Friday, 3 May 2013

Nigel Farage's Ham and Eggs.

I wake up this morning to discover that the BBC is hailing UKIP's 'surprise' showing in the local elections, as if there's no connection between Nigel Farage's 14 appearances on Question Time and seeming omnipresence on programmes from The Daily Politics to Peppa Pig. This, despite not having a single MP, unlike the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the SDLP, Respect, the DUP and the UUP.

So today the media is in a frenzy. Who are these UKIP voters? Are they 'just' a protest vote? Will they disappear again? In response, various party hacks and commentators are replying in words of one syllable. Which isn't very helpful: as I say to my students constantly, everything is more complicated and therefore more interesting than it might appear. So here in no particular order and with absolutely no evidence or justification (my degrees are in English and Welsh literature), are my reckons on the UKIP phenomenon.

1. Electorates always look for simple answers, especially in hard times. This is why conservatism thrives to the extent it does: it specialises in reductive pandering. Look at Canadian PM Stephen Harper's quote of the week: now is not the time to 'commit sociology' he said, speaking of some iffy terrorist arrests. Similarly, the anti-climate science lobby world-wide specialises in reductiveness. We had a cold winter, they say. Where's your global warming now? They conjure up images of aloof 'boffins' engaged in some kind of plot against 'business' and 'hard-working families' (and they're usually funded by big business). This is the modus operandi of the Conservative Party of course, but they're at least slightly constrained by being in government. UKIP's entire manifesto is an appeal to the electorate's desire for 'straight answers' and 'common sense': any problem is the fault of 'bureaucrats', 'Brussels', immigrants or 'Bolsheviks'. Complication is the enemy.

This is of course the discourse of hegemony: by not addressing the complexities of any given situation, the status quo is reinforced. Take crime. There's considerable evidence that lead in petrol and other substances severely damaged brain function, and the decline in crime may be partially triggered by the ban on lead (note my left-wing qualifications there). But that's too complicated for the right. They need crime to be a threat, and sanctions to be morally clear. Hang them. Flog them. Bang them up. It's the only language they understand.

Right-wingers are Manichaean. They see the world in black and white, even if their leaders quietly have  a more nuanced view. (Farage is a millionaire currency trader, so clearly has more economic insight than he lets on). This is not new: hard times produce extreme parties - most famously the Nazis but there are plenty of movements more akin to UKIP. Weighing up complexity is hard and boring. Voters don't want to do it. Politicians don't want to do it. They want to pretend that there are simple causes and easy reasons. Who ever won an election with the slogan 'It's Complicated But We'll Do Our Best'? Which leads me to:

2. UKIP might easily be considered the Tea Party of the UK. It's loud, largely supported by older people (whom I suspect split between the Telegraph and the Daily Mail) and incoherent. Famously, the Tea Party calls for the abolition of federal government, while its pensioner supporters draw heavily on federal Medicare and Medicaid to cope with the depredations of private healthcare.

Someone who really doesn't understand where Medicare comes from

It's this refusal to engage with the economic and cultural aspects of life which mark them out as reactionary and as a protest party: imagine a UKIP government trying to decide on a Public Sector Borrowing Rate, or the acceptable level of atmospheric NO2.

All the parties are rushing for the simpleton vote, but UKIP is more explicit. However, they're not the first. There will always be a section of the electorate which yearns for immediate gratification and simplicity. Apart from the Tea Party, there was the Ham and Eggs movement in California, which started off demanding federal pensions, family values and hatred of bankers (shading, unfortunately like Britain's Independent Labour Party, into anti-semitism), and became a minor hard-right lynch mob whose leader was eventually arrested for pro-Nazism as the US became embroiled in WW2.

Ham and Eggs had 'all-girl bands', pep rallies, picnics, chants and songs, as well as a plausible and important original cause. They had a clear message and a sophisticated media strategy, flooding the airwaves with catchy slogans and the message that 'they' were out to get the little man. And just like UKIP, Ham and Eggs had prominent campaigners with shady and often criminal histories. (For more on Ham and Eggs, Starr's Endangered Dreams is an excellent history of California in the Great Depression.

Ham and Eggs weren't alone. We can also look at the Know-Nothing Party, active in the middle decades of the 19th century.

They were even more like UKIP: briefly the most prominent 'nativist' party, they held that America's problem was… immigrants. In particular, Catholic immigrants, especially German and Irish ones, as this Know-Nothing cartoon demonstrates.

Like Northern Ireland's unionists, they believed that Catholicism meant obedience to the Pope and anti-democratic values: these apparently progressive beliefs quickly legitimised racial hatred and reaction. Membership was only open to white Protestant males and most supporters were middle-class. So it was a party founded on reductive, racial stereotypes and an overwhelming sense of paranoia, that 'they' are coming to subvert some apparently core American values.

Just like UKIP appears to be doing, the Know-Nothings or American Party capitalised on the political exhaustion of the established parties and captured a swathe of territory in an upsurge of what we might call protest voting. Voters came from all parties, having rejected the lethargy of established politics in the face of the most pressing political issues: slavery (many Know-Nothings were opposed) and the scourge of alcohol. Yet – and I suspect this is a problem facing UKIP – movements which expand massively in a short space of time are liable to be vulnerable. As UKIP is finding, policy is hard to define off the cuff, while a radicalised membership may produce candidates with seriously extreme views and political histories.

Like UKIP, the Know-Nothing voters were often those of the lower middle class who view the political establishment with considerable suspicion (often rightly) but from the reactionary right. UKIPs voters are social conservatives, rather than radical neoliberal capitalists. Farage is a conundrum here: his fortune is derived from neoliberal capitalism, yet his entire manifesto is a cry of pain at the damage wreaked by it upon Britain and British culture - a contradiction also facing the Conservative Party over the past few decades. He likes a fag (Americans: this means cigarette), a drink, a visit to lap-dancing clubs: he's Jeremy Clarkson's idea of a Bloody Good Bloke, while at the same time being the product of global capitalism.

UKIP's answer is to pretend that there isn't any such contradiction, as is Cameron's. As such, it's insulting: they hope the members and voters don't make the connection between, say, mass unemployment and globalisation, or economic liberalisation and social liberalism or immigration. The only solution is to campaign solely on cultural issues and ignore economics: gay marriage and school curricula press the buttons of conservative voters whereas banking stability doesn't.

My last proto-UKIP is the Poujadist movement. They won't like this one: it's French. But Poujadism is the very essence of UKIPism, expressing the fears and suspicions not of the proletariat, but of the small business classes. Pierre Poujade led the insurrection of the single trader, the small town, the backwater, against the depredations of taxation, distant governments and Big Business. For a short time, his movement was huge, appealing to the classic sense that 'real France' was essentially a France of sleepy towns, community leaders and shopkeepers, all the things being swept away by Capital and modernity. Like UKIP, Poujade appealed to nostalgic reactionaries: ruralism at home and Empire abroad were being abandoned, and his constituency regretted these losses. Yet the Poujadists fell apart because they knew only what they didn't like: modernity. They had no programme other than the magic return to the simple life (the astonishingly stupid basis of almost all post-Independence Irish politics too).

The Know-Nothings fell apart over the issue of slavery in the approach to the Civil War: like any American Party with national aspirations, the cultural and economic divide between its Southern and Northern aspects was too great to bridge. Ham and Eggs were a one-issue party which collapsed in the face of other political issues. The Poujadists only opposed the modern world.

Will this happen to UKIP? My suspicion is that – like the BNP before it – the burden of responsibility will break it to some extent. BNP councillors were manifestly unprepared for the necessary drudgery of political work. Once you're in power, you can't blame unemptied bins, budgetary tensions and bus route problems on 'Europe' or 'immigrants'. Farage et al. appeal to the Golf Club constituency: those blow-hards who repeat Daily Mail nostrums over a stiff gin-and-tonic to other people like them without the slightest concern for other perspectives, classes and values ('stand to reason' is their slogan). UKIP's older, suaver, more middle-class appeal will continue to attract conservative voters through its populist, anti-elitist politics, and I do worry that it will operate as a ginger group, perpetually forcing the Conservative Party to tack even harder right and in the process shifting the entire political spectrum.

Personally, I don't get UKIP, but I'm not in their target demographic. I'm a metropolitan liberal. I think that the EU, for all its faults, has protected the British worker against the worst instincts of British governments, Labour and Tory: working time, health and safety, rights to organise, human rights etc. etc. Which is very sad.

I'm not nostalgic for empire (my Irish passport prevents that). I don't think that the British Empire – or any other empire – was a force for good. I like the complexities of modern life. For instance, I once asked a UKIP candidate why he wasn't a Welsh or Scottish nationalist. After all, he'd explained to me that super-states were wrong, that 'Brussels' was distant and uncaring about the fringes, that a federal currency couldn't take into account local economic needs. OK, I said. Isn't the UK a 'super-state'? A single language has been imposed. A single currency and interest rates which serve the needs of the City of London aren't suitable for Tredegar or Clydeside. The UK government didn't reflect the votes cast by Scotland or Wales. Nobody in Wales or Scotland voted for the Union. The response was a confused stutter which took in a weird amalgam of something called Britishness which seemed to be unquestionable, and promoted the Empire as the fruits of these combined nations. Oh, I said. So you do like some super-states, like the Empire? You just want to be in charge of one rather than participating in one. The conversation ended without further examination of the substantive issues.

UKIP's appeal is in telling simple narratives to a constituency which really believes in a selective view of the past. It harks back to empire, to social stability, to conservative truths. Its ideal world is suburban, white, heterosexual and suspicious of change. It provides simple causes to complicated problems. Europe. Immigration. Cosmopolitan gays. (For a vision of the UKIP nation and an exploration of the neoliberal/social conservative tensions in the Tories, I strongly recommend you read Julian Barnes' wonderful novel England, England)As such, it attracts not just Conservatives and BNP voters, but conservatives from all parties and classes. Don't forget that Labour has a large anti-European streak, though its roots are in socialist suspicion that the EU is a capitalist plot. Former Labour voters disillusioned with the party's other policies may not make the distinction between left Anti-Europeanism and UKIP's version, and working-class Labourism has always been socially conservative. There's a huge constituency out there which sees Westminster politics as elitist and disconnected: they want their atavistic beliefs represented, and UKIP is the ideal vehicle. Simply put, it's Top Gear friendly, the political wing of Littlejohn's You Couldn't Make It Up reactionary suspicion. However, I do think that the burden of office will expose them and their ideas quite quickly.

That said: what happens in the meantime? The Tories will try to recover UKIP's voters by fuelling xenophobia and other dangerous far-right instincts, despite the reservations of their globalist wing. Labour, I fear will do the same, as it has at every opportunity for 30 years. New Labour is particularly guilty of this. Having never met or come from the working classes, its policies clearly assumed that they were all closet racists who required appeasement, and I don't think this has changed much, though I do think Ed Miliband's a bit cleverer than this. Instead of trying to persuade voters to change, Labour repeatedly decided to pander. It's a failure of leadership and responsibility. Yes, many voters are concerned about immigration, Europe and so on: often because cynical newspapers and parties have seen these as easy buttons to press. But I happen to think that the British electorate largely isn't racist, isn't paranoid, isn't reactionary and is capable of sophisticated responses to social and political problems.

The only problem is: which party will dare to be the first to test this theory that voters are grown-ups?

Anyway, sorry for the long rant/lecture. I'm no more politically astute than anyone else, and of course everything I say is informed by my privileged position. But I thought you might be interested in the background and history.

1 comment:

Vicky said...

Thank you for taking the time to put all this together, it's some truly excellent context for what's happened.