Nigel Farage and the fury of the elites
There is a positive kernel to the public support for UKIP, says Brendan O’Neill.
Try as I might, I cannot remember a time when Britain’s various elites were as united in fury as they are now over UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In the run-up to this week’s Euro-elections, in which the Eurosceptic UKIP is expected to do well, leaders of every hue, from the true blue to the deep red, and hacks of every persuasion, from the right to the right-on, are as one on the issue of Farage. From Nick Clegg to the Twitterati that normally gets off on mocking Nick Clegg, from David Cameron to radical student leaders who normally hate David Cameron, fury with Farage has united all. It has brought together usually scrapping sections of the political and media classes into a centre-ground mush of contempt for UKIP. Not even Nick Griffin – who is a far nastier character than Farage – attracted such unstinting universal ire. What’s up with this Farage fury?
It’s everywhere. You can’t switch on the internet or open a newspaper without being greeted by news reports or op-eds on what a contemptible character Farage is. From the Guardian to the Sun, a paper you might once have expected to be sympathetic to a Eurosceptic politician yet which now brands some of Farage’s comments as ‘racism, pure and simple’, Farage-bashing is thriving. Even right-leaning broadsheet papers, including the supposed newspaper of record, The Times, have of late devoted themselves myopically to exposing the idiocies of Farage and his minions. Many of The Times’ stories about UKIP’s foot-in-mouth incidents are leaked to it by a devoted team of UKIP-watchers at Conservative Party HQ. Which means, yes, we now have politicians too cowardly to state their opposition to UKIP openly and a media so compliant, and also so politically influential, that they are more than happy to do one party’s bidding against another – especially if the other is the apparently terrifying UKIP.
Where Govephobia (an allergy to every comment uttered by Conservative education secretary Michael Gove) only unites the old public-sector left and Guardianistas, and anti-Jeremy Clarkson sentiment largely only brings together the time-rich Twitterati and members of the commentariat with 800 words to file pronto, anti-Farage fury is a great deal more far-reaching. It touches all politicians; it invades every dinner party in the land; it freaks out Tory snot and radical leftist alike; it is de rigueur everywhere from the horsey shires to the leftish Twitterverse.
What’s it all about? It can’t simply be down to the arguments Farage espouses. Take immigration. Loads of political and media types are illiberal on immigration, favouring strict border controls. Indeed, it was Labour, whose supporters in the media choke on their macchiatos whenever Farage mentions the word ‘Romanian’, which took the unusual step of keeping certain Romanians and Bulgarians out of Britain when those two nations joined the EU in January 2007. This instantly turned Romanians and Bulgarians into the second-class citizens of Europe, who did not enjoy the same freedom of movement as Poles and others who had joined the EU in the 2000s. It takes politics to a new low for Labour leaders and Labour-leaning commentators to gasp in horror when Farage says something dumb about Romanians moving in next door, considering it was their party which for seven years physically and legally prevented Romanians from moving in next door. Or consider Farage’s Brussels-bashing, his angst with the EU oligarchy. Lots of people share this view, or a variant of it. spiked is anti-EU, but thoroughly pro-Europe, on the basis that the EU is an anti-democratic behemoth which treats European voters with contempt. Others think similarly. So it can’t be Farage’s Euroscepticism that makes him such a figure of hate for pretty much every politician and observer in the land. What is it, then?
The real motor to the anti-Farage outlook, the fuel to this unprecedented fury of the elites, is a powerful feeling that he has connected with the public, or a significant section of it, in a way that mainstream politicians and observers have utterly failed to. The elites see in Farage their own inability to understand the populace or to speak to it in a language it understands. They see in his popularity – his oh-so-stubborn popularity, so notably undented by the daily furious outpourings of the anti-Farage elites – their own failure to swing public attitudes in what they consider to be the ‘right’ direction. That Farage’s popularity in the polls has remained pretty high even as our elites have been attacking him on a daily basis fills them not only with fury but with fear: their arguments seem not to have much traction outside the Westminster bubble, outside of medialand, where despite their best efforts the awkward, annoying little people still remain fairly favourable towards a loudmouth politician who isn’t PC and drinks beer. The fury behind the attacks on Farage is really a fury with the throng, with the masses, whose brains have clearly been made so mushy by UKIP propaganda that even the supposedly enlightened arguments and policies of their betters can now make no impact. It isn’t Farage they hate – it’s ordinary people, and more importantly their own palpable inability to make inroads into those people’s hearts or minds.
In short, the true momentum behind both UKIP’s rise in the polls and the rising temperatures it has provoked in pretty much every elite circle in Britain is not the charms or coherent ideologies of Farage himself. (In fact, many take great pleasure in pointing out that most UKIP supporters don’t know UKIP policy on any issue beyond immigration and the EU.) Rather, it is the political class’s alienation from the public, and its existential insecurities, that have propelled UKIP to the top of the political agenda. The aloofness of the old political machine, its growing distance from and contempt for the voters, its view of the public as a blob to be re-educated and made physically fit rather than as sentient beings to be politically engaged, is what has boosted public support for a party like UKIP that seems willing to speak to, and maybe even for, so-called ordinary people. And it is the out-of-touch political class’s subsequent panic at UKIP’s rise, its fear that the success of this party might spell doom for its safe, samey, middle-ground ilk, which leads it to aim its every ideological, political and media gun at Farage, having the unwitting effect of making him both more widely talked-about and possibly even more popular. It is the political class’s crisis of legitimacy and vision which both created and then inflamed the UKIP phenomenon.
However, it is not enough to describe the support for UKIP as just a protest vote, as just a two-finger salute to the traditional parties. That is part of it, yes, but there’s more – maybe even something positive. The potentially positive kernel is this: people are investing in Farage, and other populist right-wing parties across Europe, their desire to be heard, their aspiration to be taken seriously, their longing to be treated as adults capable of discussing big, serious issues like sovereignty, nationhood and democracy, rather than as fat bodies to be remoulded and warped minds to be reshaped by enlightened experts, which is what so much of politics consists of today. The unhinged anti-Farage fury of the elites is a good sign, for it is throwing into relief the gaping chasm that currently exists between Us and Them, between the ruled and the rulers, where the former are finally telling the latter that they’ve had enough of being talked down to and treated as children, even if the only way they have found to say this is by putting their support into new, right-leaning populist outfits.
So the support for UKIP and other populist parties is not simply a reaction against the old politics; it is also an assertion of something, of a desire, a sentiment, an idea, however ill-formed it might currently be. Yes, these populist parties in Britain and elsewhere obsess over immigration and want tighter border controls. But the sections of the populace who support those demands do not do so from a traditionally racist perspective but rather from a profound feeling of cultural insecurity. Constantly told to mind their language, police their thoughts, suppress their views, respect all cultures, hide their traditions, be ashamed of their national histories, never wave their national flags, and so on, many constituencies in Europe feel that their surroundings are becoming more culturally alien, hostile to their beliefs and even to their existences, and they see immigration as being responsible for their strong feeling that they now live in something like a foreign land. They’re wrong about that. It was actually the divisive ideology of multiculturalism and the censorious culture of relativism that allowed large parts of Western Europe to become tradition-trouncing, speech-suppressing, alienating places, not immigration itself. But that doesn’t mean that their sensation of cultural insecurity isn’t a legitimate one, and potentially a political force to be reckoned with.
It remains to be seen just how well UKIP and the other new right-wing populist parties do this week. Politics is so unpredictable these days that even parties that poll fantastically well can end up doing only moderately well in the actual ballot box. But if these parties do perform well, it won’t be evidence that racism has returned to stalk Europe or that neo-fascism is on the rise. Rather, it will represent the expression of a new, as-yet unclarified political sentiment that doesn’t only say ‘I’m sick of the old political class’, but also: ‘I want to be heard. I want to be taken seriously. I want control over my life, my community and my nation again.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
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