Airstrip One
by Emmanuel Goldstein
Antiwar.com

March 5, 2001

Collapse of Stout Party
Parties donít act any better just because they are small

O HAPPY DAY

In the European elections in 1999 the Tories pulled a rabbit out of the hat and gave the Labour Party its worst beating for fifteen years. Two things made this result sweeter. Firstly the Conservatives were widely predicted to lose, and this was going to be widely blamed on William Hague (even to the extent that his right wing critic Alan Clark had booked a TV interview to assign the blame). The second thing that made the victory sweet was the astounding 7% vote total for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a tiny party formed with the sole intention of getting Britain to leave the European Union. Here, the Eurosceptics said, was proof that the vote for the Tories was not just a protest vote against the government, but an anti-European vote.

LOST GROUND

In hindsight, it seems so obvious that they would lose ground from there on. The European elections focussed the electoratesí minds on, well, Europe (although it was interesting that the equally Europe-focussed Pro Euro Conservative Party did badly despite the patronage of the state owned BBC). UKIP was also helped by the fact that European elections are taken very lightly by the British public, and that the Proportional Representation system used there means a vote need not be wasted. Therefore, UKIP, with its three Members of the European Parliament, became "Britainís fourth political party". However, what was it to do with this new clout? Things did not look too promising when the leader of the party, Michael Holmes, seemed to crack under the pressure and call for more power to the European Parliament. After a dreadfully bruising period, when the party tore itself up in lawsuits, Michael Holmes resigned from the party with several of his followers. It then lost a couple of other members and the press officer – and seemed to stabilise. This was good, as the General Election was going to try its tactical skills.

TACTICAL SKILLS. WHAT TACTICAL SKILLS?

The question that has often been asked is whether UKIP was clever or lucky. Did UKIP judge its appeal just right to benefit in the strange atmosphere of European elections, or was it just the lucky recipient of protest votes? It is becoming clear that it was luck rather than judgment. This is to be seen with its recent performance in the elections from council elections, to parliamentary bye-elections to the mayor of London (I was one of the 1% that voted for their candidate). In all these elections, UKIPís performance was poor. This would be logical, as people seeing "European Parliament" on their ballot paper would be more likely to vote on the issue of Europe. If it wasnít, then they wouldnít. This link between European cause and anti-European effect should have been obvious to the most low-level political hack, unfortunately the UKIP leadership professed not to notice. Instead, they have been involved in banging collective heads against brick walls, fighting in parliamentary by-elections and even popping up in some parish-council elections. This level of activity has, they say, cemented their place as Britainís fourth party.

A NORMAL PARTY

A fourth party needs a significant market. Their signature policy, withdrawal from the European Union is not endorsed by any mainstream party, and is supported by a substantial (but wildly fluctuating) share of the British electorate. Unfortunately, it is less important to the vast majority of these people than the state of health care or the level of taxation. Even for those sceptics who will vote solely on Europe (as I will) there is a more attractive, if less purist alternative, the Conservatives. Before any sceptics who are still reading this gag, I agree that the Tories have a terrible record and the idea that we can somehow stay "in Europe" while not being "run by Europe" is nonsense. The issue is what will happen after the election. Will a strengthened Conservative opposition (yes, they may win, but I am not putting any money on it) slow down the pro-European impulses of Labour? Will it be in a position to lead a fight against the referendum on Economic and Monetary Union? The answer to both of these questions is yes. That is why UKIP wants to harm the more Eurosceptic of the Tories.

A NORMAL PARTY

Now, donít get me wrong. I donít know any UKIP member who is in it for the power or the glory. They are all – at least the members (and ex-members) that I have met or corresponded with – committed to Britainís withdrawal from the European Union. However, most believe that their party is the main vehicle for leaving the EU. This is a subtle, but crucial, change of emphasis. If the only way we are going to leave the EU is through a thriving and prosperous UKIP, then it is imperative that people like me never consider voting for the Tories. The reason why single-issue anti-European voters are prepared to even consider the Tories is the knowledge that there are some fellow wild-eyed Europhobes within the Conservative parliamentary party. So what better way to increase UKIPís strength than to close off the alternative of voting Tory? Again, I am not claiming that this is because UKIP members are pro-Labour or infiltrated by British intelligence – I take those sorts of allegations with a lorry load of salt – but simply that UKIP is acting like a normal party.

SURVIVAL INSTINCTS

Political parties are like any other human institution – commercial, political or spiritual – in that they have an acute survival instinct. This is for many reasons, good and bad. There is a genuine belief that the country will be bleaker without the party around, the ego boosting positions within the party and a desire to see the partyís enemies ground into the dirt. This is not to say that this is unique to UKIP, it is just to say that UKIP is by no means unique. UKIP has now fallen into the same trap that the Tories and Labour fell into long ago, the survival and growth of the party are more important than any eventual goals.

WITHDRAWAL FROM WHAT?

This brings us into a recent development. According to a recent story in the London Times, UKIP were offered a sum of £2 million (almost $3 million) to stand aside in the election in seats, many marginal, held by hard-line Tory Eurosceptics. This was not an offer through the "usual channels", but through a Tory Peer, Lord Pearson, who is known for his support for European withdrawal. While, I do not believe for a second that this was done without the knowledge or support of Conservative Central Office, they managed to maintain a modicum of plausible deniability. UKIP then delegated Nigel Farage, the highly intelligent commodity broker who is General Secretary of UKIP, to negotiate with Lord Pearson on the terms for withdrawal. Why they needed to delegate Nigel Farage to negotiate this deal and why he needed four months before negotiations were broken off, is not known. Rejecting anything out of hand rarely takes as long as four months. What is even more intriguing is that UKIP has now started selecting candidates for hard-line Eurosceptics in seats, such as that of the closet withdrawer John Redwood, where there was no hint that they would stand before. Why they do this after the negotiations ended, is a conclusion that I will leave to the readers.

TELL ME A STORY

A piece of the puzzle that I have not managed to piece is the role of the London Times. The Times had been involved in the run up to the European Election with what can only be termed as a smear on UKIP, and more to the point on Nigel Farage. A blurred picture was published with Mr. Farage and a member of the fascist BNP, who had tried to infiltrate UKIP previously. UKIP was, insinuated the Times journalist concerned Andrew Pierce, merely a fascist front to snare moderate voters. The implication was utterly false, UKIP has always been good at screening out fascists and Nigel Farage himself is no racist. This story was seen as so damning by Conservative Central Office, that Francis Maude, now the Conservative shadow foreign secretary, spent the evening before publication alerting journalists to the story, usually a job left to low level "spin doctors." Now this Andrew Pierce is writing a story that extensively quotes Nigel Farage, makes UKIP look both potent and principled. Why this turn around? I have no idea, but I do find it very, very odd.

LEADERS AND LED

What is happening in UKIP is that the membership is taking over the party. UKIP was from the start an elitist operation, set up to move Conservative policy in a Eurosceptic direction, a course that has met with real, if limited, success. To do this they needed a membership, who mostly joined UKIP not as an influence on the Conservative Party but as a replacement for it. The membership advanced through two purges of the party leadership, once when its founder Alan Sked was jettisoned after the 1997 election, and again when Skedís replacement Michael Holmes was replaced. UKIP now has a leader, Jeffery Titford, who genuinely believes that his party can replace the Conservatives – or at least win seats at Westminster.

NO HEROES

I am bound to get a number of e-mails telling me how I am betraying the country, with a smaller amount of e-mails saying that I have finally nailed UKIP for the baneful influence they are on Eurosceptic movement. In a vain attempt to save my putative correspondents time better spent elsewhere, I would like to say that I disagree with both views. The Eurosceptic movement is said to be larger than any individual, the same can be said of any party. UKIP simply is not the sum of Euroscepticism, and it never will be. It is also possible for UKIP to act, as it is at present, to the detriment of Euroscepticism in general. Similarly, I do not think that UKIP has been infiltrated by New Labourites, the intelligence services or little green aliens. UKIP is merely acting as a party following its own long-term interests. If more than two or three Tory Eurosceptics were going to be stopped being elected by UKIP then I could understand the frustration. As it is, they will not. UKIP may yet play a part in bringing this country out of Europe; I have little doubt that most of its membership will, even if it is through different vehicles. As it is, I think that we can be safe in the knowledge that UKIP, largely through its own actions, will have little effect on the coming election.

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