Despite its clownish candidates, Ukip should be taken seriously

Ukip's voters aren't just disaffected Tories - people from all kinds of backgrounds who feel hostile to establishment parties are turning to them.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage addressing a public meeting in South Shields. Photograph: Getty Images

One evening in March 1957 at De Montfort Hall in Leicester, Harold Macmillan had just begun his first major speech as prime minister when a shout came from the audience: “Stop the meeting!” Looking down from the platform, Macmillan saw a well-dressed gentleman, perhaps a doctor, bending over a young woman who had seemingly fainted. “This patient,” the doctor announced, “is in a fit because of the government’s policies of betrayal of this country.” Amid jeers, the woman leapt to her feet. “I confirm that diagnosis,” she declared. “Join the League of Empire Loyalists and fight to keep Britain great!”

Whenever Ukip is mentioned, I think of its ancestors in the League of Empire Loyalists – and not just because of the Blimpish stunts. Formed in 1954, the league was a hard-right gathering of disgruntled Tories, ex-colonial administrators and other malcontents who opposed Britain’s withdrawal from its colonies. But it also harboured more sinister politics: its founder, A K Chesterton (a cousin of GK, the writer), had been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and among the younger recruits was John Tyndall, who went on to found the modern BNP.

Might something similar be true for Ukip? In recent weeks, as local elections have drawn near, we’ve seen a series of revelations about its candidates, some of whom have been caught voicing anti-Semitism or homophobia and, in one case, either giving the Nazi salute or “imitating a pot plant”, depending on who you believe.

Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, has tried to play this down as “teething problems” with the party’s system of vetting. Yet the boundary between fascists and the hard right is often porous, as he knows only too well. In 1997 Farage was photographed talking with two senior BNP activists: Mark Deavin, who had briefly infiltrated Ukip, and Tony Lecomber, who holds a conviction for bomb-making. Farage – who wrote in his autobiography Fighting Bull that the meeting with Deavin was “the worst mistake of my political life” and that he met Lecomber unwittingly – has taken great pains to distance Ukip formally from the BNP, banning ex-BNP members from joining, and going so far as to claim his party is doing the country a favour by stealing their voters and keeping Nazis out of the electoral system.

But Ukip’s core positions on immigration and on cultural diversity appeal as far as they can, within the boundaries of acceptable language, to racism: for instance, the “threat” of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria is inflated to ludicrous levels, implying that millions of citizens of these two countries are poised to descend on the UK; Islam has been portrayed as extremely antagonistic to British life, as in 2009, when Ukip’s then leader, Lord Pearson, invited the Islamophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders to parliament. This provoked the English Defence League to rally outside in support. At the start of April, the EDL’s leader Stephen Lennon claimed that Ukip “are saying exactly what we say, just in a different way.”

With the BNP in a state of collapse, and the EDL’s own efforts to build a political party having failed, Ukip inevitably attracts such attention. But to understand how it differs from the likes of the BNP we must consider who is in charge, and why. The BNP is run by committed fascists who have tried to hide their views in order to win votes. Ukip, by contrast, is funded and led by previously Tory-leaning businessmen who want Britain to leave the EU primarily for economic reasons. They are open about this. After Margaret Thatcher died, Farage described Ukip supporters as her “true inheritors”.

The voters are a different matter. As opinion polls repeatedly indicate, most people don’t consider the EU to be one of their top priorities, so Ukip needs to win support by other means. As the political scientist Rob Ford, the co-author of Revolt on the Right, a forthcoming book on the roots of Ukip’s support, has argued, it would be a mistake to see its emergence merely as a problem for the Tories. Drawing on analysis of voting intentions since 2004, Ford writes that Ukip is “by no means solely a home for discontented Tories” and that many supporters come “from working-class, Labour-leaning backgrounds and are deeply hostile to all the establishment parties”. It’s a profile similar to those who voted for the BNP, but potentially much larger.

The “common sense” that Ukip appeals to – you can’t say what you think in your own country any more, grasping politicians bend over backwards for minorities but do little for the majority, taxpayers are being leeched off by benefit scroungers, and so on – may be common sense as defined by the right-wing press, but it all points to a more profound feeling of disenfranchisement. One could argue that Ukip is what you get after 30 years of political convergence where the institutions through which we can build solidarity – the welfare state, public services, even political representation – have been undermined. Although some of the less competent party activists might be dismissed as “clowns”, their voters most certainly can not.

The irony is that the kind of “independence” Ukip offers – opening Britain further still to the ravages of market forces – would intensify the process. Far from being anti-establishment, Ukip’s leaders want the same as the elite they condemn, only more so.