When the United Kingdom Independence Party was founded in 1993 by liberal academic Dr Alan Sked, its purpose was clear: get Britain out of the EU. The EU might seem dandy now, nascent UKIP reasoned, but beneath the free movement and liberal optimism lurked a Trojan horse of antidemocratic technocracy and financial feudalism that would override electorates in the name of facelessly bureaucratized greed.
You do not need to hold office to wield power, you merely need to sting the establishment where its flesh is softest
After Dr Sked’s departure in 1999, however, UKIP’s purpose mutated. Gone was Sked’s carefully worded party literature declaring an intent of peace towards “lawful immigrants”, replaced by Nigel Farage’s insistence that former National Front activists would make suitable party officers. Sked insists that Farage once said to him in a heated argument “there’s no need to worry about the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us”, which while denied by Farage certainly hints that Sked was concerned all along by the rightward drift that the infamous bloke-down-the-pub nationalist has imposed on the rest of the country.
Part of Sked’s philosophy which has always survived in UKIP, however, is his insistence on being at all times a guerrilla tactician. You do not need to hold office to wield power, you merely need to sting the establishment where its flesh is softest. He told the Guardian in a 2014 interview that “my grand plan is that minority parties would manoeuvre the majority ones”, in reference to a new little left wing party he was founding that year (“I’m basically a liberal, but we have huge inequality,” he explained).
And so given the impact of the UKIP model on the national and international stage it’s fair to say that Sked knows a thing or two about how civil society can be shifted by a well-aimed nudge from the edges. It’s just that the one to eventually administer said nudge was Farage, named by Russell Brand “a Pound Shop Enoch Powell”.
UKIP spent years courting members of far right groups
The problem for Farage (and UKIP as a whole) is that now that they’ve buggered everything up like they always wanted to, they can’t seem to figure out what the point is any more. They were the ones who managed to make Brexit feel like an anti-establishment vote, not because our feudal overlords are any more democratic than Brussels’s bone-dry administrators but because they’re our feudal overlords; not because Brexit is actually going to reduce immigration but because it allows the mean-spiritedness of a dead empire to reduce how much an immigrant’s life is worth.
The sharp spike in racist attacks across the country is precisely thanks to UKIP spending years courting members of far right groups rather than lamenting that those elements are organizing at all. In return for normalizing their poisonous rhetoric, neo-fascists like Britain First put out leaflets urging members to support UKIP in the 2015 election.
Thomas Mair, the neo-Nazi and apartheid supporter who murdered pro-refugee Labour MP Jo Cox in a shooting the week before the Brexit vote, is reported to have belonged to a group who declared great enthusiasm when Nigel Farage came to speak with them.
UKIPs anti establishment politics was never prepared for the establishment capitulating so thoroughly to their lunacy
But now Britain’s new post-Brexit Prime Minister, the creepily authoritarian Theresa May, has stolen UKIP’s thunder, declaring in a speech that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”. Separating herself from David Cameron’s governing persona of the old money patrician, she seized on rhetoric of economic nationalism and announced a policy whereby firms would need to ‘name and shame’ foreign workers – exactly the kind of pointless nastiness UKIP always thought the establishment was too fluffy to ever consider.
UKIP didn’t just normalize anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric over the past decade, they also pushed the notion that human rights are somehow a bad thing. Of course they had the help of media barons Richard Desmond and Rupert Murdoch, but they themselves – along with their sturmabteilung chums Britain First and the EDL – worked hard to push the false notions that the European Court of Justice a) makes rulings that undermine rather than uphold the sovereignty & security of British citizens (it doesn’t) and b) is even connected to the EU (it isn’t).
So when Theresa May made her speech for “the 52%” – the proportion by which the Brexit side won the referendum – she robbed UKIP of their anti-Europe ignorami legion once again by saying that she would pull Britain out of the ECJ, not because it has anything at all to do with the EU but because she can dupe voters into thinking that she’s going for ‘hard Brexit’. Something which UKIPs anti establishment politics was never prepared for was the possibility of the establishment actually capitulating to their lunacy, at least at this speed.
When the government activates Article 50 in March, the insincerity of Theresa May’s current arrangement will probably fall apart
And so now that their oafish nationalist baby has grown up and, for now, joined a Tory party that was in dire need of a useful idiot on the front lines, UKIP has lost its purpose. They’ve trashed Britain’s EU membership, whipped up a nice hot slime of racist fervor, set human rights on a self destruct sequence, tied the capitalist labor market to a new state-enforced national imaginary…so what’s the point any more?
This is their midlife crisis. Nigel Farage went into hiding all summer after telling a few too many lies leading up to the referendum, and (just my theory here) seems to be jockeying for his own show when Trump TV inevitably becomes a thing. Their new leader Diane James lasted all of 18 days in a glorious Reich that sadly did not stand for a thousand years. In the aftermath, UKIP MEP Steven Woolfe was punched in the face at a party meeting by his colleague Mike Hookem. It appears that Woolfe’s scuppered leadership bid had led him to wonder aloud if he should just up and join the Tories, which is especially curious given that Woolfe’s proposed direction for the party was more working class nationalism and less Atlanticist libertarianism, to which the UKIP establishment has loosely adhered for the past decade. The split between these two philosophies within the party has been exacerbated by the existential emptiness now following their muddled success with Brexit and so on.
The true resolution of UKIP’s depressingly absurd midlife won’t come about until the deeper internal struggles of the party can be untangled
I say midlife crisis and not, as some have said, their death spiral. When the government activates Article 50 in March, the insincere fascist branding fest of Theresa May’s current arrangement will probably fall apart because May is a free marketeer at heart, and the horrendous contradictions of her project won’t survive the Brexit negotiations when that inevitable clusterfuck begins in earnest. This is probably why Farage isn’t announcing his candidacy for a formal return to leadership – he is an opportunist and a coward, exceptionally talented at both, and this situation requires the audience to be suitably salivating for the great spiv’s return to the limelight.
Naturally he’s the stand-in leader, but this is hardly ideal for him, now that he has to administrate an internal ‘men behaving badly‘ inquiry. The real resolution of UKIP’s depressingly absurd midlife won’t come about until the deeper internal struggles of the party can be untangled. But Farage hasn’t indicated clearly what the result of that might look like. “Of course there are some who will say that UKIP has now fulfilled its political purpose and has nowhere to go,” he said last week, adding, “they are wrong”.
But then where to? For a party whose entire existence is not to form governments but to erode them, the real answer can only be found in the prevailing societal forces moving across every dying social democracy that propose a new order to replace the current one – and these are not looking good.
Image: Gage Skidmore