Many people who do not share the modern consensus that government is now full of such bright and talented people that it thoroughly deserves its power to regulate us down to the underpants have tended to look benignly on Ukip in recent years. For all its faults, old-fashioned classical liberals and even some on the Old Left have tacitly cheered the burgeoning success of the party, and been attracted to its carefully cultivated image as a kind of Peasant’s Revolt against an aristocratic political class which, bereft of any motivating ideology, has drifted into the assumption that politics is a kind of managerial profession – a prestigious rival to law and finance for the most talented graduates, offering them the opportunity to spend their careers using the state’s tools of compulsion to direct the lives and fortunes of other people – not to any particular end, mark you, but simply because that is what government is for.
Indeed, this Peasant’s Revolt is against something far worse than a feudal aristocracy of Wat Tyler’s day: as CS Lewis once wrote, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
It is hard to imagine any philosophy of government which has less in common with the original motivating idealism of the British Labour Movement; nor, for that matter, with the Whig-Radical individualism of the Thatcherite right – which is precisely why, at its peak last year, Ukip was attracting millions of supporters from both the Old Left and the Tory Right. It is, however, a philosophy of government with very obvious similarities to the pragmatic elitism of the upper class Tory left – what we might call the Harold Macmillan wing of the party – as well as the post-ideological, Blairite wing of the Labour Party.
It is not to be wondered at, then, that nannying managerialism has entirely consumed the centrist wings of both the Conservatives and Labour – and therefore also the Liberal Democrats, who purport to stand ideologically in between these already indistinguishable blocs. Who would honestly bet good money on which of David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg boasted last week that “We are the party of the working people offering you security at every stage of your life”? The significance of the fact that it was David Cameron is only that anyone searching for a party which claims, as Gladstone did, to be the “party of the working people offering you the promise that we will sod off and leave you alone” has been desperate to find a new alternative, and Nigel Farage’s Purple Horde has been the principal beneficiary.
It is with some measure of regret, therefore, that we must face the increasing likelihood that Ukip has failed. Whether they lose their only two seats next month, or confound current expectations by winning half a dozen, the truth is that they have utterly and irretrievably lost the battle over the political narrative. They have allowed themselves to be characterised as a party for the ignorant and prejudiced, and they will never be able to come back from it. Ask almost anyone who does not follow politics closely – and even some who do – and you will find that the steady drip of preposterously, sometimes actionably, biased reporting has had its intended effect.
Readers of a leftish bent will probably say that this is just the delusional paranoia which you might expect from a bunch of nutters, or perhaps the rage of Caliban seeing himself in the mirror, and so we invite them to consider also the case of Ed Miliband. This is man who, as the recent leaders’ debates have shown, is a perfectly articulate, intelligent, even likeable man. Nevertheless, thanks to several years of the most ruthless character assassinations, some of which absolutely shame a supposedly mature and independent commentariat – “He looks funny! See him eating a sandwich! Call him by his brother’s name ‘by mistake’, ho ho! Let’s publish another Wallace and Gromit Cartoon! Haha, what a buffoon!” – the firmly entrenched impression of Miliband in the public mind is now something like a communist Mr Bean.
What is truly amazing to the impartial or frankly indifferent observer is how astonishingly easy it has been, and if Mr Miliband becomes Prime Minister next month it will not be because the electorate’s false impression of the man has been swept aside, as polling on the leaders’ personal popularities makes perfectly clear, but because there are millions of people in this country who would continue to vote for the party they have always voted for even if it were led by Jihadi John or the late Jimmy Savile.
As such, how much easier it has been to pull the same trick on Farage, with the Tory and Labour parties both keen to mobilise their respective friends in the media – with whom, of course, the political parties have just as incestuous a relationship as the revolving-door personnel arrangement between banks and the bank regulator: both cases, in a less broken polity, would be considered utterly corrupt. Why else would the Daily Mail – whose editorial stance on immigration and Europe would get most of its journalists expelled even from Ukip for being egregiously inflammatory – be just as hostile to the party as the Guardian and the Mirror?
Our favourite example during this campaign comes from the Telegraph, where a speech in which Farage mentioned immigration and, in a separate passage, invoked the image of safe communities where children played in the streets, was reported under the headline “Farage: children can’t play in our streets because of immigrants.”
We confess to staring open-mouthed at the downright dishonesty of the thing…but we also confess that, especially at election time, we mostly read the online editions of newspapers by scanning the headlines only, and click on them to read the actual contents only rarely. Thus, by hundreds if not thousands such small dishonesties is created an image, with a pointillism as brilliant as anything by Georges Seurat, of a shabby bunch of bigots who, if they had any self-awareness, would just join the BNP and be done with it.
Ukippers rail not just against the dishonesty but the hypocrisy: the Labour election mug promoting immigration controls as the party professes to be shocked, shocked, at Ukip’s policy of immigration controls; Cameron’s oft-repeated ambition to bring immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’, viz.- probably stricter than Farage is actually proposing, while hammering the party for taking a tough line on immigration; Nick Clegg (a personal favourite) denouncing Ukip’s proposed in-out referendum on EU membership as the worst kind of Little Englandism even though it was the official policy of the Liberal Democrats at the last general election to hold precisely such a referendum.
Furthermore, while Ukip certainly does not help itself by showing a distinctly laissez-faire approach to the considerable nutcase quotient in their membership rolls, the overwhelming majority of the offensive and downright bizarre things that some of their candidates have been caught saying, very often – indeed, necessarily given that it is a party of defectors from other parties – turn out to have been said when the offenders were fully paid-up members of Labour or the Conservatives, often while officially representing those parties in local government.
Be that as it may, we suspect that the brand is tainted beyond recovery. Rather than shake their fists at the sky, those Ukippers who are really serious about the changes which they advocate should acknowledge that they need to start again. How many potential supporters, members or candidates of calibre can they expect to find when four-fifths of the population recoil from them as from an adder in the sock-drawer? How many arguments can they hope to win, whether in Parliament or on Question Time, when they are starting from the position of having to prove that they are not egregious scumbags?
The most likely outcome of the general election is, on current forecasts, that Douglas Carswell will be the only Ukip MP, with Farage likely to resign the leadership when narrowly defeated in Thanet. Since Ukip without Farage will be a different creature altogether, there will be a real opportunity to restructure the party as a proper libertarian or classical liberal movement, which we tentatively suggest should be re-christened simply the Democratic Party – descriptively accurate, and the progressive connotations from American politics will do no harm in the battle for public acceptability in a predominantly left-wing country, either.
The reconstituted party ought to coalesce around Carswell: first and foremost, he actually is a real progressive MP, unlike Nicola Sturgeon and her new cheerleaders on the far left, who have recently claimed proprietorship of the term after apparently becoming confused between ‘progress’ and ‘fifty-year old forms of grim, pre-internet socialism’. Carswell and his ilk are people of the twenty-first century, arguing for direct democracy, reinvigorated local self-government, an executive which is more directly answerable to a reformed, more accountable Parliament, fewer make-work ministries which only exist to extend the executive’s power of patronage, open primaries and the repeal of vast swathes of antiquated legislation which is no longer fit for the better-informed and independent-minded citizenry of the Information Age. His opposition to our continued membership of the European Union is transparently not because it is too new an idea but because it is too old – a corporatist-bureaucratic dinosaur from the twentieth century which will be out-competed by all the small, nimble, open economies of the century to come.
If the narrative can successfully be established that this is a progressive as opposed to reactionary party, we might finally be able to get somewhere. The most important rule must be to apply what Ukip successfully learnt about the National Health Service to the question of immigration: it defies credulity that the small-government types at the top of Ukip are genuinely convinced that a 1940s state monopoly is the most effective way to deliver world-class healthcare outcomes in the twenty-first century, but they accepted that there is essentially zero public appetite for questioning the NHS model, and correctly concluded that there are more important and more winnable battles which they could not hope to fight if they simultaneously took on monolithic healthcare provision.
As well as declining to fight a losing battle in which your enemies have all the best weapons, viz.- powerful but pejorative epithets, accepting that immigration is not worth expending any political capital will allow the reformed party to avoid separating itself from its intellectual hinterland: the Austro-Libertarians of the Adam Smith Institute / City AM crowd who have been falling over themselves to denounce Ukip on idealistic free movement of labour grounds – often, it has to be said, to the point of parody, as in this preposterous op-ed arguing that importing millions more people is the only way to resolve the housing shortage.
Finally, by forgetting all about the sustainable demographics debate, the party would not be a magnet for those people with peculiar notions who have helped to bring Ukip into disrepute – since all the other parties effectively support open borders, Ukip’s actually rather moderate position on immigration has unavoidably attracted genuine xenophobes for whom it is the least unpalatable option. Such people would hardly queue up to join a party which has absolutely nothing to say on the matter.
Enjoying that benefit-of-the-doubt which Ukip will now never have, the Democrats – or whatever label they choose – will be able to argue for institutional reform, deregulation and the whole package of bottom-up political mechanisms which must replace our out-dated, top-down and top-heavy form of government if we are to be a free, innovative and prosperous people in the age of additive manufacturing, instant communications and the global marketplace.