In Westminster, the drip-drip of financial corruption — expense account abuse, the flipping of houses — is supplemented by a spectacle of “on-message” politicians whose speeches are slick with the shiny artificiality of well-oiled PR productions. A never-ending parade of besuited, perfectly manicured politicians, staring out at the camera, eyes glazed with faux sincerity, features consciously arranged in well-ordered concern. Naturally, such people, such projections, attain all the proportion and reality of a computer-generated avatar or, to say the same, Nick Clegg.
But it is against such a background that the UK Independence Party and its leader Nigel Farage are liable to step forward in three dimensions and vivid technicolor. The racism and misogyny which come percolating up from the dark depths of the party core is transmuted by the light of day into a series of comic gaffes uttered by archaic pantomime clowns — the Godfrey Blooms and the Eric Kitsons. The toxic substance of what is actually being relayed is often displaced by the satisfaction one derives from encountering a group of people who are manifestly themselves, prepared to “speak their minds” in a political vacuum from which every other aspect of authenticity and spontaneity has been sucked.
In short, UKIP have harnessed what might be called “the BoJo effect.” And this is necessary, not simply in order to sweeten the bitter pill of racism and reaction which UKIP party policy represents — but, equally important, to help disguise the terminal contradictions which are lodged at the heart of the UKIP political project itself.
The party and Farage spend considerable time and effort conjuring the spectre of the European Union, for instance. In Farage’s vision the EU has morphed into a malevolent monolith of absolute unrestrained power — “This EU is the New Communism. It is Power without Limits.” The power Farage articulates here is of a very specific type. It is the power of the metropolitan elites given visible and coherent form: the power of a privileged, pampered liberal excrescence, obsessed with the minutia of bureaucracy and bi-law, prone to strangle dissent within the tentacles of its own red tape. Above all, the EU is manned by a selection of “undemocratic,” out-of-touch supra-state functionaries who sustain bloated salaries by imposing endless taxes and levies on the commodities which flow into Britain, reducing the purchasing power of the “squeezed middle” — the small businesses and petty proprietors already immiserated by economic crisis and rank corruption.
UKIP’s blanket demonization of the EU is effective up to a certain point. Not only does it raise the malign image of a foreign interloper, a sinister puppet-master pulling the strings of British policy from behind the scenes in Brussels — thus channeling a miasma of xenophobia; but Farage’s fabulations also offer a defense of a neo-liberal orientated capitalism from the purview of the “little man” — i.e., the small businessman or woman in the street whose entrepreneurial initiative and dedication would issue its own rewards — rewards in a free-market economy that is, where the natural rhythms of competition go unstifled by EU interference.
At the same time, though, this entangles both UKIP and its leader in an inexorable contradiction. While the UKIP standpoint purports to be classically neo-liberal — i.e., against state regulation in the free-market — nevertheless its most salient policy is premised on the very opposite. When Farage argues that immigration should be drastically curbed, he is, in effect, arguing that massive state regulation be deployed in order to suppress and curtail the free movement of commodities to the British market — specifically, the commodity which the majority of all immigrants bring to Britain in order to sell: their ability to work, their labor power. This has yielded the rather bizarre situation in which some members of the Conservative party have attacked UKIP for being too anti-immigration; too focused on the need for state restrictions on immigration at the cost of reducing the efficacy of capitalism more broadly. Ken Clarke, for instance, has criticized UKIP immigration policy in precisely these terms — “Free movement of immigrants in the EU is needed to run a market economy and restrictions should not go further than curbs on access to benefits or the NHS.”
But even curbing access to things like the NHS has, from the purview of British capitalism, profoundly negative implications, for it offers the potential to reduce the strength of British labor abroad, in as much as the erosion of social securities for foreign workers in Britain will likely result in the destruction of those same securities for over two million British people living in EU countries elsewhere.
Ultimately, then, UKIP’s argument doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Toward the end of last month UKIP was once again rocked by allegations of racism after one of its candidates has suggested that British comedian Lenny Henry should “go and live in a black country,” and again UKIP supporters are at pains to explain that this is just a blip, an aberration, an unhappy accident. Farage has repeatedly tried to depoliticize the whole immigration issue more generally; to describe the country in terms of a business paradigm which has to make certain quantitative adjustments: there are only a certain number of jobs which are available, curtailing the levels of immigration is a purely logistical question as opposed to anything to do with racism etc.
But the attempt to sanitize UKIP policy this way is consistently undermined by its broader ideological vision: Farage’s invocation of an idealized past — a traditional “white working class” which is seeing its culture eroded and diluted by an influx of foreigners. This attains a natural parity with Farage’s historical ancestor Enoch Powell and his infamous “rivers of blood” speech — a figure for whom Farage professes admiration to this day. But even UKIPs racism and xenophobia is riven with contradiction. The party outlines its fidelity to the British (white) worker who it argues has been pushed out of work and marginalized by his foreign counterpart: “Immigration has left our white working class as an underclass.” One would assume, therefore, that UKIP is prepared to provide all the social security necessary to console and uplift such figures. And yet, any examination of the minutia of the party’s economic policy reveals a very different story. UKIPs stance on welfare has included forced unpaid work for all Housing and Council Tax Benefit claimants and incapacity benefits slashed. Those on benefits were described by official party documentation as “a parasitic underclass of scroungers.”
What this reveals, ultimately, is that, despite Farage’s sympathetic evocation of a fantastical traumatized “white working class,” UKIP quite naturally despises its real-world counterpart; those members of the actual working class who, whatever their racial orientation, have fallen on hard times in the context of the economic crisis. But the contradictions of the UKIP project are nearly always hidden in the small print; for the main part the party endeavors to present itself as a group of idiosyncratic but concerned figures, with a bent for tradition and a penchant for that particular brand of plain-speaking, commonsense which so usefully harnesses the national zeitgeist of wet-weather pragmatism and a stiff upper lip.
In the context of the political mainstream, where every speech is relayed secondhand through the mediation of international PR professionals, a vote for UKIP may seem to offer a protest rooted in a more provincial and authentic collective identity. And yet, as comedian Stewart Lee recently observed, voting for UKIP as a means to protest the political status quo is not so different from a person who receives the most awful service in a hotel and then chooses to defecate in the bed in retaliation. At which point, they realize — they have nowhere else to sleep.
Tony Mckenna is a writer based in the UK. His writings have appeared in Ceasefire, Counterfire, CounterPunch, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, MRZine, The Philosophers Magazine, and many others.