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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.