Farage and the fruitcakes

Published by The Observer (29th June, 2014)

Protest Vote: How Politicians Lost the Plot (Gibson Square)

Ten years ago, Tim Newark was shopping near his north London home when he saw a parking warden slap a ticket on a car parked beside his butcher despite the lack of traffic. As a woman rushed outside to save her car from getting a ticket too, a shopkeeper told him trade had fallen by almost a fifth since the introduction of tough new parking controls. So he decided to form a political party to challenge the consensus against cars.

Living in Islington ensured national newspaper commentators picked up on his quixotic campaign and, after he stood in a council election and won 437 votes, the mainstream local parties modified their parking policies. ‘Out of that my interest in protest vote politics was born,’ he writes. ‘It is, as I discovered first hand, a reaction to arrogance – to those who feel they know better than you and do not listen to you.’

A decade later, this burgeoning interest has resulted in a timely book. Protest Vote was originally conceived as a look at Nigel Farage and Ukip, but nervous publishers turned the idea down as too narrow. I suspect they now rather regret their lack of foresight, given the party’s recent success, although the author has in reality delivered an admiring analysis of their insurgency with cosmetic glances at other disruptive forces and individuals.

Newark, a writer of books on history and crime, clearly sympathises with Nigel Farage; he is, after all, a blogger for the TaxPayers’ Alliance. His focus leans to the right, with a cursory look at the Greens and more space given to the largely irrelevant Freedom Association than Respect, although the latter broke through the party system to win a seat at Westminster with George Galloway. The Countryside Alliance also get an admiring chunk to themselves, as does Boris Johnson.

The political analysis is pretty superficial, especially when looking at Conservative party modernisation. When David Cameron correctly condemns the BNP’s ‘fascist, racist thugs’ getting elected to the European parliament he is accused of ‘brandishing his liberal credentials’. And the author clearly fails to understand the Tories’ desperate need to widen their appeal, even saying they abandoned Euroscepticism despite all the evidence to the contrary. The party’s problem remains its failure to modernise sufficiently, which prevented an outright majority at the last election.

Despite this, and for all the relentless anti-politics populism, the author has delivered an entertaining romp on the rise of Ukip. It is good to be reminded that it really is a party founded by fruitcakes, all constantly bickering and backstabbing in the finest tradition of fringe groups. A cast of eccentric and egotistical obsessives flits in and out of the pages, often leaving the party in a sulk to set up rival factions after absurdist personality clashes.

So we have the founder, history professor Alan Sked, forced from the party after falling out with Nigel Farage and spending the subsequent two decades scorning his successor. Then there is billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, whose Referendum Party spent £25 per voter to come fourth in the 1997 general election. And former Labour MP and television presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, who lasted just nine months in Ukip before flouncing off after his leadership ambitions were dashed to start his own anti-immigration party called Veritas, nicknamed ‘Vanitas’ by his critics.

Goldsmith’s fleeting appearance underlines how the anti-European movement has been bankrolled by a handful of ultra-wealthy men while its leaders pose as anti-establishment voices for the ignored masses. The billionaire retailer also highlights the curious closeness between parties parading around the edge of mainstream politics: his own views are described as a mix of traditional conservatism and radical environmentalism, while Farage voted Green in their Eurosceptic days. Now the Greens, also constantly feuding and fighting among themselves, aim to learn from Ukip’s appeal to voters hostile to mainstream politics.

The book also reminds readers of the discomfiting narrowness of the gap between openly racist groups such as the British National party and the xenophobic force of Ukip. Its recent success coincided with the thankful implosion of the BNP, whose leader, Nick Griffin, admires Farage as a ‘shrewd’ but ‘slimy’ politician. Unfortunately, Newark’s take on immigration is crude at best, tipping over into crass when talking about African migrants supposedly triggering an “arms race” among knife-wielding inner-city gangs.

The author accepts much of Ukip’s success is down to its likable leader, who is quoted as saying the party has become “an all-devouring monster” in his life, demanding ceaseless attention. Newark wonders if they will even win power in Westminster, which seems unlikely, but then they have already succeeded in frightening their major rivals, hardening Tory policy on Europe and pulling the immigration debate into the gutter. The party and the rise of protest politics in an age of political alienation deserve serious analysis; sadly, it is not provided by this slight, if still often enjoyable, book.

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