Britain No Longer Immune to Sinister Nationalism

The U.K. is the latest European country beset by austerity to see a thinly-veiled racist and nationalist party - in this case UKIP - win widespread popular support.

I've always thought that, perhaps, the British are just as xenophobic as anyone else – but generally too polite to do very much about it.

But with last week's local council elections, in which the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) won nearly a quarter of the vote, Britain seems to be joining the ranks of fellow European states sliding into right-wing populism.

We're doing it in a very English way, however. UKIP, a party with twin obsessions - the evils of the European Union and immigration - is far from the blunt fascism of Greece's Golden Dawn, or the outright bigotry of France's Front Nationale.

UKIP’s rhetoric fuels a peculiar paranoia that Britain is being controlled by power-crazed Eurocrats and swamped by Bulgarian benefit scroungers, halal chicken shops and wind farms. As such, although UKIP have been around for more than 20 years, they have always been seen as a rather laughable fringe movement, run out of an office in Devon, a good 200 miles from the Westminster hubbub. Even the party's logo, its initials bisecting a British pound sterling sign on a cheery yellow background, is more reminiscent of a cut-price store than a political party.

But something has changed. The beating they delivered to the mainstream parties last week indicate UKIP's anti-establishment aura has seduced voters from both the right and the left at a time when resentment over austerity cuts and EU bailouts is running high.

Its leader, Nigel Farage, a European member of parliament since 1999, is casual, chatty and jovial: part of that sterling British tradition of political buffoonery.

Farage is more of a middle-management, beer-drinking, estate-car (station wagon)-driving everyman than the current aristocratic ruling elite of British politics. That counts for a lot when the British public feel they have been lied to and exploited by bankers and Eton-educated toffs.

A video of him telling the long-term president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, that he had the "charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of low-grade bank clerk" went viral on YouTube; you can get away with a lot in British politics by presenting yourself as a plucky underdog with a sense of humor.

Less important to those wishing to punish the current government are the rather more sinister elements UKIP attracts, whose calls for "a sensible debate" on immigration amount to barely-veiled racism.

A flurry of scandals in the run-up to the local elections did not seem to impact upon their success one bit. One candidate was suspended after reportedly claiming the Holocaust had been engineered by Zionists; another was thrown out of the party when it was revealed that she used to be a member of the far-right British National Party (BNP).

UKIP comes from a much more subtle place than, say, BNP, which flirted with mainstream politics, but proved too crude, too blatantly vile for the electoral palate.

"Our traditional values have been undermined," UKIP declares. "Children are taught to be ashamed of our past. Multiculturalism has split our society. Political correctness is stifling free speech." In other words, let's return to the utopia which existed before the outsiders came.

They've tried to expand their ideological ambit, although their manifesto remains fantastical – increasing the defense budget by 40 percent, for instance, and doubling the number of prison places – but UKIP isn't about the details.

In some places, it seems, their message wasn't even that important. One candidate told the national press this week of his surprise to have won a council place after having done absolutely zero campaigning.

Yet with last week's success - and predictions it might sweep the board in next year's European election - UKIP have gone from being a one-trick pony party to potentially realizing their aspirations of becoming the fourth power in British politics.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has underestimated his opponents before. Once asked what his favorite joke was, he replied: "Nick Clegg," – referring to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third and apparently unelectable party. He spoke too soon. In 2010, the Conservative Cameron and Clegg formed a coalition government; Clegg is now deputy prime minister.

Similarly, Cameron is casting about for a new position on UKIP, a party he once described as "fruitcakes and closet racists".

"It's no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for," is now his line.

The other parties have already begun their scramble to win back lost votes with their own populist anti-EU and anti-immigration flourishes. The Conservative right were quick to tell Cameron to toughen up – his new, kind Conservatism, strong on gay rights and inclusivity, has proved too soft, they say.

Of course, these political upsets come and go. UKIP could split the anti-Tory vote in the 2015 general elections, allowing Labour to inch ahead, and then return to obscurity.

Last week may have been a protest vote, but as elsewhere in Europe, attempts to punish the ruling elite, fed by fear and resentment, have opened to the door to extremism. Britain is no longer immune.


Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

Reuters