So the great defector Douglas Carswell took his majority with him over to Ukip yesterday, trashing his Tory rival and adding a few thousand more votes into the bargain. Less predictably, Ukip came within 700 votes of taking away a 5,000 Labour majority in the Heywood and Middleton byelection. No one anywhere left of centre can pretend this isn’t bad news, because even within the dismal panorama of British politics, Ukip’s seemingly inexorable rise is deeply depressing and disturbing.
For this is a party without a single generous instinct, which appeals to the most primitive and hateful instincts of the British population. There is nothing in Ukip or its constituency remotely comparable to the progressive vision at the heart of the Scottish YES campaign. For a brief period the Scots genuinely shook the British elite.
Ukip is a fake rebellion against the status quo led by some of the most opportunistic would-be gravy trainers in British politics, a British tea party movement that presents Europe as the source of all evil, and whose headbanging loathing of the European Union derives its emotional appeal primarily from British phobias about immigration.
Anyone needing to be reminded what kind of party this is, doesn’t need to look far. Yesterday, on the same day that voters went to the polls, the Supreme Leader Nigel Farage was in Newsweek suggesting that immigrants with HIV and convicted murderers should not be allowed into the UK.
These comments were condemned by the Terence Higgins Trust, which said that Farage should feel ‘truly ashamed of himself.’ In order to feel shame you need to have a conscience and a moral compass to begin with, and a man who will use the murder of a schoolgirl to foment hatred and fear of foreigners clearly doesn’t have neither.
His HIV comments may be due to ignorance, or an ‘outrageous lack of understanding of the issue’ as the Terence Higgins Trust suggested, but I doubt it. Because Farage’s calculated association between foreigners, disease and murder belongs to the classic British xenophobic tradition, in his attempts to establish imaginary clear blue water – or at least the dirty greenish waters of the Atlantic – between a virtuous (and healthy) British majority defined in the first person plural and an endless array of diseased foreigners and murderers who threaten us.
This is why Farage refused to apologise for his comments on Sky News yesterday, on the grounds that ‘We cannot take people with life-threatening diseases. The NHS is here for our people.’
There is nothing ignorant about these statements. On the contrary, they are cunning and manipulative, in their attempts to combine anti-foreigner loathing with popular attachment to ‘our NHS’ – the same NHS which Farage and his new MP would like to privatise.
So this is a party with its feet well and truly planted in the gutter, and the fact that so many people want to vote for it is a bleak testament to the moral and intellectual poverty of British politic. Ukip’s seemingly inexorable rise isn’t just due to its own efforts. It follows decades of relentless and savage anti-immigrant rhetoric from three-quarters of the British media, which all three parties have pandered to and to some extent legitimised and encouraged.
There are those who suggest that Ukip is no longer just a form of blazered, yachting shoe Powellism, but some kind of blue collar rebellion by working class voters undermined by the immigrant hordes, who have taken over ‘our’ classrooms, doctors surgeries and taken ‘our’ jobs.
For sure there are areas of the country that have experienced rapid migrant influxes, which under-resourced schools and health services have struggled to cope with. There have also been some sectors in which migrant labour has undercut the locals, even if the evidence to prove this is not nearly conclusive. But these are problems of resources and the enforcement of the minimum wage, of the weakness of trade union organization, of falling living standards and low wages in an era of crisis and ideologically-driven ‘austerity.’
What is striking about Ukip is how often, as in Clacton, it picks up votes in areas with very low immigration, and feeds on attitudes and prejudices that are not based on lived experience.
But the great danger of Ukip isn’t just Ukip itself. For all Farage’s bragging about political earthquakes, his party is unlikely to get many MPs in the forthcoming election, and it will be surprising if it even gets into double figures.
But the danger is that all the three main parties will try and prevent the bleeding away of votes by appealing to the anti-immigrant sentiment on which Ukip feeds, with all the bigotry, nativism, and coded ‘colour-less’ racism that this entails.
In doing so, they are likely to ‘Ukipize’ British politics still further, with more restrictions and punitive anti-migrant measures to demonstrate that they are addressing public ‘concerns’, more populist rhetoric about migrants learning English and adopt ‘British values’, more warnings about multiculturalism and ‘social cohesion’.
All this is likely to intensify and legitimise the very ugly and very nasty sentiments that have given Ukip its first MP. And in doing so it will transform Ukip not so much into a political ‘earthquake’, but into a political Chernobyl, that contaminates everything around it.