Alec Douglas-Home, Benito Mussolini, David Cameron, Douglas Carswell, Ed Milliband, George Osborn, Iain Duncan Smith, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Mark Reckless, Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Ramsey McDonald, Stanley Baldwin
When I started this blog, I meant to write primarily about literature and more broadly about the arts. I emphatically did not intend to write about politics. But I woke this morning in a country that has a UKIP MP.
Okay, it’s a sitting MP who crossed the floor, and it’s a by-election which can often throw up very different results than a general election, and we’ll get a better idea of the UKIP challenge when the Reckless by-election comes along. Nevertheless, this result comes on top of a surge of local election victories, including here in the town where I am writing right now, and the steady drip-feed of revelations about how UKIP MEPs are riding the gravy train without doing anything for it, how their candidates are ignorant, stupid or insulting, and how many of their pronouncements are based on prejudice has done nothing to dent their popularity. So yes, the UKIP vote is a protest vote, but we often use that formulation to say in the long term it doesn’t matter and that would be a mistake in this case. This is a protest vote, but it is a different kind of protest.
Part of this is entirely predictable. Right wing parties traditionally do well after periods of economic decline. Italy’s financial problems in the aftermath of the First World War led to the rise of Mussolini’s fascists in the 1920s; the Depression of the 1930s paved the way for the rise of right-wing parties across Europe (in Britain we got the so-called ‘National’ government led by Labour’s Ramsey McDonald but mostly made up of Baldwin’s Conservatives); the economic mess of the 1970s, in which Britain, supposedly one of the world’s leading economies, needed a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund, led directly to the reign of Margaret Thatcher. In a way, it is only surprising that it has taken so long after the crash of 2008 for the right to emerge (the Tea Party in America came to prominence far more quickly, and is now starting to fade). It is worth pointing out, by the way, that right wing parties are not generally called upon to solve the economic woes, that is most often done by a party of the left; but once the economy seems to be back on track, right wing parties pick up the vote. Even in 1979, Callaghan’s policies were showing every sign of correcting the economic situation, and those policies were mostly continued by Thatcher’s first government. I suspect it is because, once the immediate shock is over, people look for someone to blame, and right wing parties are good at blame. In 2010, we elected a new version of the ‘National’ government, though one that proved rather less adept at dealing with the situation. As a result, in this instance, it was a government predominantly of the right that had to rescue the economy, and they were remarkably cack-handed about it, so that most people are still feeling the financial pain, which may be why there is an electoral move even further to the right.
But it is not just the economy that lies behind this. In most similar situations in the past, the electorate retained a basic faith in the political establishment. The exception was Germany in the 1930s where defeat, hyperinflation, excessive decadence and failed revolution all combined to undermine any governmental credibility. In Britain today, there is a similar loss of faith in the political elite. This may be one reason why revelations of ignorance, stupidity and prejudice have done nothing to damage the party: it marks UKIP candidates out as ordinary fallible people rather than career politicians, and that is precisely what the electorate thinks it wants right now.
A lot of damage was done by the expenses scandal, to which Westminster responded in the worst possible way. Instead of making an elaborate show of clearing out the Augean stables, they demurred, they obfuscated, they voted down any attempt to make things more transparent, they voted for an 11% pay rise at a time when they were imposing a maximum 1% pay rise on nurses. In other words, they gave every appearance of business as usual, as if the class of politicians as a whole were in it purely for themselves and gave not a fig for the concerns of ordinary voters. Whether any of this is true or not, this is how it appears, and in British politics today, appearance matters far more than fact.
So, career politicians are selfish and greedy, let’s vote for someone who isn’t a career politician. (The fact that Carswell, the first UKIP MP, is precisely such a career politician, is an irony that plays for nothing in the grand game of British appearance politics.)
Given that we (I include myself in this though I couldn’t bring myself to vote UKIP if my life depended on it) have reason to distrust MPs en masse, what does traditional party politics offer us? The answer is, not a lot. There is no political leader of stature in the country at this moment. Nick Clegg proved untrustworthy over his volte face on tuition fees, and ineffectual when he allowed himself to be wrongfooted at every turn over electoral reform and boundary changes. He makes a big thing now of appealing to the party faithful by saying the LibDems applied a brake to the worst excesses of the Conservatives in office, yet the policies he most decries are the ones he went along with at the time. Ed Milliband has proved an embarrassment, even down to forgetting the economy in his speech at the Labour Party Conference. He has the distinct advantage of being in opposition, yet he has not used that advantage to offer any coherent or engaging vision of where the country should be going. In fact, he offers not one reason why anyone should choose to vote Labour if an election were to be held today. As for David Cameron, he is the weakest Prime Minister I can recall since Alec Douglas-Home. Personally, he would seem to be socially liberal on many issues, yet he has allowed his government to drift steadily to the right; since there seems to be no reason for this other than a reaction to UKIP, we are in the bizarre situation where a sitting PM allows his policies to be dictated by a party that, until today, had not one MP. In other words, UKIP gave every appearance of being in the driving seat even before thy got into parliament. Cameron has allowed a financial illiterate, George Osborn, to guide the economy through its worst problems since the 1930s, with the result that austerity is set to continue longer than previously forecast (in fact, every year it seems it will be a year longer before we are out of the woods). The British economy has recovered more slowly and more unsteadily even than America, which was harder hit than we were, and Osborn doesn’t have a tea party Congress hampering his every move. In the meantime, Cameron has shown poor personal judgement in employing Andy Coulson, he has proved slow to axe incompetent or unpopular ministers such as Michael Gove (and why Iain Duncan Smith remains in charge of stigmatizing the poor and the disabled while being completely unable to manage even the most basic of his ‘reforms’ beggars belief), and he has a propensity to put ministers into roles for which they are clearly not suited (climate change deniers in charge of the environment, private health employees in charge of the NHS, etc). These are signs of catastrophically poor leadership.
Actually, looking at the political leaders we have in this country today, Nigel Farage has the greatest stature (though that is largely because there is nobody else in UKIP who is visible and not an embarrassment).
So when we say that a vote for UKIP is a protest vote, we have to say that it is not a vote against the government, or against any political party. Rather, it is a protest against the entire political system in this country, against the way we are run and the people who are running it. And the protest will only die away when the system gets the radical reform it so obviously and desperately needs. So I do not believe that these protest votes are going to go away anytime soon. If Labour, LibDems and the Conservatives want to defeat the threat of UKIP, it is not about policies on Europe or on immigration (these are just proximate causes, not deep-seated reasons), it is all about what they do and what they are seen to do in the running of this country.