Escape from UKIP
Tired of the political correctness of the left, Aidan Rankin joined Ukip. Becoming right-wing gave h
The scene was a dinner, organised by the Salisbury Review, somewhere in the depths of the Carlton Club. It was an occasion of right-wing triumphalism, or a rallying of the troops, but I felt neither triumphant nor rallied, only irritated and bored. I listened, with increasing loathing, to a repertoire of anti-Muslim barbs from people who knew nothing whatsoever about Islam and were proud of their ignorance. I listened to conspicuously affluent men and women inveigh against scroungers, appeal to the work ethic, condemn asylum-seekers as criminals and call for people to be charged for visiting the doctor. This, apparently, "worked perfectly well in the old days", although few people gathered around the table were born before 1945.
A drunken academic accused me of being "anti-western" when I supported Palestinian autonomy. Palestinians were "Muslims" and "terrorists". At this supposedly intellectual gathering, not one single idea, substantial or ethereal, was expressed. Soon, my disgust was tempered by self-loathing. I would rather be just about anywhere but here. So why was I here, listening to mean-minded philistinism and being eyed disapprovingly every time I dissented? How on earth had I ended up on the right - and was I ever going to be able to leave it?
It took me two more years to leave the right fully. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to use the past tense when I describe it. When I awake in the morning, I relish the sudden realisation that, no, I am no longer right-wing.
Looking back, I feel that being on the right was like losing a part of myself. In shamanic cultures, there is a widespread theory of "soul theft". This is the belief that an individual's soul can be captured, and then manipulated, by an external force. Soul theft is blamed for a wide range of ailments, from serious physical and mental illness to feelings of inner emptiness, and soul retrieval is an important part of the shaman's work. The process of soul theft can be long and insidious, with the affected individual becoming a willing collaborator.
Soul theft is an accurate depiction of the experience of becoming right-wing. It starts as a vague impression, then progresses - if that is the word - into a world-view; it begins as a bad mood, then becomes a permanent, brooding anger. One doesn't wake up one morning and find oneself transformed into a reactionary, a political version of the clerk in Kafka's Metamorphosis, who awakes as a gigantic insect. Instead, right-wingery takes over gradually, crowding out conflicting thoughts, until suddenly it defines and underlies everything.
I should begin by saying that there were two types of right-wing ideology that never appealed to me. One is "far-right" racism and the scapegoating of immigrants or refugees, given voice by the British National Party, but believed in by many members of the UK Independence Party, the Eurosceptic groupuscules and the Tory party's "traditionalist" right. This has always profoundly repelled me, both for its creeping totalitarianism and its simple-minded classification of individuals by race or group.
The second strand of right-wing thinking that held no appeal was the ersatz religion of "market forces", part consumerist cargo cult and part fundamentalist reworking of 19th-century liberalism. That approach is equally off-putting because of its personal heartlessness and its superstitious regard for the market's "hidden hand". In its naive, mechanistic view of human society, and its belief in permanent revolution, the neoliberal right resembles the most extreme variants of Trotskyism.
These two tendencies - traditionalist xenophobia and market fundamentalism - dominate the British right. They coexist quite happily with-in individual right-wingers, although they are contradictory. Market ideology gives economic forces precedence over nations and traditions, after all, and places corporate rule before "national sovereignty".
As a young man in the mid-1990s, I had held standard progressive views and written occasional contributions to New Left Review. But, like many at that time, I became disillusioned with a left that seemed to be recycling old slogans and ignoring new complexities. Moreover, it was doing so with a distortion of liberalism dubbed "political correctness", which seemed harsh and intolerant, and could hurt most those whom it intended to help. In particular, I found that the left's assumptions about gay men - of which I am one - were often patronising and in many ways as restrictive as the old stereotypes. Being gay, the left seemed to think, meant ceasing to be an individual and becoming a nameless, faceless member of a minority group, obediently reciting the mantras of victimhood.
I was interested in green issues as well and had the experience of working for Survival International, which promotes the interests of indigenous peoples throughout the world, oppressed minorities who are struggling to preserve their ancient cultures as well as keep their environment intact. I came to see a contradiction between this cultural and ecological conservatism and the universalist values of the left.
In moving right, I thought that I would meet people who would excite me and make me think, who would dare to question received assumptions. I thought I would find cultured yet passionate individuals whose radicalism was balanced by a sense of history. I had the naive and hopelessly utopian idea of uniting green politics with cultural conservatism and in the process strengthening both. This led me towards sections of the right that showed some basic ecological awareness. In 1997 I became a contributor to Third Way, then the British mouthpiece for the European new right, and which proudly proclaimed itself green.
Many on the left have demonised Third Way, because its best-known contributor, Patrick Harrington, was once a well-known activist in the National Front - although his views on immigration and race have modified beyond recognition. At the time of my involvement it seemed a rather homely outfit, a London-based magazine and small political movement run from a sprawling basement flat in Kensington by Harrington and his mother, a sharp-witted, cheerful lady who served herbal tea and gave highly expert tarot card readings. This is fairly typical of the British right: grandiloquent declarations of intent contrasting with banal realities. Despite Harrington's reputation, there were far fewer right-wing views expressed in Third Way than in the UK Independence Party. When I became a researcher for Ukip's 2001 manifesto, I thought that I was helping to shape a moderate and mainstream movement. I hoped it would revive some of the best, and most flexible, aspects of conservatism. In reality, I found a movement held together primarily by hatred and fear.
My attraction to Ukip took me into a peculiar demi-monde, peopled largely by men with faces red through alcohol and outrage against the modern world, ladies with affected accents or strange hats, and youthful zealots who collected "facts" about Europe or immigration the way better-adjusted young men collect train numbers. There were rules to this half-world, but I could never grasp them. I was never "one of us", but I was often characterised as "one of them", a phrase they use without shame. During my time in Ukip - which I emphasise was long before Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins declared for it - I met with objections to the word "inclusive" because it was "used by gays" or "could include gays". When I suggested inheritance and pension rights for same-sex couples - and others living together, such as siblings or friends - frenzied letters of complaint were circulated by the party's evangelical wing. These letters, which were never addressed to me, but whose content I was made aware of by "helpful" friends within the party, were more Inquisitional than political. They speculated on whether or not I was a "practising" homosexual and, if so, whether I was a suitable person to work on policy.
Homophobia was one of the few forces uniting a notoriously divided party. To its brownshirt-in-blazer tendency, the dangers of Europe and the dangers of homosexuality were intertwined. Immigration, too, was seen less as an economic and social issue than as a threat to the moral order. When I spoke of the benefits of immigration, I was accused of "sounding like Labour"; when I expressed approval of other cultures and religions, I was accused of being "anti-western". Although the party contains men who almost make Abu Hamza sound liberal, Islamophobia pervades its internal dialogue.
There have, needless to say, always been homosexuals in Ukip. They either affect to ignore the party's intolerance or seek to increase it, to avoid discovery. One parliamentary candidate told me that he was gay - or rather, he whispered his "confession" even though we were speaking on the telephone. He did not discuss it with the electorate, he told me, not because he thought they would be prejudiced, but because he was afraid his Ukip colleagues "would react badly".
Suggestions that the party should appeal to trade unionists and ethnic minorities, many of whom are trenchant critics of the EU, elicited responses that ranged from a "why should we bother?" attitude to outright hostility. When I produced a leaflet aimed at the Kashmiri community in West Yorkshire, it was widely condemned as "supporting separatism", although it rigorously espoused electoral politics and non-violence. The Eurosceptic movement as a whole consists of a series of mock-conspiratorial cabals, sad little internet discussion groups and obscure news-sheets, each trying to outdo the other in vituperation. They hate each other at least as much as they do the European Union.
I have yet to meet anyone on the British right who is made more contented or fulfilled by its politics. So why do otherwise relatively intelligent people put up with it?
The answer, I believe, is to be found in the initial frisson, the sense of adventure and vague threat, which much of left-wing politics has lost. Indulging in right-wingery is a form of political slumming akin to the predilection for "rough trade". And, like the taste for rough trade, it is initially thrilling but yields quickly to feelings of loneliness and inner turmoil. Right-wing politics and rough trade are both addictions. They take over as substitutes both for real thought and real emotion. They combine certainty with danger, and rebellion.
Indulging in rough trade gives you the certainty of sexual encounter and the danger of it being with a stranger, in illicit (and often illegal) circumstances that can climax in violence. With the right, you have the certainty that comes from clear positions and convictions often lacking in nuance. You have the certainty that comes from constant appeal to a long tradition and a glorious national history. You also get a sense of danger: these are on the whole unfashionable convictions, which can provoke strong responses from many interlocutors.
For gay people, rebellion is a rite of passage: for many, it is a turning away from their family's values and a rejection of the establishment's code of conduct. The right-wingers, instead, promise that to ally oneself to them is to rebel against the shibboleths of contemporary discourse - no need to kowtow to political correctness here.
In his semi-autobiographical novel A Boy's Own Story, Edmund White writes of his teenage hero's wish "to be a homosexual and not to be a homosexual". To the adult male, there is no better stopgap solution to this problem than being on the right. In the right-wing demi-monde, the negative aspects of the gay scene are replicated with astonishing accuracy. The bitchiness, fierce rivalries and mindless militancy associated with the worst of gay life are found in abundance in right-wing politics. Abstract loyalty is demanded, but personal treachery is the norm.
If the right has any core at all, it is its anger. Anger takes the place of a philosophy and also projects itself on to convenient objects. These range from "practising" homosexuals to Muslims, "Europe" to home-grown "liberal elites". This anger is sustained by paranoid caricatures of outsiders and political opponents, including members of rival right-wing factions, needless to say. When I associated with the right, I seemed to spend most of my waking hours listening to them preaching about how angry they were that Britain and the world were not the way they used to be. They missed a society that was coherent, that had order and structure and predictability. They missed a crime-free Britain where the traditional family reigned and foreigners left after an admiring tour of Buckingham Palace and the Cotswolds. In short, they missed a fictional Britain. What they loathed about the contemporary, real Britain was the unfamiliarity of it - a place where people looked different and spoke in a different way, where change always lurked around the corner.
Being criticised on the right does not involve gentlemanly disagreement or even tough debate, but wild-eyed accusations. When I decided not to stand as a Ukip candidate, the Eurosceptic bush telegraph buzzed with rumours that I was working for MI6 and that I had been "pro-EU" all along. This was an amusing, in some ways flattering accusation - its only tragic aspect being that the poor old things really believed it. The right is as paranoid about the intelligence services today as the left was at the height of the cold war. In truth, I suspect that the right enjoys being paranoid. It makes its followers feel that they matter.
My political journey took me eight years. Eight years spent being ashamed of my political allegiances when I was with my gay friends, or my Muslim and Hindu friends, and realised that they would have been rejected by many in Ukip.
Renouncing the right is like waking from a disturbing dream or throwing off an especially nasty hangover. It is a life-enhancing, liberating experience. I wish it on many others.