The UKIP leader Paul Nuttall seems to have spent a chunk of Monday afternoon locked in a room, declining to tell the press whether or not he will stand in the general election. In the latest YouGov poll, the party he nominally leads was down at 5 points, and in the Reaction poll of polls they’re at 7 points. The party is leaking votes to a Conservative Prime Minister committed to delivering Brexit.
For those of us who have predicted its demise, or called “Peak UKIP” several times down the years, this is a wistful sight, and a fine moment to reflect on the astonishing phenomenon that was the United Kingdom Independence Party under Nigel Farage.
UKIP’s real peak and its moment of maximum impact was not in 2014 when it won the European elections. That was merely the post-coital fag.
UKIP was at its most rampant in 2012, when it was totally terrorising a Tory party worried that the economic recovery under David Cameron and George Osborne had been too slow. Some Tories were also nervous about gay marriage and immigration. Most of all, there was the European Union and the demand from the most Eurosceptic conservative backbenchers, and from more mainstream Tory opinion too, that Cameron not only do something to halt the UKIP surge but also that he deal with the EU robustly.
The result was Cameron’s bold in-out-shake-it-all-about referendum pledge in his Bloomberg speech on the 23rd of January 2013. What could possibly go wrong? You know the rest.
The resulting Establishment smash in 2016 would not have happened without the rise of UKIP. This makes it one of the most historically significant forces in British politics since the Second World War, even though it only ever won two Commons seats. Farage was particularly rubbish on that front, making seven attempts to get to the bar of the House of Commons (I mean the white line denoting the boundary of the Commons, not one of the bars where they serve booze.)
In the referendum the role of the ‘kippers is disputed and will be contested by historians when they try to make sense of the deeply strange period in British affairs after the financial crisis of 2008. As of now, an alliance of Faragists and furious ultra-remainers credit Farage and his horrible “breaking point” poster and nasty rhetoric with winning it for Leave. The official, proper campaign Vote Leave says quite rightly that it did the real work of convincing people who do not like Farage and his lot one bit that voting to leave the EU was socially acceptable. While it seems likely that the split on the Leave side was a happy accident for Leavers, creating a broad coalition of interests that could win, a popular Boris on the official side was the real force with star power, civilising the Leave brand for a mass audience. Many Leavers outside the ranks of UKIP cannot abide Farage and do not want to be associated with his brand of nationalism.
Decent and fair patriots such as Stuart Wheeler, the former Tory donor, got heavily involved with UKIP, and plenty of foot soldiers shared his conviction that, after the Lisbon Treaty business, there would be no chance of a vote on getting out unless the Tories had their feet held to the fire. With hindsight, it is clear that it worked.
For all that it was exciting to cover, and good for trade as we hacks say, it was all very unBritish and smacked of Poujadist continental nonsense. For a start, the vile colour scheme (purple and yellow) alone was an affront to a creative country such as the UK that contains among its population so many talented graphic designers. The image screamed bargain basement and crumbling high street, which was the point, I suppose, as it was designed to appeal to people who had had enough of such decline in their own town or of being disregarded by liberal elite snobs.
There was a deeply uncivilised wildness to UKIP in its pomp, however. At its worst it was just downright horrible and borderline racist in tone. Which is why I say bye bye UKIP, it was not nice knowing you.
In part the extreme horribleness of element of the party was a function of the Faragist group being radical revolutionaries prepared to say anything, no matter how outrageous, to make an impact. Like all revolutionaries they were keenest on mischief and smashing stuff up. Getting out of the EU is only one stop on a journey to… who knows where? The 1950s? The 1850s? Donald Trump’s America? They admit they don’t know where.
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Happily, except in a (usually religious) emergency the British do not much go in for revolutions, and in that light the rejection of the EU, and the reclaiming of self-government, can be seen as a profoundly conservative act. At the first time of asking since the initial entry to the EEC, and 1975 referendum, the voters simply said “no thanks” to the grand project that is the EU, and fell back on the idea of the country making its own laws.
To that end, UKIP played its role. It served its purpose. And now down the plughole of history it goes.