With Storm Doris howling its way through the English Midlands, Thursday was perhaps not an ideal day for a by-election in Stoke Central. Whatever the weather, though, it was a big day for Ukip, the UK’s “independence party”, and for their candidate, the party’s new leader Paul Nuttall. Stoke is the very archetype of a once-safe ex-industrial Labour constituency that voted heavily for Brexit last June, against the declared policy of the Labour Party. It has therefore long been labelled as fertile Ukip territory, although Mr Nuttall’s messy and scandal-strewn campaign, rich in allegations about false claims made on his website, may have done little to speed Ukip’s journey towards a substantial presence at Westminster.
In truth, though, it hardly seems necessary for Ukip to continue that onward march any more; because so successful has this once-marginal political group become, over the past decade, that its policies are increasingly shaping the whole language and direction of UK politics, despite the fact that Ukip has never held more than two seats at Westminster.
Since its foundation in 1993, after all, it has helped to drive British political discourse sharply to the right, on both Europe and immigration. It has helped harden right-wing opinion inside the Conservative Party to the point where many Tory MPs now seem to hold views indistinguishable from those of Paul Nuttall and Nigel Farage. It has played a key role in last year’s stunning Brexit victory in the European Union referendum. And since then, it has seen Theresa May’s Tory government swing behind Ukip’s preferred extreme “hard Brexit” option with such force that the party’s former leader Nigel Farage hailed Mrs. May’s January speech on Brexit as one he might have made himself.
When the history of this period in British politics comes to be written, in other words, the main questions asked may not be about Ukip’s continuing rise - indeed the party could now start to fragment and disband, as many predict the SNP would do, in the event of Scottish independence. They may rather be about how a party which never achieved a significant presence in the House of Commons, whose support rarely rose above 15 per cent in any national opinion poll, and which showed such marked signs of being a one-man-band that the media still continues to interview the former leader Nigel Farage as if he were Ukip’s chief spokesperson on all matters, nonetheless came to dominate UK politics, and to restore to mainstream debate strands of xenophobia and general reactionary bile that once seemed to have been banished for ever.
And there are, of course, no shortage of likely candidates to take the blame, or the responsibility. Some blame Farage himself, a strange, amoral, Puck-like figure with that Lord-of-Misrule talent for destructive naughtiness that some find irresistible. Others, of course, blame the media; and it’s true both that many elements of the British popular press relentlessly promote a Ukip-style world-view, and that for a party with such minimal Westminster representation, Ukip and the supposedly “entertaining” Farage have been given an extraordinarily high-profile role in political debate over the last five years.
For the most part, though, it seems to me that the reason for Ukip’s extraordinary success depends on one key factor; and that is the extent to which Britain’s two leading political parties have responded not with the robust and cheerful counter-argument Ukip’s policies deserve, but with outright fear, and a marked tendency to run scared of the populist forces Ukip seeks to unleash. Among the Tories, the rise of Ukip has exposed the extent to which many of their members and MPs never accepted the commitment to equality, diversity and a modern Europe-facing Britain that has been official party policy since the 1970s; indeed it has laid bare a colossal national neurosis at the heart of the party, as politicians too young to have played any role in the Second World War endlessly replay a mythical version of that conflict in their minds, framing the EU and Germany as the “enemy”.
And as for Labour - well, last week’s anti-Brexit intervention by Tony Blair only served to remind us of the tragic recent history of a party which, during the 1990s and 2000s, and even after the financial crash of 2008, compromised so thoroughly with the extreme model of neoliberal capitalism then in vogue that it simply could not fully analyse or acknowledge the damage that economic model was doing to human lives, dignity and security in the old Labour heartlands. Instead Labour went on partying with the rich, seeking wealthy donors, and being “intensely relaxed” - in Peter Mandelson’s words - about obscene inequalities of wealth and power, until it was far too late; until Scotland was lost, and growing numbers in England began to feel that Ukip was the only party even trying to speak their language.
And that, sadly, is where we stand today; with the dominant Tory party transformed into Ukip-lite, Labour still unable to articulate the passionate, international social-democratic response that is needed to heal the real wounds of “savage capitalism”, and the Scottish Government fighting what increasingly seems a lonely rhetorical battle for social-democratic values on which it currently cannot deliver. And if there is anything to be learned from this slow-burning political collapse to the nationalistic right, - with all it may mean, in future, for the peace and safety of our children and grandchildren, for their rights and dignity as citizens, and for their fundamental freedom to travel, study, live, love and work where they choose - it is that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum; and that if the parties of the centre left are fools enough to abandon the language of solidarity, and of economic dignity and security for all citizens, then sooner or later that language will be taken up by those whose politics has nothing to do with the real well-being of the people, and everything to do with fantasies of conflict, war and victory that have shaped our bloody history in the past, and now, to our shame, have an increasing chance of doing so again.