Post-Rochester, one of the most thought-provoking meditations on the rise of UKIP comes from Anthony Painter, blogging here for the RSA:
“It makes for great political drama. Suddenly, apparently from nowhere, a new political force appears. The mould is smashed, politics as usual is over, everything is up in the air. So on and so forth. The media licks its lips. Voters’ ears prick up again. This is pretty much where things are with the rise of UKIP. Will it last?”
No, it won’t, he says, because it never really got started. UKIP isn’t breaking the mould, just painting it a different colour:
“The mistake that is being made is seeing UKIP as a threat to the political order in and of itself. In fact, it’s simply the latest participant in the established political order. We’ve seen it all before and I’m pretty sure we’ll see it again…”
I think this is underplaying UKIP’s significance. Unlike the Liberal revival of the 1960s, the founding of the SDP in the 1980s or the rise of New Labour in the 1990s, UKIP is not an elaboration of the existing party system. It is not, for instance, the ‘real’ Conservative Party in exile. In this respect it represents a genuinely new development in our party politics – the only GB-wide precedent for which is the emergence of the Labour Party more than a century ago.
In making this comparison the differences are as important as the similarities. While Labour was, above all, a challenge to the economic order; UKIP is primarily a challenge to the cultural order – which is why Anthony Painter’s core argument is only half-right:
“The term ‘anti-politics’ has been used as a label to describe the various new political forces tapping into voter anger and anxiety. It is wrong-headed. UKIP like so many others are intensely political. Their vehicle is the traditional media-political process. How this can quite be ‘anti-politics’ is perplexing.”
In the age of the spin-doctor and the soundbite it is tempting to think of the “media-political process” as one in which an elite group of politicians (and their advisors) achieve and maintain their grip on power by manipulating the media. However, this overlooks the fact that influence flows in both directions – and that the cultural norms and values that underpin conventional politics are controlled by a powerful establishment in the media, the arts and academia (which, dare I say it, includes the RSA).
UKIP, however, has given voice to that part of the population that isn’t signed up to the cultural values of the elite. Furthermore, and unlike previous centres of resistance like the Daily Mail, it has done so in a way that is forcing the main party leaders to begin distancing themselves from the cultural elite (as Emily Thornberry could tell you).
Nevertheless, Painter is right to point out that UKIP is, in both form and function, a conventional political party. It may style itself as a “people’s army” but behind the branding it is very much a traditional army with officers, NCOs and a poor bloody infantry.
He goes on to claim that UKIP envisions a Britain run along much the same lines as it runs itself:
“UKIP has precisely nothing to say about political, social and economic pluralism – at least nothing beyond its rejection. Notwithstanding the defection of Douglas Carswell who is genuinely politically radical, its vision is of an old, majoritarian society. Its focus is the nation-state circa 1950, romantically unencumbered by international obligations, co-operation and constraint. It exists as a defence of an old political order rather than heralding anything new.”
I’m not sure what Painter means by “international obligations, co-operation and constraint.” If he means the EU, then I’d have to question his understanding of “political, social and economic pluralism”.
On the other hand, if Euroscepticism achieves no more than “a re-distribution of power within political elites” (i.e. from Brussels to Westminster) then that, at best, is a job only half-done.
Britain still awaits a democratic movement capable of articulating – and embodying – a pluralist vision of the future: i.e. a nation within which the power to effect change and nurture tradition is distributed throughout society.