Magazine article The American Conservative

Britain's Pat Buchanan Party

Magazine article The American Conservative

Britain's Pat Buchanan Party

Article excerpt

A less libertarian, more populist UKIP terrifies Londons elite.

A fascinating thing about the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP): the worse its press, the better it does. In the run-up to the Clacton parliamentary by-election in October-a race to see whether defecting Tory MP Douglas Carswell would return to Parliament under UKIP's banner-Matthew Parris of the Times devoted his column to ridiculing not just UKIP but its elderly supporters: "Clacton-onSea is a friendly resort trying not to die, inhabited by friendly people trying not to die." UKIP won the election with nearly 60 percent of the vote. In the aftermath of November's by-election in Rochester and Strood-which settled the fate of another Tory defector, Mark Reckless-the Guardians Nick Cohen described UKIP as "an alliance of the septic and the geriatric: a movement of the empty-headed led by the foul-minded." Cohen concluded that while the party wasn't quite fascist, it certainly played with racism. In which case, there must be an awful lot of closet Nazis in Rochester because UKIP had just won the seat with 42 percent of the vote.

The sheer disgust that many liberals direct at UKIP reflects the fact that Britain is undergoing a culture war. On the side of ordinary folk with old-fashioned tastes is UKIP. Pitched against them is the entire edifice of the metropolitan elite located in the nicer bits of London: the mainstream parties, big business, and the media. That this battle is taking place is no shock to anyone with eyes and ears. But that UKIP has become the people's party is a real surprise, considering its beginnings on the marginal, eccentric right.

UKIP was founded in 1993 by academic Alan Sked. He intended the party to be a broad vehicle for opposition to Britain's membership in the European Union-a cause that has long attracted people from the right and left. The right attacks the EU's infringement of sovereignty, whereas the left regards it as an effort to impose free-market capitalism from above. But while Sked hoped to create some grand coalition of the high-minded, the early party quickly became a bolt hole for ex-Conservative Party members concerned with what they saw as growing softness within Torydom. Sked quit as leader shortly after the 1997 general election that swept the Labour Party to power. UKIP, he said, had become "infected by the far-right." He called its new leader, Nigel Farage, "a dimwitted racist." .

Nevertheless, the conditions of the 2000s were the perfect incubator for UKIP's politics of anxiety. British household debt more than quadrupled since 1990, pockets of poverty festered, and new issues emerged that liberals did not want to discuss in front of the children. The government signed a treaty with the EU that opened Britain's markets to East European immigrants. Labour predicted that just 13,000 would arrive. The actual number was more than one million. While all this was going on, politicians were engaged in a race to the center. Labour abandoned its old economic socialism, and the Tories became more socially tolerant.

The result was that when the credit crunch hit in 2008, all the parties looked eerily similar, and any voter who wanted serious reform of the system had few options within the mainstream. The Conservative Party won the 2010 election, with enough seats to form a coalition government, on the strength that it wasn't the Labour Party-but it lacked broad-based popular support or the enthusiasm of its restive rightwing base. One of Prime Minister David Camerons first priorities was to legalize gay marriage.

UKIP took a long time to exploit this situation effectively. In 2004, it placed third in elections for the European parliament on a quit-the-EU platform; in 2009, UKIP came second. The party was definitively, maybe crazily, right-wing. Its manifesto was Thatcherite, with a prominent libertarian streak: no gay marriage, but perhaps some decriminalization of drugs and a hearty endorsement of flatter taxes and smaller government. …

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