UKIP's Earl Grey politics
by Erica Jamieson, guest writer
I come from a small town in southeast England called Sheringham, in the voting constituency of North Norfolk. Picture beautiful sandy coastlines, large stately homes, quaint British towns and a perfectly farmed countryside. Sheringham even has a town crier. Turn the other eye, and you’ve got a large retiree population, extreme lack of racial diversity and the inbred capital of the U.K., where the dialectic “yer getting on ma wick” translates to the rest of the country as “you’re starting to annoy me.” Norfolk was a wonderful, if a little slow-paced, area to grow up.
Since 2001, North Norfolk has been a Liberal Democrat stronghold in the typically Conservative southeast. This summer, while I was home, I noticed a change in the landscape. May 2014 brought the local and European elections, and instead of the sea of Liberal Democrat orange campaign signs normally littering people’s front gardens and fence posts, there was a new colour present: purple. This purple wave demonstrated a dramatic upsurge in popularity for a once sidelined political organisation–the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).
To give some context, the U.K. has been a three party political system since the 1920s, with each party using a representative colour. Centre-left and in red we have the Labour Party, developed from the trade union movement and best supported in the north. Until 2010, Labour had enjoyed 13 years of parliamentary dominance. The current government comprises a coalition between the leading Conservative party and backbench Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives in blue, often referred to as the Tories, are the more traditional centre-right party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron. The Lib Dems are the third-largest U.K. political party, whose centrist policies support civil rights and liberties.
In the U.K. political scene, social progressivism is widely accepted, while left vs. right discrepancies are largely economic in nature. For instance, civil partnerships have been legalised across the U.K. since 2004, with same-sex marriage legalised in England and Wales in 2013, and Scotland earlier this year. The National Health Service (NHS) has been in action since 1946, using centralised taxation to provide free healthcare to every U.K. resident. Even the existence of a coalition party demonstrates the progressive nature of U.K. politics; following a lack of majority win in the last national elections, it was formed to avoid a hung parliament.
Enter UKIP, the most right-wing, influential political force seen in Britain since the days of a ruling monarch. Although the party was founded in 1993, it has seen a drastic upsurge in voters in recent years. Earlier this year, UKIP politician Patrick O’Flynn announced on Twitter that membership has doubled since 2012 to over 40,000 people. In May 2010, the last general election, UKIP received only 3.1 percent of the vote. Today, opinion polls indicate voting support in percentages ranging from the teens to low twenties. Following the purple wave this summer, UKIP went on to win the U.K. European elections with 27 percent of the vote, meaning that Britain is represented by a whopping 24 purple-tied Members of European Parliament (MEP’s) in the European Union. Furthermore, defections by Conservative MPs in recent months have led UKIP to win its first two seats in the House of Commons. MEPs convene at European summits to discuss multilateral agreements within the Union, while MPs determine U.K. affairs. Two out of 650 MPs in the country doesn’t sound like much right now, but it spells the start of a political shift that is only continuing to grow.
The independence UKIP refers to is independence from the European Union. Led by “the people’s man” Nigel Farage, UKIP’s major selling point is that it will put an end to “the immigration issue” in the U.K.; namely, closing the borders with Europe and withdrawing from the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). Currently, these agreements allow free movement of goods, persons, services and capital between nearly all members of the European Union. We’re talking working rights, residency, business transactions, imports and exports, access to education; you name it: all free.
While the cost of EU membership is undeniably steep, with yearly net contributions amounting to over £8 billion (approximately 12.5 billion U.S. dollars), its benefits are unparalleled. As a British citizen, I have the chance to move to any EU country, where I am permitted to work and study without discrimination. Moreover, the Union has gained a richness of cultural interaction and understanding through these agreements, along with a sense of European solidarity. Each EU country helps the others remain economically stable, while European sanctions protect civil rights. Trade laws have made London a hub of European business, and although immigration levels are high, I would argue they are an asset to the nation rather than a disadvantage. As the press often forgets to mention, the so-called “unwanted” immigrants fill the majority of our low-level service industry positions. Departure from the European Union would strip the United Kingdom of all these benefits.
Taking a peek at other “Policies for the People” on UKIP’s website gives you a clearer image of some of their other policies, including the abolition of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, a repeal of the 2008 Climate Change Act and scrapping of green subsidies, a repeal of the Agency Workers Directive. They also advocate cutting the foreign aid budget by £9 billion per annum (approximately 14 billion dollars) and withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
UKIP also has a number of questionable donors. Its sixth largest independent benefactor, Demetri Marchessini (who is actually Greek, which makes one wonder why he supports an anti-EU party in the first place), stated in a television interview that he supports prohibiting women from wearing trousers as “only skirts excite men… that is the only way the world is going to continue. If they don’t [stop wearing trousers] men are going to stop f***ing them.” The man who funds UKIP thinks the greatest threat to mankind isn’t disease, or climate change, it’s trousers. This comes among a myriad of other sexist, homophobic and racist incidents associated with the U.K. Independence Party. Party leader Farage himself rose to YouTube fame when he was caught on camera calling the president of the European Union a “genuine Belgian damp rag.” Comments such as these have prompted vicious protests against Farage and what he stands for, including an egg thrown at his head on his way to a press conference in May.
The problem with UKIP is more than just their slurs and policies, but how they are undeniably changing the social and political climate of the U.K. UKIP’s values increase fear and distrust of the “Other” and promote a sense of “British Supremacy” reminiscent of the colonial era. Their website states: “UKIP recognises and values an overarching, unifying British culture, which is open and inclusive to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain and British values, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.” In other words, culturally assimilate and we’ll accept you. Take the fact that UKIP is markedly less popular across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, nations that suffered centuries of abuse at the hands of English supremacy, and you’ll get some sense of the cultural overtones surrounding the party’s politics.
It has been terrifying to witness the changing discourse that everyday people use in reference to “the foreigners” and “the immigration issue.” As a State built upon the exploition of nations and native peoples, racial and ethnic diversity were highly common and accepted throughout the country, particularly in large cites. “The immigration issue” did not even exist as a concept before the 2007-08 financial crisis, but, with UKIP’s help, it has now become a staple phrase for newscasters and the general public alike. By targeting low socio-economic groups, the party has given individuals a target for their anger and frustration surrounding the economic downturn: “the immigrants.” In this way, they position themselves as a “fresh-start” remote from the lying and untrustworthy politicians of yore.
UKIP is also riding on the widespread public frustration with the three existing political parties. People are tired after the long reign of Labour, blamed because in power when the financial crisis occurred. The Tories are criticised for doing little to mitigate problems in the last four years, and the Lib Dems broke trust by going back on many of their policies as part of the coalition government.
In fact, the party’s entire campaign is built around tactics of fear-mongering; the home screen of their website features a compilation video of press interviews with Conservative leaders entitled “Immigration Fail: Numbers Up Since Cameron Took Office.” Overlaid with Blair Witch Project-esque static and flashing red light, and set to music reminiscent of a 90s thriller, this video seeks to inform potential UKIP supporters not how the party will introduce reform, but that the Tories have failed and the seeming immigration apocalypse will soon ensue.
UKIP does have a couple of key policies around which they easily rally support. First, they promise to keep the National Health Service absolutely free for all Britons and intend to extend evening surgery hours in areas where demand is high. Second, they plan to increase personal allowance to the level of full-time minimum wage earnings, so that those in the lowest income bracket do not have to pay taxes. This would be joined by an abolition of inheritance tax. Though those who have felt targeted by Tory cutbacks would welcome such reform, these successes must be compared to other policy changes.
The U.K. Independence Party is often ridiculed within mainstream British culture, but its support is growing, and it’s growing fast. Not too long ago, UKIP was categorised with other minority right-wing parties such as the British National Party and No2EU, whose wacky extremist policies are still considered a joke. Having already overtaken the Green Party, however, UKIP is set to irrevocably alter the United Kingdom’s political arena with the introduction of a fourth party contestant. The next general elections are right around the corner in May 2015, and though they’ve still got a long way to go, UKIP will be stepping up campaigns to secure as many new seats as possible. As stated by The Telegraph, “Mr. Farage had shattered the mould of British democracy, and thrown next year’s general election, already set to be the closest and most unpredictable for a generation, into turmoil.” Although it is estimated that UKIP could win between five and 30 seats, any gain will only further the butterfly effect of growth in the support UKIP has enjoyed. I am horrified that, sometime in the future, the people of my country could vote for the UKIP party, whose campaign hashtag #peoplesarmy (someone clearly missed the connection to every single communist revolution) speaks of a world I thought was long behind us.