The Rise of UKIP and the Right
ALASTAIR PAYNTER wonders whether UKIP is now the real conservative party
The assumed certainties of national politics have in recent times begun to look rather less assured. The stolid three party status quo is under increasing pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a party which has successfully made the transition in the public’s perception from a single issue organisation to a refreshing alternative for those dissatisfied with the current mainstream choices. The evidence of this shift in public opinion had been present in polls for some time, but it only achieved some concrete affirmation of its existence in a succession of by-elections. In 2012, the party’s respective candidates finished second in Rotherham and Middlesbrough and third in Croydon. The recent Eastleigh by-election witnessed UKIP’s strongest performance to date, with candidate Diane James receiving 11,571 votes, or 27.8% of the vote, coming second behind the Liberal Democrat Mike Thornton’s 13,342 (32%).[i] This latter result is unsettling for the Conservative Party, who previously had looked upon the smaller party with considerable disdain.
In the eyes of many, in UKIP there exists a genuine alternative to the three major parties. Under David Cameron the Conservative Party has undergone a dramatic shift in both emphasis and ideology, to the point where many of the actual Right perceive it to be indistinguishable from the very political forces it is supposed to counter. The Prime Minister’s self-description as the “heir to Blair” hardly invested genuine conservatives with enthusiasm as to the direction the party was taking, yet it seems many still voted Conservative either out of tribal loyalty, or the vain hope that once in power the Tories would revert to their usual selves. Such a reversion has not taken place, and given the complete lack of any policy or initiative which might be called genuinely conservative, many have become convinced that it will never take place.
As a result, the Tory Party has lost an astonishing number of its members. When David Cameron became party leader, membership stood at 250,000. Current estimates place this figure at between 130,000 and 170,000.[ii] Many of these disillusioned Tories have fled to UKIP and leader Nigel Farage has wasted no time welcoming such exiles to his party. The widespread dissatisfaction with politics undoubtedly has a number of reasons. Among these, two perceptions are particularly prominent, both among Conservatives who feel betrayed and among the public at large. The first is that the three major parties are virtually indistinguishable from each other and can only promise a variant of social democracy coloured with their particular hue, be it blue, red or yellow. The second reason is the belief that, as a class, politicians merely represent their own interests and those of the special interest groups to whom the political establishment appears to pander. UKIP’s views on Europe and immigration reflect widespread concerns to which the three major parties hitherto appeared wilfully deaf. For his part, Farage has certainly shown himself to be a man of considerable intelligence and political insight. His prescient and acerbic speeches to the European Parliament and appearances in the media show how far UKIP has come from its earlier days when it was perceived by many, rightly or wrongly, as an eccentric conglomeration of discontents prone to publicity stunts.
Farage’s characterisation of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats as “social democrats” is a rare case of forthright speaking which has been absent from political discourse for some time. Political language has long draped itself in a cloak of dissimulation, as George Orwell evinced with much force in his 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language.”[iii] In the absence of the clear use of words, civilised order suffers. When their definitions are blurred by constant (and often deliberate) misuse, meaningful debate is smothered in a fog of confusion. In Britain, political appellations are abused on a daily basis. None of the major parties adhere to the philosophies which their names suggest. The Conservatives appear to possess little inclination to actually conserve anything – the few genuine examples of Toryism or even Whiggism among them doubtful as to what exactly there is left which is worthy of conservation anyway. It has arguably been many years since the Liberals exhibited any genuine concern for individual liberty, while the Labour Party has made an interesting intellectual journey from the self-proclaimed champion of the working class to the voice of the whims and prejudices of the bien-pensant middle class.
To those looking beyond the mere cut and thrust of daily politics, the ascent of UKIP raises interesting questions as to the Right’s direction of travel in the coming years. More specifically, what is UKIP’s place on the Right and is it capable of bringing various different factions into a coherent opposition to the current leftist settlement? As with any political party, UKIP has its own different factions – there are the traditionalist conservatives and there are those elements which are more classically liberal. UKIP describes itself as a “democratic libertarian” party. As such, it is the largest political party in Britain which could reasonably be described as anti-statist. Its self-described objective is “the minimum necessary government which defends individual freedom, supports those in real need, takes as little of our money as possible and doesn’t interfere in our lives.”[iv] First and foremost among its policies is its most famous cause – Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. It has certainly developed beyond this, despite the attempts of some in the media to portray it as a ‘single issue’ party, but its primacy in its political concerns remains. This is justified and necessary, since extracting ourselves from the EU is perhaps the most fundamental precondition to any effective movement to shrink the state. As it stands, the EU has long given up any pretence at being about trade relations and friendly cooperation. The vast monolithic federal structure now spreading out from Brussels deems few matters of too little importance to the scrutinising gaze of its men in grey.
That a broadly anti-statist party has risen in such prominence to be a cause for concern for the three-party establishment can only be seen as a refreshing change to the political landscape. Its objectives are genuine and clearly stated and Farage has demonstrated himself to be a man of purpose, who does seem to speak for a sizeable portion of the electorate. Although it may not go as far in some areas as its various ideological subsets may desire, UKIP does have many very good policies. Despite this, there are certain areas to which UKIP will have to attend if it wishes to establish itself as an effective organ of the Right. The first of these is what seems to be a frequently-stated commitment to democracy. Regarding the means of government, the party website states:
We believe that the government of Britain should be for the people, by the people – all the people, regardless or their creed or colour – of Britain.”[v]
As a force of opposition to the dirigiste EU, which has repeatedly demonstrated a callous and arrogant disregard to the will of the various peoples of Europe when they have expressed opposition to its federalising projects, it is understandable that UKIP default to the popular position of national democracy as the proper form of public administration. The problem with this, is that, beyond the actual cause of withdrawal from the EU, which a strong contingent of the population appear to support, it is difficult to imagine how much of UKIP’s libertarian programme would actually be achievable in the current backdrop of mass democracy. Assuming a situation in which UKIP were elected to office, there would certainly be opportunity to at least scrape away some of the edges of the social democratic state. To regain any real semblance of the liberty which was once considered normal, a scythe would have to be taken to the mass of wild and excessive state growth which has accumulated during the past century. Achieving this end through democratic means seems nigh to impossible. History appears to demonstrate a correlation between an increase in democracy, and the subsequent increase in the size of the state and decrease in general liberty. It is interesting to note, that those parts of the world today which are comparatively freer, have also demonstrated coolness or opposition to the democratic tendencies prevalent elsewhere.[vi]
For libertarians, the unpleasant truth remains that the majority of the British people support the idea of some form of welfare state, believe government should retain some role in the economy and will not countenance any perceived threat to the National Health Service. Any party promising what it would actually take to significantly reduce the size and scope of state would probably be decimated at any general election. Of course, UKIP’s policy makers are probably aware of this and could simply be trying to garner some substantial public appeal in terms which the majority of people understand. It is certainly difficult to offer any alternative as to how an anti-statist party could succeed in this regard. The party policy statement on healthcare illustrates this implicit contradiction. UKIP clearly commits itself to maintain the principle of the NHS, says its policy is in line with “mainstream thinking” and refers to the principle of treatment being available ‘free at the point of use’ as “non-negotiable”.[vii] Yet there is still something slightly confusing about a party calling itself libertarian committing itself in principle to perhaps the greatest manifestation of institutional socialism that exists in Britain. It could be argued that such a position represents a classic example of those on the modern Right lamenting the loss of liberty, authority, individual responsibility and the utter disintegration of traditional social norms, whilst at the same time compromising with, and attempting to sustain, at least in principle, the very institutions which are in large part responsible.[viii]
What, then, does UKIP’s rise mean for the Right? It is slightly premature for a definitive answer to this question. Electorally, the general election still stands as the preeminent test of political acceptability. While the current trend is encouraging, it remains to be seen whether the near-ubiquitous sense of political disconnection is strong enough to translate itself into votes. Excepting those few honourable members in Parliament who do hold the government to account and occupy a genuine position on the Right, it would seem that UKIP is the only viable option. While some of its stands may depart from its overall description, it is certainly a significant improvement over the status quo. The challenge it faces is to maintain an ideological and intellectual coherence which refuses to compromise with the forces of the Left, but presents itself in a fashion which is amenable to the man on the street. Despite the essential differences in policy, this is something which they could perhaps learn from their counterparts in the so-called Liberty Movement in the United States, who have continued to fight statism in the political arena, whilst investing much time and energy in sound political education.[ix]
ALASTAIR PAYNTER is a writer and student of politics
[i] BBC News, Eastleigh by-election: Lib Dems hold on despite UKIP surge http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21625726
[ii] Peter Oborne, David Cameron is trashing his own party, and its not a pretty sight. Telegraph Online, February 6th, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/9852903/David-Cameron-is-trashing-his-own-party-and-its-not-a-pretty-sight.html
[iii] This can be read here: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm
[vi] In Europe, Liechtenstein and Monaco are prime examples of freer states. Even though Liechtenstein has elements of direct democracy, the reigning monarch still retains significant executive power.
[viii] See Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “The Intellectual Incoherence of Conservatism” http://mises.org/daily/1766
[ix] By this, I refer to the broad coalition of people who united around the Ron Paul presidential campaign.