Nigel Farage is a moderate. This was my feeling as I left the King Harold pub on the eastern fringes of London. In order to get some sense of the opinions of people who might vote UKIP, I had come to talk to drinkers in Harold’s Wood, in the Borough of Havering, where the party already has four councillors.

“He’s got the bollocks to say what he likes,” a man said of Farage.

“It’s brilliant, what he talks about,” a second man agreed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I can’t go there,” the first man said.

“From what I’ve seen of him, it seems like he’s sound,” the second said.

“They’re all f***ing false,” the first man said of politicians in general.

We went on drinking for a while.

“F*** off foreigners,” the second man burst forth. “No other country puts up with this. France wouldn’t put up with this s***. This country would probably be better if Germany won the war.”

“We’d all be blond and blue-eyed,” the first man said.

“Your hair is almost black,” I remarked. For though he and his friend were both white, they both had dark hair.

“Such is life,” the first man said. “Life is strange.”

“You never know what’s going to happen next,” I agreed.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“Kentish Town,” I said.

“That’s where all the blacks live,” the second man said. Everyone in the pub seemed to be white.

“Well, it’s quite a mixed area,” I said.

“Too many f***ing do-gooders in Kentish Town,” a third man who had joined us said.

“Where are you from?” I asked the second man.

“I’m from Custom House [in the old London docks]. I was born there but I moved to Dagenham.”

He proceeded to tell a story: “I was in the gym, met a man from Dagenham, he mentioned my old school. I said to him, ‘You don’t want your kids going there. It’s full of spades.’ He said to me, ‘My wife’s black.’ I said to him, ‘Black black, or half-caste?’ He said, ‘Black black.’”

This anecdote occasioned a certain amount of rueful laughter.

“Who do you think you’ll vote for in the elections?” I asked.

“I don’t think it matters who’s in control,” the second man said. “It’s all going to be the same. They’re all liars.”

“This country’s shot to bits,” the first man said. “When I was young it was a lovely place to be.” He looked about 50 years old.

“Our gates shouldn’t be open,” the second man said. “Definitely not.”

“I’ve never been rude in my life,” the first man said. “I love getting on with people.”

“I’ve got mates who are black,” the second man said. “But the Africans are arrogant bastards. What do you think of blacks?”

I thought of the many excellent qualities of my African friends, and wondered whether there was a way of rendering these persuasive. But I decided to start with an easier point: “Well, my grandfather, who fought alongside black troops in Burma, thought very well of them. They were all fighting for Britain and the British Empire.”

“Now people just come over here to p**s on the British Empire and the British flag,” the first man said.

Some of the things these men said were odious, and some were unprintable. But the odd thing about them was that they struck me as vulnerable. They had a defeated air.

I first attempted this kind of journalism, in which by going to the pub one tries to get some sense of the quality of public opinion (though not, obviously, the quantity), in a series of four “Vox pub” pieces commissioned by Dominic Lawson for the Spectator during the 1992 general election.

Rather to my distress, three of those pieces – from Kilburn, Cheltenham and Basildon – turned out to have a strong racial theme. Already the expression of such views was so effectually suppressed that one could easily overlook how widespread such opinions still were.

In the intervening 22 years, the suppression has become yet more efficient, and those who hold such opinions have become more wary about expressing them. John Bull stands, perturbed, with his pint, and wonders if he any longer has the right to say what he thinks in his own local.

Hence, I believe, the success of UKIP, and the plain fact that the expression by some of its candidates of horrible views about race has done it no harm at all. For the more horrible the things that are said by UKIP candidates, the more the man in the pub feels that here at last is a party which will not be cowed into silence by the polite, self-censoring conventions which muzzle everyone else.

The uninhibited quality of English life: the conviction that this is a free country, and you can say what you damn well like, however rude it may be: has vanished, and has been replaced by a prudent reticence. Unreflective contempt for foreigners, affectionately sent up by Flanders and Swann in A Song of Patriotic Prejudice (“The English, the English, the English are best”, 1963), is likewise a thing of the past.

The drinkers in the King Harold were friendly, especially when one considers how tiresome it can be to be approached at the end of a hard day’s work by a stranger who starts asking questions about politics. But they saw the danger of being spontaneous: a quality which used to be at the heart of this country’s understanding of liberty.

Next I talked to a carpenter and a roofer in their twenties who had started work at six that morning. The carpenter said of Farage: “He seems all right. He’s against letting more foreigners in here. But there’s so many foreigners in here now, they’ve got the vote, they probably wouldn’t let him win.”

The carpenter was a Eurosceptic: “I don’t see what good has come out of going in to the European Union. A lot of them earn money here and send it home. They’re not putting money into the country.”

Has he found it tough competing against foreign workers? “No, not really,” he replied. “But there is an awful lot of them on site. Probably more than the British, to be fair. I’ve been lucky, it’s not affected me. They keep themselves to themselves, really. A lot of them come over here to earn the money to buy a house back home.”

So how will he vote? “Probably UKIP,” he said. “I don’t know a lot about it but it seems like they’d be more for the British trade. More for the lower-class earners than the higher-class earners.”

“Anyhow, Osborne’s just put the tax down on beer,” the roofer said.

“Only by a penny a pint,” I remarked.

“Every penny counts if you drink 20 pints a night,” the roofer said with a laugh. “Is Osborne the one that’s responsible for putting the tax bracket up to ten and a half grand? That’s good. Earning that extra two and a half grand tax free makes all the difference.”

In the interests of fairness, I said a few words about the Liberal Democrats’ contribution to this policy.

“Our country’s so soft it’s unreal,” the carpenter said. “But everyone seems too scared to stand up and say it.”

“That’s what UKIP’s trying to do,” the roofer said.

“There’s nothing wrong with people coming here,” the carpenter said, “but it’s what you bring to our country. It’s not just foreigners. It’s English people. If you think about it too much it just drives you mad.”

The two men are reroofing some council blocks in south London, and complained of the extreme laziness of the tenants: “The tax we earn, they’re just sitting there drinking wine and smoking dope. Ask them for a bucket of water to pour on the sand and cement and they won’t provide it for you. There’s always loopholes so they can sit at home and do nothing.”

An 18-year-old who hopes to join the Parachute Regiment said of UKIP: “They’re the ones who want to get rid of all the immigrants, basically.”

His friend, who intends to set up a sports business, said: “If we had something like Australia had I think that would be better. It’s got out of control who’s coming in. My Dad’s very fond of moving to Australia.”

Several people referred with strong approval to the severity of Australia’s immigration controls. When I suggested that Lynton Crosby, the Australian running the Tory election campaign, would like to introduce similarly robust controls here, they replied, “Yes!”

The two 18-year-olds were indignant about a recent immigration case they knew of: “Our old teacher from Canada, he was one of the best teachers we ever had, and they wouldn’t let him renew his visa to stay in this country.”

Harold Wood lies just south of the A12, between Romford and the M25. Most people drive past it without even knowing it is there, or go through on the train to Essex and Suffolk.

There are six services an hour from Harold Wood to Liverpool Street and the journey takes 40 minutes. The King Harold pub stands at one end of Station Road, which runs alongside the railway, and at the other end is Harold Wood Travel, which offers “Escorted Touring by Air, Rail or Coach”: on 6th June you can go to Weymouth for four days, half board, pick-up Harold Wood, for £289, or on 22nd June you could opt for Medieval Lincolnshire for five days, half board, includes four excursions, for £335.

In between these two establishments are found a hair salon, a chemist, a dry cleaner and launderette, a Post Office, a police station (no front counter), a bank, a bakery, a bookmaker, a Co-operative food store, a fish and chip shop, the Bamboo Garden Chinese Takeaway, the Bombay Palace Indian Restaurant and Takeaway, the Station Café, two newsagents, an estate agent (offering a five-bedroom house for £350,000) and Harold Wood Funeral Services (“The perfect time to make a funeral plan is today”). There have no doubt been many changes in Station Road since the 1950s, not least in the prices. But there is also a sense of continuity and stability.

Underlying a lot of pro-UKIP sentiment is the feeling that this was somehow a better country in the 1950s. The carpenter is married to a health visitor, and they have just had their first child. He objects to the fact that she has to take an interpreter with her on some of her home visits: “That costs money.” And he said: “I don’t think England’s like it used to be. It used to be Great Britain. I don’t think it’s that great any more.”

The roofer said: “This ain’t no one’s country. It’s the world’s country.”

The Tories, with their urgent, forward-looking talk of the global race, have not been as good as they might be at understanding this sense of patriotic dispossession, and showing why it is unjustified.