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