As UKIP’s Nigel Farage appears on Question Time once again tonight – where at some point the discussion will inevitably turn to UKIP’s winning ticket, the intersection of concerns about Europe and immigration – it is a good moment to reflect on the party’s recent successes.
With UKIP rising in the polls, the media’s relationship with Farage appears to have undergone a marked change. Feeling guilty for dismissing his party at past elections, the press now seem to be doing their best to redress the situation. The problem is that the media – and everyone else for that matter – still struggle to know what to make of UKIP. They know what UKIP is not – on their view, it is not racist, or fascist, or like the BNP; neither is it quite like any of the main parties – but they find it hard to specify what the party is and how it should be treated.
One thing that seems pretty clear, however, is that UKIP’s condemnation of a corrupt elite and its claim to represent the genuine interests of the “pure” people mark it out as a populist party. In fact, one could argue that UKIP’s populism is even more important than its hostility to the EU – its website makes it clear that “the EU is only the biggest symptom of the real problem – the theft of our democracy by a powerful, remote political ‘elite’ which has forgotten that it’s here to serve the people.”
Counterpoint’s project “Europe’s Reluctant Radicals” has in recent months looked at populist movements in a variety of national contexts, from the Sweden Democrats toFrance’s Front National. For each country in our study, we have commissioned a leading writer to explore the “springs of populism” – the national myths, narratives and rituals that have made it possible for populism to succeed (or, in some cases, to fail).
In this context, UKIP’s brand of populism appears distinctly British – combining a traditional “Rule Britannia” patriotism (“stop knocking Britain!”, Nigel Farage urged at a recent Question Time debate, when another panellist argued that the UK is not as rich as Norway) and an outlook underpinned by a British sense of fair play. Their success is wrapped up in advocating symbolic measures – such as the simple act of making St George’s Day a national holiday, or the wider symbolism of Britain exiting the EU and regaining its status as an independent, proud country.
This is in part why the three main parties have struggled to hold UKIP back so far. In recent months, they have taken, in Tim Bale’s terms, the approach of “snogging” UKIP, and have shifted policy significantly on the issues that UKIP voters prioritise – in particular, immigration. But as Cas Mudde has argued, if a party “owns” a particular issue – such as Romanian and Bulgarian immigration – then if other parties try to compete on that issue it will not win them back votes. The Lib Dems seem particularly out of their depth here – having previously advocated an amnesty, they are now attempting to backtrack fast. And, in any case, a policy shift here and there will fail if they are not seen as having the symbolic power that UKIP wields.
On the other hand, is it possible for the Bulgarian and Romanian immigration issue to be the party’s undoing? For a party that says it deals in common sense, it might be embarrassing if very few Romanians and Bulgarians enter Britain next year. A recent short Channel 4 film of Nigel Farage in Bulgaria showed the UKIP leader struggling to find much evidence of Bulgarians wanting to come to the UK. Instead, most people shown on the video expressed a clear preference to remain in their home country. Farage said that economic logic meant that many would come in any case. The irony is that, in his strong belief that many Bulgarians will come to the UK next year, Farage gives the impression of disregarding the historic and cultural ties Bulgarians have to their own country – the very ties he unremittingly points to in the case of Britain. Or do Brits have a monopoly on national attachment?