Britain must take on Farage or risk irreversible change
Our political leaders, elected to provide wise counsel, are instead running around like headless chickens
Nigel Farage’s Ukip won the European elections big. However much hostile pundits rake over the details of the minority of the minority of voters who supported the party at a poll ignored by most Britons, that is the bedrock of the current political reality.
Nonetheless, now is the right time for those concerned by what Ukip represents to take on Faragism: we are sleep-walking into becoming a xenophobic nation, seeing dangers where none exists, sucked into a paranoia about foreigners, the European Union, migration – a paranoia that threatens an irrational and potentially irreversible change in Britain’s character.
Ukip, the fountain of these fears, controls no councils; has no MPs; if it has policies beyond anti-Europeanism, few know what they are. Yet the tail is wagging the dog – and how.
The reaction to Ukip’s success in the European elections and gain of council seats last week has reduced those elected to provide wise counsel and sane leadership into headless chickens running about promising to out-Farage Farage. “We must,” they bleat, “listen to the people; be tougher on immigration; have a referendum on Europe as fast as possible.” This is the terrified response of followers, not the courage of leaders.
Europe is unpopular, but few of those mustering to the Ukip cause have more than a visceral dislike of Brussels, having been drip-fed over many years all manner of stories about square bananas and Romanian hordes. Many wanted a referendum on the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, yet no one had the faintest idea what that treaty entailed. Somehow “they” were pulling a fast one over “us” and, even if the price was to become Little Britain, we had to stop them.
This one issue has combined with the post-expenses scandal distaste for Westminster, and the cry has gone up - “A plague on all your houses”. Every saloon bar and golf club big mouth, every populist press columnist knows MPs are on the run. Essex man flexes muscle and those who should be wise and strong enough to resist instead rush to tell him he is right and will be heard. Anyone who says otherwise (and there are a few) is howled down.
Our political writers play the politicians’ game: the script for last week’s elections was written long before polling stations opened. Ukip would win and win big, and the consequences for the established parties and for the nation would amount to an earthquake. Farage smiled his smile and swallowed his pint.
Question: does Farage actually drink all that beer? The number of foaming glasses he is pictured holding would challenge the thirst of an in-training student.
More seriously, he is, of course, a one-man band (if you discount Neil Hamilton, the tarnished former Tory, desperate for a political home): stop the man in the street and ask him to name one other significant player in the Ukip ranks, and you will draw a blank – even from their (I hope temporary) voters.
Farage conducts; plays first violin; blows in the brass section; and, of course, beats the drum.
Commentators mainly report the politicians' view of public affairs – who's in, who's out is to them far more important (and exciting) than the state of the nation. Much political writing is simply gossip writ large. Which is why those who speak their minds rather than parroting what they are conditioned to speak by their parties – Boris Johnson, the late Tony Benn, Farage and a few others – enjoy a popularity beyond the reach of party-line MPs.
That sage commentator Matthew Parris pointed out in Saturday’s Times that hysteria over immigrants is most pronounced where immigrants are thinnest on the ground. Go to the leafy shires and on every hand you will hear alarm that Bulgarians and Romanians will “swamp” the nation, take our jobs, rob us in the streets. Go to London, the true ethnic melting pot, and Farage and his army of unknown candidates get far shorter shift.
The danger remains of the emergence of a hollowed-out party as a real power in the land with little but gut reactions to guide it. Those who utter warnings stand accused of being a liberal metropolitan elite, out-of-touch with grass roots opinion (in Hampshire? in the Yorkshire Dales?)
But before dismissing Ukip’s critics, consider: What would Ukip do in office – over schools? transport? the environment? even the economy? They are one-note populists: do we truly believe that once the last immigrant boards the Dover ferry the sun will shine again?