Dispatch

High Tea With a Spot of Racism

High Tea With a Spot of Racism

LONDON — British tea parties are supposed to be genteel affairs. Earl Grey, cucumber sandwiches, and strawberry tarts. This one isn’t. This one is a torch and pitchfork affair, in which the closest thing Britain has to a political Tea Party looks likely to set British politics ablaze.

Populism has rarely prospered in the United Kingdom. This month, however, Britain’s political establishment seems likely to be humiliated. The forthcoming elections to the European Parliament are not — as they are in some other more enthusiastically European countries — actually very much about Europe at all. They are, rather, a referendum on Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government and an opportunity for disgruntled voters to voice their frustration with the realities of life in modern Britain. All the opinion polls suggest it will be a massacre.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) seems likely to emerge as the largest party once the Euro election votes are counted. Cameron’s Conservatives are, as matters stand, likely to finish in third place — more than one in three voters who endorsed the Tories in 2010 look ready to desert the party and rally to UKIP’s standard. With just 12 months to go before the next general election, this off-year kicking will be a bruising experience for Cameron. The wounds he suffers will take time to heal, if they heal at all.

Comparisons with the American Tea Party should not be exaggerated. Nevertheless, like their American counterparts, UKIP’s supporters are disproportionately likely to be right-wing, old, and white. Hostile to liberalism and modernity, they fret their country is fast becoming unrecognizable. UKIP is less a traditional political party than a state of mind, a tendency rather than a coherent philosophy.

Two issues, above all else, serve as outlets for the frustration felt by UKIP voters: immigration and the European Union. The former should be stopped — or at least sharply curtailed — and the latter simply left entirely. Half a million Poles have moved to Britain in the last decade, and Britain’s black and South Asian minorities are growing much faster than the "traditional" white population. Foreign workers, the UKIP complains, are stealing British jobs — and London, the party notes, is already a minority-majority city in which white Britons are outnumbered by more recent arrivals.

As for Europe, well, UKIP’s hostility to matters continental is unbounded. This month, the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, insisted that he "loves Europe" — it’s just everything about the European Union he can’t stand: "I hate the flag. I hate the anthem. I hate the institutions." Hate, it might be noted, is not a word often used by mainstream politicians. But the detest now borders on the farcical: A majority of the party’s supporters even think the United Kingdom should leave the Eurovision Song Contest. Brussels is the new Evil Empire, routinely referred to by Ukippers as the EUSSR.

Above all, UKIP voters rail against an unaccountable, out-of-touch, liberal "elite" that is, in their eyes, selling an Englishman’s birthright for less than even a mess of potage.

Farage is a charismatic showman whose opportunism knows no limits. Part used-car salesman, part carnival barker, he plays a game that does not seem to be subject to the usual rules of politics. Scandals and gaffes that would sink another party do little to damage UKIP. Scouring the Internet histories of UKIP candidates, donors, and prominent supporters is a favorite pastime on Fleet Street these days. Gays, Muslims, Jews, foreigners of any description, blacks, women, Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals: Somewhere there’s a UKIP candidate who hates you. And there’s little evidence of contrition. In fact, UKIP’s unique selling point is that it is not like other parties. It is not corrupted by being part of a discredited political system. Every scandal, every public relations disaster paradoxically reinforces that truth. Vote for UKIP: We’re not like the rest.

This is undoubtedly true. UKIP does not seem to bother vetting its candidates, far less does it insist upon anything recognizable as message discipline. Ordinary political parties do not select candidates who wonder whether World War II was "engineered by the Zionist Jews." Nor do they endorse candidates who suggest that a black comedian should emigrate out of Britain to a "black country" or who think Islam is "organized crime under religious camouflage." Nor do they promote aspiring politicians who suggest that second-generation immigrants — such as Labour Party leader Ed Miliband — have not "earned" the right to think themselves British.

UKIP’s elected politicians are little less eccentric than many members of the party’s rank and file. Roger Helmer, currently a member of the European Parliament and the party’s candidate in a forthcoming Westminster special election, is fond of asking questions such as: "Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to ‘turn’ a consenting homosexual?"

UKIP insists it’s not a racist party — which leaves its critics to observe that, for a non-racist party, it is uncommonly full of evident racists. Farage, meanwhile, has rejected overtures of linkage from France’s National Front, but it remains the case that Marine Le Pen’s party, like that of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, lies closer to UKIP than UKIP does to its mainstream opponents in Britain.

One can understand why Cameron once denounced UKIP as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists." But that was 2006; today, and rather inconveniently, the prime minister may need the support of at least some of these fruitcakes if he is to have a realistic chance of winning a second term.

Indeed, UKIP has experienced a remarkable rise from a tiny fringe affair to possible kingmaker. In 2010, UKIP won just 3 percent of the vote. That was still nearly a million ballots, however. And UKIP need not win many more than that to dash Tory hopes of winning a majority next year. Four years ago, Cameron’s Conservatives won only 36 percent of the vote. That was in an election held in the shadow of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, against a Labour party that had been in power for 13 long years and was then led by Gordon Brown, a prime minister largely blamed for the Great
Recession of 2008 and who, though intellectually gifted, never possessed the common touch. Labour’s share of the vote slumped to 29 percent, its worst performance since 1983, when the party platform was dubbed the "longest suicide note in political history."

Yet despite Labour’s weakness, Cameron could not quite win an overall majority. The sense of an opportunity missed persists to this day. If the Tories could not win handsomely in 2010, when will they ever do so again? In truth, Cameron’s performance was not as poor as some of his internal critics believe. The Tories had been so eclipsed by Labour under Tony Blair that they required heroic gains just to become the largest party at Westminster. They gained 97 seats, but still fell short of a majority.

Hence the need to form a coalition administration with the Liberal Democrats. For all the optimistic talk that this "new politics" would impress voters, the coalition has been an uneasy marriage of convenience rather than any kind of true romance. The two parties have been lashed together by necessity, not by conviction.

Turnout in the European Parliament elections, of course, will be much lower than in next year’s general election. (Last time European Parliament elections were held, in 2009, only 34.7 percent of eligible voters made it to polling stations.) But is the forthcoming election simply a protest vote? Having cast their angry ballots this month, some UKIP voters will doubtless return to the Tory fold next year. The Tories certainly hope so. A vote for UKIP, they argue, is functionally a vote for Ed Miliband to become prime minister. Only a vote for the Conservatives, by contrast, can guarantee that Britons will be given a referendum in 2017 on the country’s continuing membership in the European Union.

That promise has been crafted to stem internal rebellion within an increasingly Euroskeptic Tory party. Cameron promises to "renegotiate" a better membership deal for Britain and, having done so, will campaign to remain a member of the European family. But the "Better Off Out" brigade within the Conservative Party commands support from as much as 40 percent of members. Even if he wins next year, and even if his renegotiation strategy proves successful, Cameron will have to fight a civil war within his own party.

And, as much though they loathe the European Union, many UKIP supporters loathe Cameron just as much. They perceive him as a soft, metropolitan, liberal elitist — different in degree, not kind, to Miliband. They will not be easily persuaded to vote for even the lesser of two apparent evils.

Further complicating Cameron’s task is the knowledge that tacking to the right — and theoretically appeasing UKIP — risks losing support from the moderate center. In 2010, the Conservatives won only 16 percent of ethnic minority votes, a miserable performance that cost it seats in England’s major cities and that threatens the party’s long-term viability, just as surely as UKIP menaces its short-term future.

Cameron, in other words, is besieged on both sides. The British economy may, at last, be recovering, but many Britons have yet to feel the benefit of that upswing. Optimism is thin on the ground, and the electorate is happy to flirt with an anti-politics populism. Cameron has been outflanked and the right is in revolt.

Perhaps this siege will soon lose steam, but if UKIP wins even 8 percent of the vote in England next year, it is difficult to see how Cameron can win his second term. Voters animated by a "plague on both your houses" spirit will not care whether Downing Street is occupied by Cameron or by Miliband.

It is an unenviable dilemma for Cameron and one that, on the evidence currently available, looks likely to bring his political career to a premature conclusion.