Saturday, 4 May 2013

Did the earth move for England this week?

Every four years we in England re-elect the councils who run our counties.

Well, that’s a summary and, like most summaries, it’s inaccurate. Thursday’s elections concerned most of the counties but not all of them. And ‘county’ means the countrified bits that may surround large towns, but don’t include them: they mostly have their own councils.

The Conservative Party being mostly led and funded by people who’ve made a lot of money and therefore don’t have to put up with living in the grime any more, it’s Conservatives who dominate the nicer areas of the country and the counties tend to be solidly Tory. That means it’s difficult to draw lessons from the results of county council elections: if the Tories sweep the board, that’s a good result, if they lose control of ten or twenty, that’s poor.

But just because it’s hard to learn a lesson never stops people from drawing easy lessons, and I’m no exception, so here are my thoughts on Thursday’s elections.

The big deal was the success of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Normally independence parties spend their time fighting some distant colonial power. In many instances, that has meant the overweening power of London. Turns out to be much the same for UKIP: little angers them so much as those upstarts who dare to rule them from Westminster.

In their case, though, what they particularly hate about London is that it’s handed over some powers to Brussels (please pronounce this word as though it were ‘leprosy’). 

That city is the inoffensive though uninspiring capital of Belgium, a fictional country bringing together Flemish, French and German speakers, and threatening to tear itself apart in regular crises every five to ten years. It’s perhaps those Belgian qualities that so fit Brussels to be the capital city of that other artificial construct, the European Union: it sits atop countries, languages and religions linked by the fact that they are all European, and divided by pretty much everything else.

UKIP hates Brussels.

So it demands the independence of the UK from Brussels. At which point it could concentrate its ire on London.

Concentrating ire is what UKIP’s good at. It loathes:

  • the European Union 
  • immigrants 
  • government 
  • politics 
  • taxation 
  • gay rights 
  • immigrants (in case you missed the point first time)

It’s less clear what it actually favours. As UKIP has begun to be a force in the land, stories have begun to emerge about it. One of the more amusing was leaked information about internal debates over whether to call in consultants to build them some policies. For payment, of course.

Buying policies. And they said conviction politics were dead.

Last week’s elections have shown that UKIP has struck a chord. A lot of other people don’t like Westminster and like Brussels even less. UKIP didn’t win a single council and they won only 6% of the seats, but they took an awful lot of votes. The BBC likes to work out what the votes cast in such elections would look like if they were projected across the whole of the country: on that count, UKIP would have had 23%, only 2 points behind the Conservatives on 25%, with Labour on 29% and the Liberal Democrats on 14%.

It really feels as though we’re into an era of four-party politics.

Clearly, we have to start to take UKIP seriously. We can’t just go on writing them off as a bunch of clowns with more than a trace of racism and homophobia.

Except, unfortunately, to me they seem to be just a bunch of clowns with more than a trace of racism and homophobia.

In their hatred of government and politics, they only prove that the Tea Party phenomenon isn’t limited to the United States. In Britain – or rather England, as UKIP speaks above all for English concerns – we too have a group of people whose hatred of politics has driven them to set up a political movement, whose hatred of government has led them to drive for power.

What happens when an anti-political movement takes its anti-government stance into government? The United States shows us: paralysis at the centre, where Congress can’t even act to keep the most lethal guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

UKIP in government in Britain? Well, it’s not going to happen. A protest vote in county council elections is one thing, but the Tories will tack to the right to take votes back, and faced with electing a real administration, many voters will prefer a party of government.

But what if, despite all that, UKIP really took power? It would be a lot less pleasant to be a foreigner in Britain. It wouldn’t be amusing to be gay. It would be a lot uglier to be Muslim or to believe in such radical ideas as a woman’s right to choose. And it certainly would be even less fun than today to be poor.

It’s curious that the UKIP logo builds in the symbol for sterling:

On the money? Or in the money?
Presumably the intention was to celebrate the great historic power of the pound (not even UKIP can believe it has much power today – surely?) But what it gives us is a party of the right that proclaims the majesty of money.

At least that’s honest.

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