David Cameron famously called the EU referendum in order to ‘shoot the UKIP fox’: to once and for all nullify calls to leave the EU.
If one thing is for sure it’s that UKIP dodged those particular guns. Incredibly though, it seems that, having raided the henhouse the fox has now choked on the spoils. How have the only apparent winners in the Brexit breakdown themselves fallen so quickly apart?
What UKIP isn’t
UKIP isn’t a proper political party. It might appear to be one, with an insignia, millions of voters, an MP and turbulent leadership elections. However, it lacked, and still lacks, a vision or coherent set of policies. Take, for example, UKIP’s 2010 general election manifesto which Nigel Farage as leader could cheerfully disown on national television. Or the party’s attitude to climate change: not based on a rational analysis of the problem, but just that environmentalism sort of smelt of metropolitan elitism, and should therefore be opposed.
UKIP draws its strength from being a coalition of oppositionists. Some of these – in the mould of Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan – took academic positions on membership of the EU. They were concerned with the supposed erosion of sovereignty, the injustice of supranational institutions, and so on. Most UKIP voters express their opposition to whatever is going on in their communities, via the conduit of an unapologetically negative local party. The leadership in their turn were happy to oppose any of the ‘other’ proffered up to them with the single aim of increasing their electoral support. There had to be someone to blame for the mess we were in, and so appeared a panoply of scapegoats: the EU (of course), Westminster politicians, immigrants, the BBC, even AIDS patients. There was never a need for UKIP to advance a positive alternative, because they define themselves purely in terms of what they oppose.
Hoisted on the own petards
What UKIP is, essentially, is a ‘none off the above’ party.
A sceptical, even cynical, attitude towards politics and politicians can be good for democracy. Allowing people to express their lack of faith in the various alternatives offered up to them is not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem come when the rejection is of the system itself, and, as in this case, is coupled with an angry and occasionally bigoted negativity.
The question now is: post-referendum what is UKIP anti? Can there be an enemy as totemic and resonant as the Brussels bogeymen conjured up in UKIP and right-wing tabloid propaganda? Although having always claimed to be more than a single issue party, the clue is really in their name. Once Nigel Farage had declared June 24th as Britain’s ‘independence day’ he simultaneously acknowledged this fact, and signalled the beginning of the end for the UKIP project. What is the purpose of UKIP if they have achieved the mission impossible that defines them? What began as an intellectual project of the libertarian right had reached the end of one particular political arc.
The future is bleak, the future is purple (and yellow)?
Political parties do not end up where their founders intended then to. The cumulative effect of events piled on events – history – ensures as much. There are too many variables to confidently predict whether UKIP will remain largely the same, change beyond recognition or simply fizzle out. The current nasty, public and farcical leadership elections are just the opening act of a much longer drama.
There will remain in Britain, however, a sizeable constituency who feel disenfranchised and cut off from society as it currently operates. The reaction of the whole of the body politic to the ongoing post-2008 crisis – which was so dazzlingly crystallised by the Brexit vote – will determine UKIP’s future protects.
The next in this series of posts examining the fallout from Brexit will look at the Labour Party, and how their current travails – including the ‘loss’ of votes to UKIP – have been a long time in the making.