Ukip trades in the language of fear and division; it seeks power in order to reject responsibility. Photo: Getty
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Ukip trades in the language of fear and division. The left must not humour its anti-politics crusade

One day Nigel Farage will occupy the same position in our cultural memory as Chris Eubank. But until then, the left must stand up to Ukip.

There was a time when it was difficult to avoid Chris Eubank. The champion boxer would turn up on chat shows wearing one of his dapper “Countryside Alliance meets Rupert the Bear” three-piece suits, twiddling his cane ruminatively and talking at length about the terrible burden of being able to beat the living shit out of people. Through those long years of listening to Chris Eubank, it was difficult to imagine a time when it would no longer be necessary to listen to Chris Eubank; or that the exquisite sensitivity of Chris Eubank could ever cease to be a subject of media fascination. But gradually, and without anyone really noticing, that time did come. And now you never really hear about Chris Eubank at all.

In my more optimistic moments, I feel sure that Nigel Farage will one day occupy the same position in our cultural memory. “Oh, that guy,” we’ll say, suppressing a shudder and reaching for a drink. “Yeah, he was . . . they were . . . that was a weird time.” Or maybe we won’t be allowed to forget him. Even if the results of the European elections mark the peak of Farage’s success, we’ll never be rid of him. They’ll wheel him out as some kind of Elder Statesman, won’t they? Every time there’s a riot he’ll turn up in the news studios, like a geriatric Popeye, wheezing and burping through all the old routines about Europe and immigration, Europe and immigration, Europe and immigration, as the young presenter nods professionally and wonders what the hell Britain thought it was playing at in May 2014.

A question many of us have been troub­ling ourselves with over the past few weeks is: “Exactly what is the correct way to despise Ukip?” Is it just a bunch of bitter old men pining for a Britain that never existed? Or is it a dangerous force of reaction, poisoning the debate about immigration and the EU with parochial anti-politics and straightforward xenophobia? Jokers or jingoists? Fools or fascists? And shouldn’t we be engaging with their policies instead of just calling them names?

There’s a picture doing the rounds on social media which I think shows up these false distinctions nicely. Maybe you’ve seen it: some godforsaken Ukip headquarters with a frayed Union flag and an A4 printout saying: “If your not Ukip Your not BRITISH”. Oh, how we laughed – Ha ha they can’t even spell! But the style is indivisible from the content. The first is a schoolboy error; the second is a schoolboy sharpening a stick at both ends. Can you imagine a Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or Green supporter committing to paper the idea that to favour any other party disqualifies you from being British? I can’t. Missing out an apostrophe or two does not make you an idiot. But equating party allegiance with nationhood certainly makes you a thug. And thugs don’t often notice that they’re thugs, usually because they’re also idiots.

Let’s also consider the recent comments by Gordon Ferguson, a Ukip candidate in Southport, Lancashire: “The Lib-Lab-Cons have conspired with a foreign power, the EU, and are all thereby guilty of treason. They have sold Britain, which is the fifth largest economy, illegally into increasing slavery inside the EU dictatorship. Those responsible should be hung by the neck until dead.” He also throws in a thrilling reference to the Freemasons. A nation sold down the river, foreign powers, scapegoats and conspiracy theories . . . Is any of this starting to sound familiar? I ask only because, if I’m going to be accused of name-calling, I’m very keen to get the name exactly right.

Is this fascism? It’s hard to tell, because fascism begins as your friend. It says: “I feel your pain. You are not responsible; those responsible are the political establishment, who’ve allowed the foreigners among us to flourish. The foreigners are doing your job because the decadent elite are all the same and only out for themselves. Only we understand. Only we can defend our country from the corrupt politicians and parasites among us.” Europe and immigration, Europe and immigration, Europe and immigration . . .

Fools or fascists? Ukippers are the kinds of fools who haven’t noticed they’re sleep-walking towards fascism. Many Ukip candidates are of the age when their parents fought in the Second World War. They don’t recognise what they see in their own party literature because they’ve learned not to look too closely. Their business is anti-politics, something they share with those on the left who join in with the chorus: “They’re all the same – they’re just in it for themselves.”

Ukip trades in the language of fear and division; it seeks power in order to reject responsibility. Putting a cross next to a box for Ukip is a pastime for people who like elections but don’t much care for democracy. If you vote Ukip, you’ve been had. And if you don’t vote at all – by all means complain about the consequences but don’t be surprised if no one listens. “What would sir like to eat?” “I’ll just have what everyone else is having.” “What if sir doesn’t like it?” “Well, at least that won’t be my fault.”

Labour’s more radical ideas are beginning to inspire genuine enthusiasm. Only concrete progressive, redistributive policies, advocated clearly and with passion, criticised fiercely and with intelligence by the other parties, can fill the void that the anti-politics brigade has occupied for too long. The arguments ahead should be conducted with whatever civility we’ve got left in us. But that, I’m afraid, is more than Ukip ever deserved. Their beast has been fed, for now. But these elections will be remembered for when the arguments couldn’t be heard at all, drowned out as they were by the sound of too many of us swarming like flies around the head of a pig on a stick.

Robert Webb is appearing in “Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense” at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2. For details, visit: jeevesandwoosterplay.com

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.