Above: Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP
The UK, or perhaps in this context I should say Great Britain, has always had a particular love/hate attitude towards the denizens of other countries. Maybe it’s because at one point we pretty much ruled the world. A state of affairs that resulted from a superior navy, a rapacious merchant culture, and the subjugation of every new people we came across in order to a) make them more like us, and b) put them to work. An approach which certain other Western nations seem to still be taking as their inspiration to this day. As the Empire (and our global reach) waned, we switched to subjugation by tourism rather than by military might, and invited others to travel to our country to be put to work on the jobs we no longer felt like doing ourselves. I simplify greatly, but you get the point.
This shift in approach led to the encouragement of huge waves of immigration from the 1950s on. From the Caribbean, from India, and more recently from Europe (especially Eastern). Sadly, the invitation and offer of work did not include a change in attitude. Culturally speaking, there’s still a common attitude of looking down on which colors (pun absolutely intended) our relationship with and treatment of foreigners in our shores.
So, in a nutshell, if you’re not British, we’ll happily invite you over but we’ll also despise you for coming and certain arms of the press will revile you for being here, working here, and accessing our social services. I never said we were nice. There is, in fact, much to recommend the Brits and our culture, but this is the unpleasant underbelly…
So what, you might say? Well, this unpleasant underbelly (shared by some of our European neighbors) has a history of expression in the form of right-wing political organizations: the National Front, the British National Party, and so on. The reason it’s particularly relevant now is that one of these organizations, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is starting to gain a little traction. Or to put it another way, the press is talking about them as if they’re now the third power in British politics. This is scary.
Formed in 1993, UKIP’s primary goal was the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Interestingly, after a few years, its first leader, Alan Sked, resigned and left the party, stating that some of the members were “racist and have been infected by the far-right,” and that UKIP was “doomed to remain on the political fringes.” Fast-forward 15 or so years and the current situation is that the party regularly gets media attention for alleged racism but its base of support seems stronger than ever – in the recent European elections, UKIP received the largest share of the vote, beating out both the two main parties, and won an extra 11 seats making a total of 24 UKIP Members of the European Parliament.
What makes UKIP both ridiculous and repellent (to me, anyway) are the constant reports of its members and party donors saying horrific things, horrific by modern standards at least. For example, the debate on same-sex marriage has been raging around the world in the last year or so as country by country – or in the US, state by state – legislatures are steadily saying, hey, it’s okay for two men or two women to get married to each other. In January 2014, the UK experienced severe storms and flooding – freakish weather even for a country used to grey skies and rain. UKIP councillor David Silvester went on record as saying that the inclement weather was God’s punishment for the UK legalizing gay marriage. Apparently, he had written to the Prime Minister in 2012, warning him that this would happen. Funny but also worrying. UKIP said Silvester’s comments weren’t party policy but he was entitled to believe whatever he wants.
Then there’s the Lenny Henry furore. Lenny Henry is a black comedian. He’s generally well-thought of and has been a staple of British entertainment since the 1970s and recently made a comment opining that perhaps there should be more black people in the creative industries. UKIP candidate, William Henwood tweeted in response that perhaps Lenny Henry should go and live in a “black country”. Fairly unpleasant words (which he later stood by in an interview with the BBC) that nevertheless carry a hint of absurd humour: not only was Lenny Henry born in Britain, but he’s actually from Dudley; a large town in an area of the West Midlands known as… the Black Country. I kid you not. Unsurprisingly, Henwood is no longer standing for political office on behalf of UKIP.
Perhaps the most odious story concerns millionaire Demetri Marchessini, who was one of UKIP’s largest financial contributors in 2013. In an April 2014 interview with Channel Four, Marchessini said it was impossible for a husband to rape his wife; basically, that consent to sex is implied in the marriage vows so hubby can just help himself on any day of the week. Now, given the way the Internet and social media work, this horrible little snippet was soon doing the rounds dressed up as part of the UKIP manifesto, which it is not. It’s still, however a rather unfortunate association and UKIP were quick to emphasize they no longer have any connection with Marchessini.
Despite all this, UKIP had their best results to date in the recent European Parliament elections so clearly a fair proportion of the voting British population don’t find this sort of thing off-putting. Remember what I said about the unpleasant underbelly of British culture? Now the press is trying to whip up a frenzy of anticipation for the general election in 2015 – as if UKIP could actually end up governing the country in some foreseeable future.
But, don’t worry too much… A lot of this is just media scaremongering. The European elections are largely a political PR exercise – success is like a meringue, puffed up and impressive but with little actual substance.
Gaining power on the national political scene is a different matter and perhaps a better indicator of UKIP’s likely influence is the result of the local UK elections that took place at the same time as the European ones. Now, the party did manage to pick up 160 new seats on various local councils nationwide. And based on that, there were a lot of headlines using words such as “landslide”, “earthquake”, “upset” and so on. But. But, but, but… the reality is that these seats were scattered far and wide and UKIP don’t actually control any local government in the UK. In fact, they won precisely zero polls in the North West and the North East, only one in the Midlands, and just four in Yorkshire (UKIP-ism is starting to look like a distinctly southern phenomenon). Nationally, the UKIP share of the vote declined compared to similar elections last year (17% down from 22%) so looked at like that, their influence has waned not grown.
So, there’s a little hope that maybe a political party made up of ex-Tories for whom the Conservatives just aren’t right wing enough, who believe that God uses weather to punish Parliament, that foreigners should go back to their own country (even if that country is just outside the city of Birmingham), and are happy to take money from rape advocates… there is some reasonable hope that they won’t end up running the country. Phew! That’s alright then. Isn’t it…?