election is due in 2015) have long been used to protest against whoever’s in charge, and the scale of that protest is generally exaggerated by a low turnout. The angry vote. The turnout this time was some 31 percent, not so different from the tally (35 percent) for Britain’s last elections to the EU parliament in 2009, another contest in which UKIP, not so coincidentally, scored very well.
On May 2, this understaffed (a dozen paid employees in the U.K.), underspent, under-organized party won 147 of the roughly 2,300 seats that were up for grabs, compared with, um, eight in 2009, and took in around 23 percent of the vote, up from, well, no one was really counting last time round. It was (very) arguably the most sizeable surge by an outsider party since the Normans unexpectedly entered government in 1066. Labour topped the popular vote with 29 percent, the Conservatives followed with 25 percent, and their Liberal Democratic coalition partners trailed with 14 percent.
Now some more caveats: There were no elections in either Scotland — where voters dance to a very different tune — or the greater part of Labour-dominated Wales, or in most of England’s larger cities. This was an electorate that skewed right, something that helps explain the discrepancy between national polls (where UKIP has been scoring, not unimpressively, in the low-to-middle double digits) and the result of the May 2 vote.
And yet, something is going on.
The turbulent years that followed UKIP’s founding in 1993 are simple enough to decode: There’s the crankiness of obsessives at odds with conventional wisdom, and the infighting (long a UKIP trademark) that marks countless clusters of the opinionated. All the same, it is a measure of British unhappiness with Brussels that this odd little group took 7 percent of the poll in the 1999 elections to the EU parliament, when it was little more than the flag for an idea that no “respectable” party would embrace: Britain’s exit from the EU.
Five years on, UKIP had made little progress on the domestic front, but its share of the British vote in the 2004 elections for the EU parliament rose to 16 percent. Glory was followed by farce, a regular presence in the UKIP story, when one of its new MEPs and easily its most prominent face, a former Labour MP turned talk-show host, attempted to take over the leadership in a putsch that ultimately failed. He then quit the party. The voters were more loyal. In the next EU elections (in 2009), the 16 percent stuck with the only party willing to respond fully to the discontent that the supposedly euroskeptic Tories were too nervous to harness.
Much-derided Conservative “splits” over the EU (in reality a genuinely principled debate) had left the Tories with a reputation for feuding that proved to be electoral poison for the better part of two decades. This was made all the more deadly by the way that Tory unease over the EU was used by the Conservative party’s opponents to reinforce its reputation as an asylum for reactionaries with no place in the bright new Britain that Tony Blair was building. David Cameron had to do away with that caricature if he was to have a chance of returning the Tories to power. With little subtlety and some success, that’s just what he did. Climate change was in; “banging on about Europe” was out. As for UKIP, they were “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly,” a dishonest and condescending jibe that played well — as it was designed to — with Britain’s metropolitan opinion-formers, but came to symbolize Tory carelessness with a right wing that, Cameron calculated, had nowhere else to go.
But that was before prolonged economic crisis drained the public’s confidence in a political class long known to be out of touch, but now seen to be out of its depth. The euro’s long agony and the EU’s increasingly overt evolution into a nascent superstate have only helped reinforce the idea that those fruitcakes might have a few things right after all.
Britain has never been a hotbed of enthusiasm for the Brussels project, but it is striking to see some recent polls showing a majority in favor of U.K. withdrawal from the EU, a finding almost unthinkable just a few years ago. Tough times can force voters to confront reality, however uncomfortable. And in modern Britain there may be less to keep them reined in than in the past. Many Brits have become alienated from their country’s political process (a process that has, of course, been drained of much of its meaning by the intrusions of Brussels), an alienation bolstered by their all-too-justified suspicion of elite consensus, most strikingly, perhaps, in the area of immigration. UKIP’s much tougher line on immigration is a major element in its support.
Immigration has been a contentious topic in the U.K., as elsewhere in Europe, for over 50 years, but there is now a real sense that Britain has lost control of its borders, not least as a result of EU rules. With very little in the way of genuine popular consent, an island nation marked by only gentle shifts in its ethnic balance for centuries is being radically and rapidly transformed by an influx that accelerated dramatically during the Blair years. For a long time, to express much more than the faintest concern over this was to risk being dubbed, well, to recycle an insult, a “closet racist” or worse. An academic study splashed across the British press shortly before the May elections predicted that the “white British” would become a minority of the population in the second half of this century, a status that they have lately achieved in London. Extrapolation can be an extremely unreliable tool, but data such as this help explain why many Britons believe that there has been too much change too soon.
The U.K. is not a country familiar with populist revolt. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have traditionally been broad enough churches to accommodate within their ranks populist strains of Left and Right respectively. Since the Blair and Cameron modernizations, that may no longer be so true as it was. Even so, any insurgent party in Britain still has to contend with another formidable obstacle: the electoral system. It’s not by chance that, until now, UKIP had notched up real success only in EU elections, which operate under a system of proportional representation. Domestically, elections are first-past-the-post, a set-up that squeezes smaller parties, and one that presented euroskeptics with a very specific problem. Voting for UKIP rather than the mildly euroskeptic Tories risks handing victory to the Conservatives’ far more europhile rivals on the left. UKIP took only 3 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election, but even that was enough to cost the Conservatives some 20 seats and a clear majority. An even better UKIP result in 2015 will almost certainly hand the keys of 10 Downing Street to Labour, with consequences that many potential UKIP sympathizers would detest.
Persuading them to risk voting for UKIP nonetheless is going to take more than the accumulated discontents of recent years, but if anyone can pull that off, it will be Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, who has emerged as one of the most effective politicians Britain has seen for a long time, and without whom the result of May 2 would have been an impossibility.
Comes the hour, crumbles the euro, crashes the economy, comes the man. A smoker who enjoys a drink or three, Farage is a charmer and a chancer, an ebullient and eloquent speaker with a quick wit, a nice line in self-deprecatory humor, and a public persona that is the jaunty, Jack-the-Lad antithesis of Britain’s increasingly pharisaical political class. Farage can do anger when he has to, but he is a revolutionary who does not take himself too seriously. A clever operator, perhaps, but a back-of-the-envelope administrator, reassuringly contradictory qualities that have only added to his subversive appeal. As the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley put it, people voted for UKIP “partly out of anger and partly for a laugh.” It was, he concluded, “a very British revolution.”
More a warning shot than a revolution, I reckon, and distinctly more English than British. But, whatever the future holds, the next few months are likely to be tricky for UKIP, which will now find itself subject to closer scrutiny than ever before. That may prove an uncomfortable experience for some of its newly elected councilors, political novices who may find themselves hopelessly out of their depth or burdened with résumés that won’t look so good under the media microscope. Even in the run-up to the election, it was evident that UKIP did not have the resources to properly screen its candidates. There will be more embarrassments to come.
Meanwhile the party will keep working on building its support from the bottom up, local election by local election, trying to establish the grassroots networks without which it has little chance of winning many (or any) seats in the Westminster parliament, playing the retail politics — opposition to a contentious high-speed railway here or an unwanted wind farm there — that is already contributing to UKIP’s appeal. And the outreach to what Farage often refers to as “patriotic old Labour” will continue. That’s an effort that is already coloring the agenda of a self-described libertarian party that has always had its (to return to that lazy adjective) populist elements (the emphasis on immigration control and law and order, say, and, more recently, opposition to same-sex marriage) and has now dropped its earlier commitment to a flat tax that allowed it to be smeared as too soft on the rich. There will be further nods in a leftward, statist direction, as UKIP’s mood music — that’s the best way to describe its program — shifts. It may be less of stretch than might be assumed. Even some of the former Tory voters who now support UKIP are perhaps better understood here in the U.S. as being (very) roughly equivalent to the Reagan Democrats of old, with all that that entails.
In May 2014, there will be new EU parliament elections, a contest in which on current form UKIP could possibly come top, boosting its momentum still further. But for now attention will revert to the impact that the party’s surge will have on the Tories. The results of the May 2 vote contained scraps of bad news for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but it’s the Conservatives who are looking at catastrophe in the 2015 general election. David Cameron’s earlier attempts to head off the UKIP challenge — most notably his implausible promise of an improbable referendum on EU membership — have failed. Now the Tories have to try something else. It may be a far tougher line toward the EU (good luck with getting that taken seriously), and, although this comes with considerable electoral risks of its own, it may be a lurch to the right.
Who knows? What it will be is desperate.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.