And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
– Philip Larkin
The British crisis has a human form. A shabby, caecilian smile. The rorty bray of an arriviste thug. The exasperated air of a lone trader fighting the Inland Revenue for every last penny. Some rehearsed off-the-cuff witticisms alleviating a tense sales patter. There is just something about Nigel, once a forgettable clown, that is now luridly compelling.
There is much ado about whether he and the faraginous multitude that he calls a ‘People’s Army’ is, in fact, racist. This is a false debate. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) could not be more racist if it blacked up and performed a calypso with a comedy Caribbean accent. From the half of UKIP voters who admit to being racist, to councillors with confessed hangups about ‘negroid features’, to MEP Godfrey Bloom and his fear of wasting taxpayer money on ‘Bongo Bongo land’, to former leader Lord Pearson and his terror at the Muslim birth rate, to Farage himself and his queasiness over the idea of Romanian neighbours, UKIP are but a Royston Vasey in rosettes, a Powellite Dad’s Army, or a Rotary Club Klan. ‘Manicured Kluxism’, as Grover Hall once called it, is the order of the day.
For sure, UKIP is a parliamentarist formation, not a fascist or proto-fascist gang. For all that it contains and nourishes fascist elements, it aims to shift national politics to the Right rather than overthrow parliamentary democracy. But racist authoritarians they assuredly are and, should they lay hold of any national state apparatus – say, in a future coalition government – the outlook for migrants, refugees, welfare recipients, women, LGBT people, and anyone likely to feel the pinch of the law, will worsen considerably.
The real question is how such an assortment of querulous Poujadist malcontents could have metastasised into an angry, lumpen menace capable of polling between fifteen and twenty percent of the popular vote, possibly costing the Conservatives outright electoral victory and, in the long run, potentially usurping their place as the dominant party of the British Right.
Their crisis, and ours
We are not, pace the poet Hàfiz, ambushed by an army of accidents. UKIP’s soaring fortunes can be traced to features of the British social formation long in parturition. The terrain which is so barren for the Left, is fecund for the Right. While the Left’s divisions and redivisions are reducing its constituents to the scale of dust, the crumbling organisations of the Right are replaced with astonishing speed.
The British National Party’s (BNP) electoral implosion and subsequent fracturing was accompanied by the rise of the street gang, the English Defence League (EDL). The EDL’s subsequent eclipse was overshadowed by the rise a new rightist street gang, Britain First, and above all of UKIP, which has channelled the racist, authoritarian energies fuelling those groups into a potentially game-changing populist Right formation.
The political ground on which this breakthrough was achieved is one formed, in the long term, by two developments. The first is the secular degeneration of the representative structures of the British state, both by means of the transfer of state capacities from democratic to managerial control and by means of the disintegrating relationship between the dominant parties and their popular constituencies.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have found their traditional class bases eroding beneath their feet. In the case of the Labour Party, the secession of mountainous voting fiefdoms to abstention, the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and now the Greens, has called time on its electoral monopoly over the working class left. For the Tories, the professional middle class has long decanted to Labour or the Liberals, while the traditionally Thatcherite petty bourgeoisie and newly affluent workers have been transferring their votes to sundry alternatives, such as the English Democrats, Veritas, the BNP and, of course, UKIP.
The second is the evacuation of anything resembling a Left from British politics, first by means of violent political struggles won by Thatcher against the militant left-wing of the labour movement, and second by means of the ‘passive revolution’ through which Britain was modernised and the historical and ontological presuppositions of neoliberalism embedded into everyday experience.
The culmination of this process was New Labour’s brand of transformism, through which the necrotising body of British social democracy was consumed and regurgitated as social liberalism. Here, the Labour Party in office prepared the ground for the Right by incorporating right-populist thematics on welfare, crime, immigration and nationality in the hope of neutralising these issues electorally, while simultaneously tying the fortunes of Labourism to the City of London, whose dynamism was supposed to provide the economic basis for public spending without risking business support. So much for this.
Yet UKIP has laid almost unchallenged claim to popular resentment by effectively intervening in the rhythm of periodic post-crisis frenzies. For some years following the global financial meltdown, British society appeared to linger in a state of suspended animation. This was dispelled, not, as was initially expected, by the student uprisings, but by the English riots of 2011, and the overwhelmingly authoritarian popular response.
Since then, the accumulating anxieties and resentments of Britain’s downwardly mobile class strata have detonated with accelerated frequency in a sequence of jitters about race, welfare, sex, migration and terrorism, from the Philpotts to Rochdale. Each of these codes a resentment: that our social betters do not listen to us, that Britain is no longer the land of fair play, and that the forces of decline are prevailing. Each has had the effect of polarising British politics further to the Right, and providing points of strategic intervention for UKIP.
Thus, enabled by a mesmerised popular press and a capable leadership, UKIP has become the third most popular electoral party in Britain. Putting words to popular discontentments, it has articulated resentments born of class injury and democratic decline in a nationalist, racist language prepared over a long period by the dominant parties and their allied media outlets.
‘UKIP’, says a fairly characteristic statement on the party’s Facebook page, ‘will put people and communities before big business’. Another castigates ‘political Pinocchios’ for ‘failing to stand up for British businesses’. Some are tempted to resolve this contradiction by saying it’s a party of big business – Farage’s spivvery and the range of ageing white businessmen at the top of the UKIP hierarchy give this a surface plausibility. However, beyond a few hard right outliers in the bourgeoisie that look further afield than Europe for their profits, UKIP has little real support from the capitalist class. Its bedrock is the traditionally Thatcherite lower middle class whose businesses are hurt by EU regulations, and who yearn for a hyper-Atlanticist model of capitalism pivoted on a strong pound and weak labour.
Indeed, in several aspects, UKIP ideology is emblematic of the Americanisation of the European far right, already evident in Breivik’s cut-and-paste manifesto which combined John Birch-style eristic with the fascism of the frontier. UKIP’s emphases are different, but its ‘libertarian’, pro-market ideology, its militarism, and its emulation of American racial practices hinged on the penal system and the death penalty, tap into certain folk memories of Anglo-Saxon solidarity.
Yet UKIP would be no threat at all if it had not expanded its dominion, and thus its ideological repertoire, beyond this core. It has annexed layers of the working class, including some elements of Labour’s fragmenting base – not necessarily the poorest workers, but those whose situation has declined most visibly in the neoliberal epoch. It is the insecure and downwardly mobile strata of all classes which are most receptive to the resentful nationalism at the core of UKIP’s message: their class decline has long been connotatively linked to national, post-colonial decline. In the dreamwork of UKIP-style populism, the repressed reality of class returns in a phantasmagorical format, as ‘the people’ betrayed. World-historic defeats resurface as passive-aggressive whining that ‘you can’t say anything these days’. Like the character ‘Albie’ in the Cracker episode, ‘To Be a Somebody’, much of the UKIP base seethes with resentment for the forgotten and unrepresented ‘white working-class male’.
These older, whiter and generally male supporters are not economic liberals. While UKIP is by no means an anti-austerian party, nor does it simply embrace austerity with the added supplement of racist nationalism. For example, even though the party leadership is filled with avid privatisers who consider the health service a parasitic leviathan, it has been happy to campaign on claims that it will raise health spending and reverse private involvement in the NHS. It even castigates Labour for proposals to charge patients for GP visits. It articulates the ‘competition’ ontology that is at the root of neoliberal thinking with traditionally social democratic themes, quilting these with reference to the nation. If there is to be competition over scarce resources, it says, let us put Britain first.
These contradictory elements are co-ordinated by the nucleus of nationalist paranoia. As psychoanalysis tells us, paranoia is often consolatory: to believe, in our unrecorded decline, that we are the target of a conspiracy is a compensation. The conspiracy against Britain is known as Europe or, in UKIP idiom, the ‘EUSSR’. UKIP thus explains the crisis of representative democracy in terms of a European capture of the institutions, such that – they claim – eighty percent of British laws are written in Europe.
Yet according to UKIP, this effective annexation of British sovereignty could not have been effective without the treacherous complicity of a cosmopolitan, professional class out of touch with the ‘common sense’ of the British people. Westminster has become synonymous with foreign occupation, blamed for the decay and neglect of Britain’s provincial underbelly, accused of letting migrants consume scarce resources, colonise ‘British jobs’ and spread crime and disease. The restoration of Britishness, beginning with withdrawal from the European Union and ‘securing the borders’, is UKIP’s panacea for a re-energised national community.
Here, UKIP touch upon two salient truths about our political moment. The first is that the European Union – the bourgeoisie’s last great world-historic achievement, as Perry Anderson called it – is not just undemocratic but culturally and constitutionally hostile to democracy. One need only think of Juncker’s friendly reminder that ‘there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’, Schäuble’s cheerful suggestion that Greece suspend democracy for a year or two in order to implement European austerity, the undemocratic power brought to bear in the EU Constitutional Treaty referenda, or the decision to make Ireland vote twice on the Lisbon Treaty until it made the ‘right’ decision. The Europe of the EU really is the Europe of big business and its regionally interlocking directorates. The absence of a significant left or trade union opposition to the EU in Britain since the close of the Miners’ Strike has left the job of critique to the populist right.
The second truth is that representative democracy in the UK is in a parlous state, even by the historically weak standards of British democracy. The convergence of the three dominant parties on the same austerian consensus is but the latest phase of the degeneration. The representative link has been breaking down for some time and, with it, party membership and voting turnout has been collapsing. The party leaderships represent professionalised castes linked to power networks that transcend party political divisions.
As for ‘their friends in the media’, the links between press, television and political parties is less pronounced than in other European countries, but the structural co-dependency between the dominant media and the dominant parties is obvious. And this is where UKIP must play a carefully ambiguous game.
Media and mediations
It is sometimes assumed that UKIP’s success owes itself to the extraordinary leg up given to it by the national media. And indeed, the coverage extended to UKIP is grossly disproportionate. Yet, UKIP has been compelled to adopt a complex manoeuvre in relation to the dominant media, and thus also to the dominant ideology. While the media prepare the issues that form the core of Farage’s agenda when he speaks, they also adopt a stagey, antagonistic relationship to him and his party.
Farage’s response is to work with the grain of this, simultaneously displaying his ‘common sense’ bona fides while also transgressing just enough to maintain the status of an outsider. He mediates between ‘ordinary people’ and those whom he derides as ‘the political class and their friends in the media’. A populist tribune of sorts, he translates the language of commonplace bigotry into a vernacular borrowed from the dominant parties, while situating himself as an advocate for the ‘real world’ against bourgeois ‘political correctness’. He chastises the establishment parties for putting liberal values before protecting ordinary people, as when indicting Labour for failing to act on the Rotherham child rape scandal, ostensibly not to offend Muslims. In part, as when he defends the petty pleasures of booze and fags, this constitutes a paltry ‘rebellion’ against the political superego, on behalf of the right of the everyday person to enjoy their lager and racism in peace.
On the other side of this strategy, UKIP deploys a sophisticated range of social media campaigns. There was laughter when Farage advised UKIP members not to join Twitter, after a series of publicity horrors involving candidates and members blurting out bigotry for all the Internet to see. Yet, UKIP – like the EDL and Britain First – have been far quicker to capitalise on social media than the Left. Facebook is used to create interactive communities and forge a distinctive party identity, with regularly updated content driving conversations. Twitter, by contrast, thrives on recycling material, and is thus more useful for disseminating concise messages – memes, photographs, and micro press releases such as:
‘Immigration isn’t just about numbers. It’s about a way of life: school places, wages, and other things that are affected.’
‘The effects of #UKIP’s immigration policies on wages is simple supply and demand. End the open door and wages could rise in accordance.’
These messages condense in accessible format UKIP’s articulation of ‘common sense’ assumptions about how markets and competition work, and the priority of ‘British’ interests over all others. They provide brisk, summary explanations for the longest decline of living standards in a generation, and a solution.
The inability of the dominant parties to cope with this sophisticated strategy of mediation was savagely illustrated in a widely publicised debate between Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, which has gone down as one of the worst maulings ever inflicted by one human being on another since ’Nam. Clegg’s ill-fated attempt to be the voice of reason sounded like rehearsed mandarin condescension. He accused Farage of making up figures, and spoke in technocratic cadences of the growth made possibly by European migration. Farage retorted in the language of fairness: growth was all very well, but immigration had driven down wages. It was ‘good for the rich because it’s cheaper nannies and cheaper chauffeurs and cheaper gardeners but it’s bad news for ordinary Britons’. Clegg squirmed. The point had been made: the spectacle hardly cared if Farage’s figures were fictions. They worked as morality fables speaking of how ‘ordinary Britons’ had been cheated by a rotten establishment.
Yet, UKIP is a fatally ambiguous formation, inherently limited in its prospects, and open to several frontal challenges. As a populist party, it is nonetheless steeped in a ‘free market’ discourse which threatens its political support on key issues. Nigel Farage’s unfortunate public remarks on emulating the American healthcare system provoked desperate back-pedalling. On this issue, British nationalism is not necessarily his ally.
Nor is UKIP’s racism impervious to challenge. It is not just that the lower middle class rabble thronging onto social media to berate black celebrities has been an occasional embarrassment. Even Farage’s remarks associating Romanian migrants with crime, though not new, were controversial enough to force UKIP to take out full-page advertisements explaining why they are not racist. If you have to say you aren’t racist, you have already lost that argument; if you have to take out national newspaper ads claiming you aren’t racist, you can consider the horse to have well and truly bolted.
On the key issue of Europe, UKIP is unlikely to be able to claim any kind of victory. The British electorate has always been more ‘eurosceptic’ than other European publics, but such public opinion is an artefact of a relation of forces. A referendum campaign on a Brexit would be waged with a three-party consensus on staying in, and a pro-European business-labour coalition facing down a movement that – with some indulgence on the part of the popular press – depends primarily on traditional middle class forms of civic activism and fundraising. Its firm class basis is too insecure and narrow to enable it to lead a Brexit-coalition.
Finally, as a disproportionately ageing, white, male party, it has the disadvantage of being associated with a generation and a bevy of values that are on the decline. It also finds a natural opponent in a younger generation that is socially egalitarian, more at ease with Britain’s multiculture, anxious about the effects of austerity and higher education reform, and available for a creative leftist politics.
Therein lies the key to breaking up the reactionary wedge.