Over the past two years, our political establishment has been rocked to its very core by the emergence of a new force that has been successful in gathering widespread support and stands united behind a charismatic leader, and “man of the people”, in the form of Nigel Farage. Even before the results of last month’s elections were revealed, David Dimbleby and his colleagues at the BBC declared UKIP to be the “fourth party” in British politics. It would seem that, given the degree of electoral success that it has witnessed, UKIP is a party that defends the values that so many voters hold dear.
But to reach such a conclusion would be pretty foolish. What we have really seen over the past two years, is an astounding protest vote against the three establishment parties, fuelled by economic and social distress, manipulated by populist nationalism and broadcast by a sensationalist media. I really struggle to see how a country such as ours, with a society that embraces diversity and a National Health Service that is so greatly cherished, can suddenly support a party, such as UKIP, that rejects multiculturalism and would happily sell our hospitals off to Richard Branson.
The answer really lies with the fact that UKIP thrives on discontent and fear, both of which are evident right across the nation as a result of the Great Recession which so many families are still struggling to resurface from. It is unfortunate that the most powerful emotion in politics today is such fear. The same fear that President Roosevelt warned against in 1933, that can lead people to choose leaders who would merely use it as an instrument to their own agenda. By presenting themselves as anti-establishment, yet also promoting a certain cultural identity, they are able to gain the support and votes that can sweep them to power. There is, of course, one example that no doubt everyone will have in mind, which occurred in the same year that FDR gave his warning, in a Germany that had been totally crippled by the Great Depression and the restrictive actions by other European nations. However a similar observation can be made of what is happening in Britain. I do hasten to add that, in spite of this, the policies of the National Socialist Workers Party are a bit extreme in comparison with the UK Independence Party. Nevertheless, they do share common enemies in the political status quo, Europe and immigration. They both thrive in times of economic hardship, and both ensure their manifestos are ambiguous and wide-ranging (the latter often going to the extent of being contradictory).
I recently laid eyes on a piece of UKIP literature. Apparently their position on healthcare is to "improve the standard of care in hospitals". That was it. There was no mention of how they would achieve this. On education, they want to "improve literacy and numeracy skills". How exactly? Not a peep on that either. Of course, we know that UKIP does have policies on these issues, but the material they present to voters is nothing more than a collection of soundbites lacking in substance. All they offer on their glossy leaflets is a list of goals that no sensible person could disagree with: better hospitals and schools? Who could oppose that? But if UKIP were to print a more clear list, detailing plans for privatised public services, including hospitals, and for the reintroduction of selective grammar schools that often favour children whose parents can afford private tuition. At the same time, UKIP tries to appeal to as many voters as it possibly can, gaining the support of both right-wing Conservatives and working-class voters that usually side with Labour. Yes, Tony Blair's "third way" project, New Labour, did attempt the same thing, by occupying the centre-ground with social progressivism in one hand, and neoliberalism in the other. The difference however is that Blair did not underline this with a nationalistic tone. New Labour, unlike UKIP, did not propose heavy restrictions on immigration, coupled with acting in the name of a Britain last seen in the 1950s, both culturally and socially.
People often forget that the real face of UKIP isn't the chummy leader, but the people around him. Farage can laugh off Godfrey Bloom's racism, Roger Helmer's homophobia and Stuart Wheeler's misogyny as mere expressions of opinion, but these remain senior members of a party where bigotry and discrimination thrive. I doubt many of you even know who those three men are - one referred to Africa as "Bongo Bongo Land", one said that homosexuality is "abnormal and undesirable", and one claimed that women are "nowhere near as good as men" at games such as chess and poker. Definitely not the sort of people you'd invite to dinner (especially if you're a black lesbian...). Again, it has to be asked whether these prejudiced, chauvinistic nutters accurately reflect the attitudes of the British people. I really hope not. Farage might have cleverly concealed this ugly side of UKIP with his frequent photo shoots at the local, but if his party were to get a handful of seats in Westminster, and maybe even a pact with the Tories, there can be no doubt that Downing Street would be influenced by a party that has a very backward view of society.
So why do I care so much?
We've seen fringe parties rise before, and they almost always ebb away eventually (the clear exception being the Labour Party's surge, a hundred years ago). Yet the suggestion that UKIP is just another expression of a protest vote has been slapped down by the press, eager to report a revolutionary shift in the political sphere. Even the BBC is guilty of this serious lack of journalistic integrity, with a huge amount of coverage being focused on UKIP, and almost nothing on the other non-establishment party that has seen increasing support: the Green Party. With the media drooling at the thought of sensational victories for a new party, the public remain uninformed about the truth behind Farage and UKIP. This is a party that despises some of this country's greatest achievements: a system where becoming ill does not leave you penniless, where losing your job does not leave you facing the gutter, and where your gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are irrelevant in the eyes of employment, marriage and treatment by others.
Britain isn't perfect. The NHS and welfare state still require reform, men still dominate the highest-paid jobs and LGBT and minority communities are still marginalised by a few. If we have any lessons to learn from history, it is that these achievements can be as easily taken away as they have been granted. Giving in to the fears that UKIP stir up could see an end to these things. Britain must unequivocally reject UKIP: if anything is anti-British, it is them.