Bitter taste of victory
Can Ukip recover from its present decline? Paul Demarty thinks not
One of the disadvantages of publishing on Thursdays, if you are a political journal, is the damn-nigh inevitable conflict with British elections. Communists are frequently parodied in vulgar bourgeois critique as thinking they know better than everyone else what is good for them, but on this point we certainly cannot pretend to know better than our readers, with the benefit of exit polls and early results (and, in posterity, later results) what the top-line outcome of this campaign will be.
Of one item in the overall bill of goods, however, we can be more or less certain - the terminal crisis of the UK Independence Party. No poll has been published, from the initial announcement of the election until today, which has put Ukip’s rating above 8%, and typically it is in the range of 4%-6%. In other words,. Between a half and a third of what it achieved at the last time of asking - in 2015, indeed, Ukip came third in the popular vote, but was denied meaningful representation by Britain’s undemocratic electoral system. The year before that, it topped the polls in the European parliament election.
Its greatest triumph, of course, was the majority vote for Brexit in last year’s referendum - an event for which Ukip deserves the credit and David Cameron the blame. Yet the party has performed abysmally since. It has burned through leaders at a worrying clip. It has descended into fratricidal warfare. Its one MP has resigned the whip. And - as noted - it is cruising for a bruising in today’s election. The question is really whether it can survive.
The answer, surely, is no.
The reasons go back, in the end, to the very roots of the party, when it was founded in 1991 by the eccentric neoliberal academic, Alan Sked, and was one of a clutch of minor Eurosceptic single-issue parties to spring up in the period. Its most notable rival in this regard was the Referendum Party, founded by the cracked billionaire, James Goldsmith, in 1994; but the latter fell apart after Goldsmith’s death, and by the turn of the millennium Ukip was well-established in this niche.
Sked was ousted by a faction - led by (among others) the promising young City boy, Nigel Farage - which wanted to dispense with the founder’s liberalism and align politically with the Tory hard right - the mainspring of Euroscepticism. A real breakthrough would have to wait a while, partly because at that time the field was not clear. Nick Griffin had had some success reorienting the British National Party from straightforward fascism to an ethnocentric Poujadism, inspired by France’s Front National. Ukip’s first major tilt at the big time had to wait until Robert Kilroy-Silk - once a Labour MP, but by the mid-aughts more famous for his racially intemperate tabloid broadsides against Arabs - took up the purple and yellow standard as his own, before falling out spectacularly with the established leadership and flouncing out to form his own outfit, Veritas (likely conceived, it was quipped at the time, after a glass too many of vino), from which in turn he was hilariously ousted after both groups suffered a poor showing in the 2005 general election.
Partly this was a matter of the times - the slow and steady tilt of a Labour government into decline, drastically exacerbated by Tony Blair’s enthusiastic participation in the ‘war on terror’ and the contradictions it highlighted in Labour’s voting base, which looks very different in London’s Banglatown than it does in Burnley. So far as parties pushing national chauvinism were concerned, that meant a crisis of confidence in Labour heartlands, and Griffin’s BNP in particular thrived in the sort of lumpenised, wrecked working class communities that Margaret Thatcher left littered across England’s northern rustbelt. The Ukip appeal, already at that time, was rather to the suburban petty bourgeois, the retired major, those who believe what they read in the Daily Mail.
In 2009, with Gordon Brown’s government in disarray and denuded of the bourgeois press support enjoyed by Tony Blair, with acute economic crisis at home and abroad, and with the establishment parties humiliatingly exposed by the expenses scandal, these contradictions came to a point of rupture. The first casualty was the BNP, which - almost immediately upon its great breakthrough in that year’s European elections - was torn apart.
The BBC and wider establishment took the hint, and ruthlessly exposed the shady background of the BNP’s core leadership in fascist esotericism, finding Griffin in particular fatally unable either to fully distance himself from that past (at the risk of alienating his allies) or owning up to it (alienating those of his voters who wanted only to stop immigration, and not to listen to rants about Aryan blood or the ‘holohoax’). The English Defence League arose to lure away the boot boys, and the whole thing descended into farce.
At the same time, circumstances brought David Cameron’s Tories to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, propelling Labour back to the opposition benches. The Tory assault on Labour voters (about the best description of the last seven years of ‘austerity’ that could be attempted) firmed up Labour’s vote (excepting in Scotland); and it was the Tory hard core whose turn it was to be betrayed by a government on (from their point of view) the ‘wrong side’ of many hot-button culture war issues, drawn particularly from the pro-European wing of their party, and in coalition with the most fragrantly pro-European party in Parliament to boot. Ukip thrived.
It also found a leader with whom it could go places: Nigel Farage, a smooth operator with a bit of edge; a man who grinned like a horse, drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney, but was never less than able to bat away impertinent press questions, who knew how to make opponents suffer and seemed to enjoy doing so as much as his audience enjoyed watching. As Ukip’s share of the vote increased, Cameron came under more pressure: a big Ukip vote at a general election was unlikely to translate into many seats (as spectacularly demonstrated in 2015), but it could nonetheless deprive the Tories of many, by splitting the vote in swing constituencies. So Cameron, in the hope of stemming the tide, committed the Tories to holding an in-out referendum on European Union membership.
When the general election rolled around, of course, it turned out that coalition government had dealt a body-blow to the Lib Dems, while obedient subordination to the Tories in the Scottish independence campaign had handed Scotland to the nationalists, and Cameron was landed with a majority he probably did not even want - dependent on a larger than ever faction of Eurosceptic head-bangers on the benches behind him to get things done. So he called the referendum; and lost it. Thus with one stroke he handed Ukip its coveted victory - and destroyed it.
The paradox stems ultimately from the particular character of Ukip, of which two aspects are pertinent here. The first is that, ultimately, Ukip is a single-issue party. Yes, its manifestos have whole swathes of policy in them, but there is one overriding concern, the reason for its founding, the very name of the thing. Ukip exists to get Britain out of Europe. Sure, that has not yet been achieved; but Theresa May has done a sterling job at looking likely to follow through with a suitably ‘hard’ Brexit. Like Farage, she understands the value of political pantomime. Without that raison d’être, what hope does Ukip have of survival?
Secondly, Ukip has lost Farage, perhaps this time for good; it is no better equipped to survive without him than the Referendum Party could outlive Jimmy Goldsmith. The internal connection between these two factors has to do with the fact that, of all the many single-issue campaigns that stood candidates (and even won, here and there) over this period, it is Ukip that became a serious force, for a time, in British high politics. Why? Britain’s role in Europe has always been to sabotage efforts at tighter unification, in dutiful service to the United States, which does not want a serious great-power rival to arise from that quarter. This requires a peculiar doublethink - Britain must rail against European federalism, but from within: it is a matter of being inside the tent, pissing in. Thus a presence as a nigh-permanent feature of British politics of a hysterical Euroscepticism in the rightwing press, which has the effect of suturing together the anxieties of parts of the popular masses, especially the petty bourgeoisie, and the interests of the Anglosphere, by exaggerating the costs of EU membership.
Ukip was able to make the link between Europe, anxieties about Britain’s decline and the impact of immigration because that link was already made in every press broadside against Brussels bureaucrats. It was ‘common sense’. But ‘common sense’ cannot be merely the abstract product of an editorial line: it must be embodied - there must be a person who is ‘talking sense’, who can stand in for the ‘man in the street’. Common sense is that which cannot be expressed in academic treatises, but must be recognised in the other. Who is the other? Perhaps he likes a beer. Perhaps he smokes ... Here is the phenomenon of demagogy: the elite are out of touch with the masses, but the masses, while unable to represent themselves, must be represented. Ukip politics is fundamentally Bonapartist, and thus Farage is indispensable.
But indispensable individuals have a corrosive effect on the organisation as a whole. The remarkable feature of Ukip is how hollow its organisation is, how strikingly untalented even the layer of people directly below Farage. For the single-issue campaign to become a serious force in general politics, it had to operate on the Führerprinzip; but that very mode of existence is brittle and transitory.
Ukip’s demise should not be celebrated too enthusiastically, mostly because things we hate about it - national chauvinism, extreme reaction - will not die with it. There is a structural role for far-right politics in capitalist society that we too often exhaust with our single stereotype of fascist bands goose-stepping in the streets. It seems likely that this broader social force will move into the Conservative Party in the coming years - indeed it already has, as it periodically does: the Tories are more hospitable to the far right than many continental Christian Democratic and conservative parties, and ‘first past the post’ encourages cranks to take shelter in ‘big tent’ parties (pissing optional).
Yet - whatever the wider political outcome - we may feel justified in raising a pint of warm, flat beer to the demise of British chauvinism’s awkward squad.