What japes! Nigel Farage drinks a flagon of ale after a Ukip public meeting in Basingstoke, 9 April. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the far-right: Ukip understands people will always want someone to blame

Orwell was wrong, the English will accept a far-right government, so long as it’s dressed up in silliness and accompanied by a farting trombone.

Why can nobody stop Nigel Farage? With just weeks to go before the European and local elections, the threat posed by Ukip and its charismatic leader is finally being taken seriously but it’s far too late. For too long, the main response of the political classes has been to scoff at a party that, since it cannot speak the language of “the people”, speaks the language of popular television comedies, complete with awkward racist blunders. But there’s nothing to laugh about.

Farage is not alone: he is part of a frightening pattern. Across Europe, candidates from the libertarian nationalist fringe are emerging to fill the void where hope should be with their vicious cocktail of prejudice and anti-politics. They capitalise upon broad resentment of the financial and political elite and popular longing for an alternative, any alternative. Absolutely all they have in common with “ordinary” voters is the fact that the centre-right establishment doesn’t understand them, doesn’t trust them and would like them to shut up and show respect.

Given that the Tory base shares many of Ukip’s core beliefs about immigration and European integration, its leaders can only hope that they’ll swallow a watered-down version of Farage’s arguments while pretending he does not exist. Nor can they rely on the nuclear option of pointing out that Farage is a privately-educated, expenses-grubbing former banker, because the same applies to much of the cabinet, and anyway, integrity is not Farage’s selling point. The fact that he draws a sizeable salary from his full-time political work, claims every possible taxpayer-funded expense from Europe and employs his German wife as his secretary has not hurt Farage, because it turns out the public have ceased to believe in honest politicians and would prefer to vote for a crook who’s upfront about it.

Nobody expects integrity or decency from Farage and they duly get neither. What they get, and what the British press has furnished with endless primetime platforms and wall-to-voting-booth-coverage, is a genuinely talented television personality who seems to be honest about his own hypocrisies. When journalists finally, timidly put the expenses question to him, he confirmed that he saw no problem with ripping Europe off. In this time of bland and faceless political insincerity, Farage gives the appearance of a likeable rogue who at least has his hands on the table where you can see them. 

In reality, one of the hands is under the table pointing a gun at your nethers, like Johnny Depp as Eyeless Jack in Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and I absolutely promise you that that’s the only time I’ll ever mention Johnny Depp and Nigel Farage in the same sentence. 

Farage comes across as a friendly spiv; in fact, he is is a thug. He is leading the sort of party that has no qualms about exploiting racial prejudice and hatred of foreigners in order to strengthen its base. Ukip is the sort of party that speaks for the people only in the sense that it taps into the cramped and ugly part of the collective psyche that would stamp on the other chap for a chance at revenge. Ukip is the sort of party that supports the interests of business whil speaking the language of socialism. Ukip is the sort of party that has to declare in its strapline that it is not racist, which makes it about as not racist as anyone’s racist uncle. Ukip gets away with all of this and more because it is the only vehicle representing public rage and contempt for the what Farage calls “career politicians and their friends in business”, as if he is not one of them.

The British political class does not understand how badly it has alienated its voter base. It does not understand the rage against a democratic system that has failed to provide any coherent, liveable alternatives to falling wages, rising rents and persistent unemployment. From within Westminster, it is impossible to comprehend how out-of touch politicians look, how much the expenses scandal meant, and continues to mean, for people who do not drink in the taxpayer-subsidised Commons bars.

Ukip understands that when people have given up on change, when people have given up hope, they will still get out of bed for someone to blame. A significant portion of its votes come not from the Lib Dems or the Tories, but from previous non-voters. The entire comment spectrum on left and right seems to treat the people who plan to vote for Ukip and similar meatheaded, vicious right-wing parties like cattle who must be herded towards right-thinking. They hope that simply pointing out the racial prejudice of the new party’s core platform, as with the latest, last-ditch, zero-hour cross party campaign to brand Ukip as “Euracist”, will cause the cattle to come to their senses. 

The problem is that people already know. Oh, they may quibble about the dictionary definition of racism, but people know, in their hearts, that Ukip is a party of prejudice that blames people who look different, talk different and comes from elsewhere for structural social injustice. They know. They just don’t care enough to change their vote. They don’t care because as much as they may like their neighbours, they hate the political classes and fear the uncertain future far more, and for that particular change in public mood, the Conservatives need only inspect the mirror in the any of those parliamentary bars.

As soon as Farage was put on a televised podium next to Nick Clegg, he’d won, and not only because he is the better public speaker, witty and brash and not lashed to a party line. The Liberal Democrats have everything to lose, having traded away every scrap of popular respect for power in that bile-raising way that should have become more palatable after four years but somehow hasn’t. By contrast, Ukip lose nothing when people laugh at them. Clegg looked like an acting student auditioning for a serious drama, when the audience knows, and Farage knows, that he is acting in a farce.

George Orwell once famously wrote that the reason goose-stepping fascists would never gain a shiny-booted toehold in Britain was that they would be laughed at. Unfortunately, he was wrong. If real far-right hegemony arrives in Britain, this is what it will look like. It will look ridiculous. It will set its unserious self against the serious politicians everyone loathes, and the British people - and, in particular, the English people - will giggle it all the way into Downing Street, accompanied not by a Wagnerian overture but a farting trombone. The reason nobody can stop Ukip is that nobody can offer a credible alternative that articulates public rage without playing on popular hatred. For that, you need vision, hope, and real respect for the electorate, and that’s something the organised left has yet to provide.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage