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The Ukip non-earthquake, the foreigner next door and why musicals are revolutionary

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

An “earthquake”, we are told, has occurred. Labour and the Lib Dems may change their leaders. Tories demand electoral pacts with Ukip. The Mail on Sunday speculates about “a Canadian scenario” (Canada’s Progressive Conservatives were wiped out in 1993 by a right-wing populist party) in which Ed Miliband takes office next year, the Tories split, Eurosceptics join forces with Nigel Farage and, after Miliband conveniently fails, everybody’s favourite boozing mate marches into Downing Street.

What caused this outbreak of loose bowels? Ukip won the national equivalent of 17 per cent of the vote in the council elections and 27.5 per cent in the European elections. The first is down on its 23 per cent last year. The second requires more analysis. Remember that nobody cares who represents them in the European Parliament. Ukip is said to have “won” the election yet there is nothing to win except lavish expenses. It is the political equivalent of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in football.

Roughly 40 per cent of voters regard the European election as an opportunity for a protest vote. They often treat by-elections similarly but take more care in council elections because they want dustbins to be emptied and potholes repaired and think they may need a sane local councillor to help. The Lib Dems are the usual beneficiaries: in the 2009 European election, they got 13.8 per cent of the vote, Ukip 16.6, the Greens 8.1, the British National Party 6.3. This time, the Lib Dems, as a party of government, got only 6.9 per cent and the BNP collapsed to 1.1. The rise in Ukip’s vote is amply explained by the fall in BNP and Lib Dem votes since 2009. We are told the two big parties face unstoppable decline. In 2009, the Tories and Labour got 43.7 per cent between them. This time, they got 49.3 per cent. Crisis? What crisis?

 

Neighbourhood watch

The British have always worried about who moves in next door. A departing neighbour once whispered to me that she’d sold the house to a man who looked ever so slightly Indian. She then ran at high speed to the removal van. Farage has said he doesn’t want to live next to Romanians, who are apparently all criminals, though Germans are OK. West Indians used to be at the top of the list of undesirable neighbours; they held noisy parties and lived on cat food, I was told as a child. They were succeeded by Asians who cooked noxious curries. Then the Irish moved up as they made bombs that exploded by accident. In my very early childhood, the neighbours from hell were Italians (excitable and argumentative), Poles (humourless) and, er, Germans (all Nazis).

 

Do you hear the people sing?

In the programme for the Prince Edward Theatre’s revived Miss Saigon – which my wife and I watched after missing its first incarnation – the Sunday Times critic A A Gill writes, “Musicals are remorselessly political, almost always revolutionary.” Les Misérables, West Side Story and Blood Brothers suggest there is truth in that. So why, given the success of musicals over the past 50 years, particularly in Britain and the US, have they failed to persuade the masses to storm the barricades, or even vote for left-wing parties? The answer is that musicals do not stimulate thought, still less action. They pacify audiences by commodifying and glamorising poverty and injustice (the girls in Miss Saigon are supposedly prostitutes but look cheerful, fit and healthy) and packaging our pity into memorable tunes.

“In the dark of the theatre”, Gill writes, we join those around the world and through history “who have cried and cheered for love, justice, understanding”. Then we go home feeling better about ourselves.

 

Mind your language

Paul Downton, the managing director of the England and Wales Cricket Board, says that, on England’s tour of Australia, he had “never seen anyone as disinterested” as Kevin Pietersen. The batsman replied: “The suggestion that I was uninterested . . . is wholly untrue.” The Daily Mail columnist Dominic Lawson thinks this was a “punctilious” response because, he believes, “disinterested” means unbiased. Pietersen was using the correct word.

It’s not as simple as that. Until the 18th century, “uninterested” meant unbiased. Illiterate Georgians then started to use it in the Pietersen sense. “Disinterested”, which originally meant what Downton thinks it means, was revived early last century to fill the position vacated by “uninterested”. No doubt the two words will continue swapping places and infuriating pedants. But Downton and Pietersen understood each other and so did everyone else. I wish journalists such as Lawson would be as pedantic about numbers, where precision really matters, as they are about words. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people