For American readers, who are these people and why do they matter? Neil Hamilton was a former Conservative MP who was accused of taking bribes. Evidence now suggests that he was innocent, but that didn’t stop his career spectacularly crashing. Bankrupted by legal fees, he and his fantastic wife, Christine, were reduced to appearing on game shows and painful self-parodies. One of the strongest memories of my adolescence was watching Neil host a show about political scandal. The producers had him whip the camera with a cat-o-nine-tails and whisper, “s-s-s-sex!” I swear it left me impotent for life.
UKIP is the United Kingdom Independence Party, and it’s a perfect fit for Mr. Hamilton. It was founded by Right-wingers who quit the Conservative Party in the 1990s in protest at its post-Thatcher drift to the center. In particular, they felt it was too accommodating to the European leviathan. What the contemporary UKIP does precisely stand for is up for debate, but it can no longer be dismissed. Having come second in the last European elections and attracted one million votes in the 2010 general election, it is now officially Britain’s fourth party. If the UK practiced proportional representation, there would probably be about thirty UKIP MPs. The House of Commons bar would never be empty again.
UKIP is home to hundreds of thousands of disenchanted voters. People who are disenchanted with the process of UK politics tend to join the Liberal Democrats. People who are disenchanted with its lack of humor or ideology swing to dear old UKIP. Voting UKIP is white people’s way of telling the Prime Minister to “kiss my black ass”. Polls suggest that it pulls in surprisingly even amounts of support from Labour and Conservative voters. Despite its populist appeal, UKIP is blighted by an image problem. It has come to be seen as the party of the golfer – the Right-wing, retired stock broker with diabetes and a wife who is fanatically devoted to Bridge. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is the epitome of the classless Tory. He talks openly about going to lap dancing clubs and there’s something about his cheerful patter that is more redolent of the race track than the polo circuit. Farage is the best weapon UKIP has at the polls. The previous leader, the perpetually bored Lord Pearson, would admit to only a passing knowledge of his party’s manifesto and exhuded a kind of resigned good humor. Farage, in contrast, crashed onto the British political scene like a populist tornado.
If I write jokingly of UKIP then it’s not for the usual, disingenuous reasons (most British commentary on the party is filled with snobbery and spite). It is innately funny because it wallows in its own outrageousness. Its central proposition – that the UK should leave the European Union “NOW!” (regardless of the cost) – is a powerful magnet for a perverse mix of bloody-mindedness and commonsense. The European Union is a disaster that has ruined several member states. There is no good sense in trying to harmonize the economies or governments of Germany (a strong economy based on export) and Greece (a weak economy based on selling dirty rags to tourists). And yet the Union has tried to do just this – for reasons of political ideology. The fundamentalists driving forward European integration care nothing for its economic cost. Still less do they care about concepts like national self-determination or self-governance. They see the desire to rule oneself as an Anglo-Saxon eccentricity. Incredibly, some British people see it that way, too. There are Brits who fly the European flag on their front lawns. To what do they feel they are committing their allegiance? The metric system?
UKIP has become a lightning rod for people angry with European integration, whatever their reason. Old socialists reject the single market’s anti-regulatory impulse (it is essentially illegal under EU law to nationalize an industry, and the EU has forced terrible spending cuts on member states). Tories and nationalists abhor its collectivism and assault on sovereignty. A fair few Britons will admit that they just don’t like the French. The feeling is mutual.
What makes Europhobia so potent is the fact that the British political class has ignored it. Despite strong public support for withdrawal, no party with run on that platform. Countless politicians have promised a renegotiation of the terms of our membership and failed to deliver. Anger at Europe has been internalized into anger at Britain’s gutless politicians. This is something UKIP’s establishment critics don’t understand about the party: it has as much to say about Britain as it does Europe.
If UKIP’s real issue is political corruption, the problem is that it isn’t united on the solution. Certainly, every single member wants some degree of withdrawal from the EU. But one of the reasons why it has failed to set a domestic agenda might be a lack of unity beyond that point. Farage and Hamilton represent the dominant wing of the party, which is shamelessly libertarian. They basically want UKIP to pick up where Mrs Thatcher left off: free trade with the developing world, social liberalism (read: lap dancing), the deconstruction of the welfare state, and taxes lower than a dachshund's belly. But there is another side to the party, one which approximates more to the populist conservatism of Gianfranco Fini or Jorg Haider. Their presence is obvious in UKIP’s opposition to the wearing of the Muslim veil, its anti-immigration rhetoric, and its demand that church and businesses be free to discriminate against gays. There is absolutely no evidence to support this assertion, but I’d bet good money that the libertarians tend to be middle class golfers and the populists are more working class.
Ironically, UKIP’s coalition is rather more European in flavor than it is British. It is common in Europe – particularly the Latin countries – for a coalition of wildly different activists to form around a single idea or person. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (defunct since 2009) was an example. It combined liberals, Christian Democrats, and former communists - all united by the need to modernize the country’s political and economic structures. Each faction enjoyed control over an aspect of policy, satisfying everyone by giving in to their most passionate demand. UKIP has achieved a similar degree of harmony by allowing the populists to govern immigration, the libertarians to decide tax policy, and everyone to unite around withdrawal from Europe. This is only new in the British context, where parties are traditionally motivated by ideology or class. Having attended a UKIP Christmas party, I can attest that it attracts an extraordinary mix of people. The only things they had in common were a hatred of foreign governance and a tendency to drink and drive.
If I had one wish it would be this: that UKIP becomes the British Tea Party. We have no independent conservative movement in Britain because the Conservative Party saps its energy and money. Without a real primary system, there is no effective way to protest Conservative policy or hold the party to account. By threatening to take away votes at a general election, however, UKIP could force the Conservatives back to the Right. If they finally won seats in Parliament, a coalition could ensure some meaningful renegotiation of our relationship with Europe. The use of external pressure is what forced the Republican Party to the Right in the 1970s: the independent candidacies of George C Wallace encouraged it to think again about states’ rights and taxes. Likewise, the Tea Party’s domination of the current GOP primaries demonstrates how an independent movement that teases candidates with seductive offers of support in return for hardcore policy commitments can change the national political discourse. That is what UKIP must try to become: an American style independent conservative movement that blends anti-government and Moral Majority fervor.
The question is, does UKIP have the degree of seriousness and depth necessary to do this? The arrival on the scene of Neil Hamilton suggests not. Pleasant and witty though the man is, for millions of Brits he is associated with exactly the kind of corruption UKIP exists to wipe out. God bless him for re-entering our lives, though. There’s something so wonderfully English about a career that begins in Parliament and ends on television. In America, it’s so often done the other way around.