Policies? What policies?! That used to be the cry when UKIP were less a political party and more a pressure group for our departure from Europe. But such scoffs and sneers are, if not entirely unwarranted, certainly less relevant nowadays. The party’s website provides a fairly clear list, split in to several sections, of their thinking on defence, on welfare, on energy, and most of the other areas where governments actually ought to do a spot of governing. There are gaps to mind – some hastily covered over with promises of reviews to come – but what party outside of government couldn’t say the same, two years away from a general election? Indeed, if you compare the UKIP website with, say, Labour’s, it offers a firmer sense of ideology and of policy. Can we even be sure that Ed Miliband’s policy on Europe won’t change before 2015? We can be sure that Nigel Farage’s won’t, and of more besides.
The Big E
While Europe may not represent the sum total of UKIP’s aspirations, let’s start this five-point distillation of their policies on the Continent, as it were. After all, leaving Europe’s political union is not just the totem they bow before, it also provides the basis for many of their other policies. It’s all about freedom, you see. Apparently, once we’re free from what Mr Farage would no doubt describe as the “shackles” of the Brussels bastille, then so many other opportunities would present themselves; whether it’s opportunities to cut taxes, to severely reduce immigration, or to trade with the rest of the world.
But this is where problems begin to emerge, and they’re problems that are typical of the rest of UKIP’s prospectus. Everything is spelt out in the harshest terms, almost regardless of the facts. For instance, they tell us that “commissioners in Brussels dictate 75% of our laws” – but this is based on a fag-packer extrapolation from an old German report which gives equal weight to, say, a European Union directive on chocolate sales with the Coaliton’s NHS reform bill, and which is widely disputed anyway. Similarly, UKIP highlight the annual costs of our membership (“£60bn a year”) – but these are not net costs, which are hard to determine and which many analysts think are negligible to non-existent. There’s a lack of rigour in the rush to negativity.
The heirs to Brown
So what if UKIP have a negative vision of Europe? The EU does, of course, have its drawbacks as well as its benefits. But here’s the thing: if we cannot be certain about UKIP’s sums on Europe, then we cannot be certain of their sums overall. Their website promises to identify, at some point, £90 billion of extra spending cuts (“at a stroke”) to underpin their programme. Presumably, some of this would come from scrapping international aid – roughly £10 billion a year, against a national debt of over a £trillion – as well as from that hoary old promise, a bonfire of the quangos. But surely a lot of UKIP’s fiscal policy is predicated on the savings that would come from leaving Europe, and on the tax receipts that would follow, too. But if those savings and receipts aren’t certain, then what comes of it all?
This uncertainty wouldn’t matter so much were it not for UKIP’s rampant spendthriftery. Boy, do they drool at the thought of splashing taxpayers’ cash: tuition fees would be scrapped, spending on defence would be increased, the number of prison places would be doubled, pensions spending would rise, there would be no frontline police cuts, a hundred new nuclear power stations would bloom, everyone and everything would stand to gain. And if that wasn’t enough to implode the Exchequer, then there’s also their lengthy list of tax cuts. Just one of its entries, abolishing employers’ national insurance, would leave them £50-60 billion out of pocket, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Self-financing? Hm, they’ll need to update us on that. In the meantime, as Tim Montgomerie has said, “UKIP makes Ed Balls look fiscally responsible”.
As part of their tax and spend agenda, UKIP have long advocated a flat tax rate. I’m not persuaded by the idea myself, but, in the spirit of fairness, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of serious people are: the 2020 Tax Commission advocated it in its doorstop report last year. But, whatever the rights and wrongs of the policy, it has, in the past, encapsulated a feature of UKIP’s policy agenda: for a party with such working class appeal, they loudly advocate things that might further enrich the rich. Another example is their policy on pensions. Their “substantial Citizen’s Pension” – another increase in spending – would see, at least by the terms of their 2010 manifesto, “no reductions for those with personal savings or a private pension.”
This needn’t be a problem in itself – the politics of envy is not the same as a politics that helps the poor, after all – but it does create presentational problem for Mr Farage, former City trader. And it’s a problem that, admittedly, he appears keen to deal with. Although the UKIP leader is quick to emphasise that his party’s tax policy is not yet finalised, it’s likely that some hillocks will be imposed on the flat landscape: he has, recently, been talking about a top rate of 40 per cent, with 31 per cent for everyone else, once income tax and national insurance have been collapsed into each other. And it’s striking that his party is now talking about a £13,000 personal allowance, as well as recently speaking out against the – quote, unquote – bedroom tax.
Let the people choose… unless we’re choosing for them
Less problematic – in fact, quite attractive – are UKIP’s policies for letting the people choose for themselves. Some are general: “Give the public power to require binding local and national referenda on major issues. But some are more specific: looser laws around drugs and smoking, vouchers for schools and healthcare. In fact, despite their insistence on grammar schools, for instance, UKIP could probably find common cause with the Tories, if they had to, when it comes to extending choice in public services.
But, still, UKIP’s self-description as a “libertarian party” ought to be treated with scepticism. My former colleague Alex Massie, who knows far more about libertarianism than I, has written the definitive post about this already, so I’ll hasten you in his direction. But suffice to say, here, that UKIP’s social conservatism overrides their freewheeling instincts when it comes to gay marriage and locking up crims. And that’s before we get onto their restrictive immigration policy – “Freeze permanent immigration for 5 years. Immigrants must be fluent in English, have minimum education levels and show they can financially support themselves” – which emerges, of course, from a repudiation of the free movement of people within Europe.
What’s the plan?
Before finishing, let’s go back to the beginning. As I said, there is more clarity and breadth to UKIP’s policy offering that many observers admit – but that doesn’t mean there is clarity and breadth enough. Their current policy agenda reads more like a wish-list than a plan, with lots of innuendo and emotion, and not nearly enough detail. This is a point that Allister Heath also makes in what is a partially sympathetic column this morning. “In particular,” Allister writes, “UKIP doesn’t have a plan to exit the EU and to introduce alternative trading arrangements that reflect the complexities of the modern economy.” In the end, they may know what sort of country they want, but there’s very little sense that they know how to get there. With his party now a significant political force, Mr Farage will be under immense pressure to draw a map.
> In tomorrow’s instalment in the Getting To Know U-KIP series, Mark Wallace will look at how Nigel Farage has changed. In previous instalments, Mark has written about who UKIP are and how they campaign.