"This is somebody who thoroughly dislikes what modern Britain is.” (Photo: Getty)
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Chuka Umunna on Nigel Farage: "The mask slips to reveal something that is pretty nasty"

As the election gets closer, Nigel Farage is showing his true face - and Labour must call it for what it is, says Chuka Umunna.

Unless you're Dermot Murnaghan, Chuka Umunna doesn't get angry. Unsurprisingly considering his background – he worked as a solicitor at Herbert Smith and Rochman Landau before becoming an MP – he slowly and calmly assembles a case.

And the charge sheet against Ukip and Nigel Farage – back in the headlines after calling for the repeal of all racial discrimination laws – is getting longer.

“What have we seen over the last 18 months?” Umunna asks, “We’ve seen the party [Ukip] adopt the old slogan of the BNP. We’ve heard him [Nigel Farage] stating that he feels awkward on the train in the company of people speaking other languages. We’ve seen him get stuck in a traffic jam and immediately seeking to blame immigrants for that.”

He pauses. “So it’s not all surprising that given his form he doesn’t see the need for racial equality legislation in our country.”  As the campaign wears on, Umunna argues, “more and more of the mask slips to reveal something that is pretty nasty. And all that’s happened in the last 24 hours is that the mask has slipped even more. This isn’t a picture of somebody who to use their slogan, loves Britain, this is somebody who thoroughly dislikes what modern Britain is.”

But it’s a challenge for Labour, too, says the man who many regard as one of Ed Miliband’s best weapons in the fight to return to power after just one term in opposition. “Those of us who would rather that people voted for other parties – our own party – need to make that argument on its own merits. We need to say that we in the Labour Party believe in all the people in this country, we don’t believe in privatising the NHS or tax cuts targeted [only] at the very rich. And that’s not something that Ukip can say.”

“But, he adds, “Equally, it is beholden on us to draw attention to what Ukip are offering, which is also pretty unattractive. It’s very important we call out any Ukip candidate who says things like this.”

In their short time in the limelight, Ukip candidates have made the offensive seem ordinary, from the councillor who believes that equal marriage causes flooding to the activist who suggested that Lenny Henry should go and live “in a black country”, and Umunna says, we “price it in”.

“There is a virus of racism running through that party,” Umunna argues, “And they don’t appear capable of rooting it as they don’t understand the problem.”

It’s not just abstract for Umunna, whose father, Bennett, arrived in Britain from Nigeria without a penny to his name before going onto become a successful businessman. “The things they say about Eastern Europeans now,” he tells me, “are no different from the things people used to say about black and Asian immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s.”

“These [Eastern Europeans] are people who contribute to our economy and our society,” Umunna says “ They’re the target of choice now, but Ukip’ll move onto another target.”

“We act as if it’s acceptable,” Umunna tells me. “And it’s not. It stands against our British values of fair play and respect for one another. And we have to call it out for what it is.”

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era