The UKIP phenomenon is misunderstood. The party has not come from nowhere and is far from an ephemeral, or uniquely English, repository for protest votes. Its true roots are to be found in Europe and in the tricks its leader, Nigel Farage, has picked up from his fellow travellers in Brussels.
While Farage rarely misses an opportunity to puff up with British pride or reach for a pint of oak-coloured warm beer, his policies fit clearly into a pattern of European right-wing populism. Like Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, UKIP is virulently anti-European, sceptical of climate change, wants to abolish wind farms and favours tight controls on immigration. Farage wants to protect the pound: Wilders produced a paper two years ago calling for the restoration of the guilder. Wilders fought the last Dutch election on a platform that sought to turn it into a referendum on European membership, a similar tactic to that of Farage in the last General Election.
A similar trend has been seen in Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party has repeatedly won success by railing against multiculturalism and cutting the welfare budget, especially for immigrants and refugees. Next door, the Sweden Democrats made a more modest breakthrough in 2010 in an acerbic election that saw them face counter-protests after leader Jimmie Akesson claimed the growth of the Muslim population was the “the greatest foreign threat to Sweden since the Second World War.”
All these parties have built their support on protest votes, but crucially they have cemented it by converting transient protest into a more deep-rooted sense of resentment. Professor John Curtice observed that UKIP had done better in areas of England where relatively few graduates live: this, too, dovetails with the demographic profile of populist voters in Scandanavia and Holland. These parties put themselves forward as rebellious scourges of the political establishment, arguing that “the elite” and “career politicians” are filling their own pockets while the hard-working, downtrodden taxpayer picks up the bill. Wilders employs colourful, often archaic, insults to describe public sector managers in the healthcare sector and dismisses cultural investment as “lefty hobbies”. Farage routinely blames out-of-touch “career politicians” for selling out British interests to Brussels. It’s an brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand: deflect accusations of cynicism by painting your opponents as cynical, self-serving elitists. Yet while he puts himself on the side of the common man kicking against the establishment, the truth is that Farage, like Wilders, is the longest serving of all the main political leaders in his country.
But there is more. The success of UKIP split the British political landscape to a degree never seen before. For the first time, no single party managed to secure 30% of the share of the vote in a national election. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable in the 1960s, when the Conservatives and Labour shared more than 85% of the total vote, or even the 1990s, when each party cleared 40% to win majorities. The UK, despite its electoral system that sets a high threshold for fringe parties, now looks to be heading the way of other European countries where consensus politics, with its permanent coalitions and backroom horse trading, is the norm.
Whether Farage will enter into any kind of coalition is an intriguing question. In both Denmark and the Netherlands, the populist right-wing party was faced with a dilemma as its popularity snowballed: how could it go into partnership with the established parties without jeopardising its status as the champion of the everyman? The answer was to opt out. Rather than enter into a coalition, the parties struck special deals with minority governments in which they guaranteed the support of their votes in Parliament in return for concessions on their main policy platforms – notably immigration. The beauty of it was that it allowed them to wield power without responsibility: they could set the political agenda and continue to agitate for their pet projects without getting involved in the murky business of balancing the books. And in both cases it had a destabilising effect, engendering a form of government that was nasty, brutish and short. The minority Dutch government which came to power with Wilders’s support in 2010 fell just 18 months later, when the fearless Freedom Party leader refused to sign up to a wide-ranging cuts package.
UKIP’s political strategy was born in Europe: its effect has been to make the landscape of British politics more European. That is what the downtrodden, disaffected protest voters helped to create when they followed Farage’s call to stick two fingers up to Brussels. To judge by the experience of its counterparts, the outcome will be a more cynical and intransigent culture that fosters bitterness and division, a permanent suspicion that “the elite” are acting against the interests of “us”, the people. It promotes quickfire solutions, soundbites and empty rage over coherent decision-making. Welcome, Britain, to Europe’s new populist dawn.