Ukip may be regarded as a protest party, but that doesn’t mean it will just fade away writes Allan Massie
The comedian Beppe Grillo’s cobbled-together Five Star Movement got a quarter of the vote in the Italian election two months ago. On Thursday, Ukip is expected to win a good many seats in England’s county council elections, and according to some forecasts may even come top in next year’s European election. It is quite likely that Beppe Grillo’s movement may be like the seed sown on stony ground which, in the parable, sprang up quickly and withered quickly, for this is often the fate of protest parties, a good example being the Poujadistes in Fourth Republic France. People who voted then for Pierre Poujade and for Beppe Grillo in Italy were blowing a raspberry at the political class and saying in effect “to hell with you all”. Ukip , it may be argued, attracts the same sort of generally disgruntled and angry support.
The question is whether it is more than a temporary phenomenon. In some ways it looks like a classic protest movement. Much of what it says is incoherent. It attracts a fair number of the types whom David Cameron called loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists – and indeed a handful of its candidates in this week’s election have revealed themselves as justifying the Prime Minister’s description of them. But Ukip has been building for quite a long time now – some 20 years, and has gradually emerged from the fringe. Its leader, Nigel Farrage, is genial, reasonably personable, and neither nasty nor frightening. He presents himself as the bloke in the saloon bar, though often to be seen standing outside it with a cigarette and glass of wine. There’s a touch of the Sir Denis Thatcher as represented in Private Eye’s “Dear Bill” letters about him, and he is often seen laughing boisterously. If many Ukip supporters who contribute to newspaper websites seem fuelled by resentment and hatred, their leader is a cheerful chap who gives the impression of enjoying life. He is his party’s chief asset, normal enough to attract decent normal people.
However well Ukip does in local elections in England, and in the European election, its progress is likely to stall when it comes to the next Westminster election. The first-past-the-post system makes it very difficult for third parties to break through. As Liberal leader, buoyed by a surge in the polls, David Steel may have told his troops to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government, and his successors as leaders of the Liberal Democrats may have nursed similar hopes, but the breakthrough never came, and it took the present hung parliament for the Lib Dems to squeeze into office in a coalition – after an election in which they actually lost seats.
Ukip’s experience is not likely to be any happier. When it comes to choosing a government many Ukip voters will defect.
This wouldn’t mean that Ukip would disappear. It represents a sizeable, if fluctuating, body of opinion characterised by antipathy to the EU, hostility to immigration, contempt for the political class, even hatred of it, and people’s belief that that their country is being taken away from them, changed out of recognition against their will. These are opinions – fears and resentments – which have made the French National Front (FN) a significant force as a party of permanent protest.
The FN is often described as Fascist, which it isn’t, any more than Ukip is, even though the attitudes of some in both parties may be thought fascistic. The FN has never come close to government because the “respectable” parties of the Right won’t co-operate with it; moreover the French electoral system, with its two rounds of voting, makes it very difficult for the FN to win parliamentary seats. But it does well in European elections, and quite well in local ones, and regularly gets between 15 and 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections.
Ukip’s future is quite likely to be much like the FN’s past and present. It won’t fade away unless the established Westminster parties and the Westminster political class regain the respect they have lost and the support that has been ebbing away from them. There is no indication that this is likely.
Ukip has made little impact in Scotland, and this puzzles some because, while anti-EU feeling may be less evident here than in the south-east of England, it nevertheless exists, and none of the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament gives voice to it. So you might think there would be an opportunity for Ukip to flourish in Scotland too. Yet it doesn’t.
One reason for Ukip’s failure here is obvious. The resentment and dislike of the Westminster parties which animates Ukip supporters in England is fully satisfied here by the SNP. If Scots have no time for Westminster politicians, or feel that their country is being taken away from them, then the natural response is to vote SNP.
Moreover, inasmuch as Ukip is a nationalist party, it is a British nationalist one – and indeed, despite its name, it appears to most of us this side of the Border to be essentially an English nationalist one. It is therefore viewed with suspicion here, not only by Scottish nationalists, but also by Scottish unionists whose idea of the United Kingdom is rather different from Ukip’s.
Though the SNP may deny it, most Scottish unionists are also, some of the time anyway, nationalist-unionists. They regard the union as a partnership between nations, and while happy to regard themselves as British, they remain equally secure in their Scottish identity, proud of it, and determined to maintain it. The peculiar Englishness of Ukip holds very little appeal to them, no appeal indeed to most. Consequently support for Ukip is negligible here.
But it isn’t so in England, and this poses a difficult question for the established parties, but especially for the Conservatives. Should David Cameron seek to counter Ukip by moving on to its ground, taking a more hostile line on the EU and clamping down harder on immigration? The temptation is obvious; this would be one way to regain support now being lost to Ukip.
Yet the danger of such a course is equally clear. The more Cameron tacks towards Ukip, the more he surrenders the middle ground to Labour. The more he espouses what defectors to Ukip call “real Conservative policies and values“, the more he will alienate moderate opinion. It’s a real dilemma and one which isn’t going to go away, if, as seems probable, Ukip has really become the English equivalent of the French National Front.