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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity