IN 2016 Ukip was on a high with the vote to leave the European Union. Having campaigned for this since its formation in 1993 this ought to have been a springboard for further success. But over the next four years the party went through ten leaders, lost its most significant figure, Nigel Farage, and haemorrhaged members. When Neil Hamilton took over as leader last September many had written Ukip off. They would be wrong to do so. In the last few months Ukip has been joined or re-joined by Katie Hopkins, Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley, former MEP Bill Etheridge, Professor Tim Congdon and me. Why?
I joined Ukip in July 2018 but left after two years having observed a party that seemed to offer little but internal bickering. The problem was easy to state: Ukip had built a party that relied too heavily on one man, Nigel Farage, and on one policy, leaving the EU. This did not matter during Ukip’s growth years in the decade before the Brexit referendum, when the party was able to make electoral gains by drawing on instinctive doorstep anti-EU sentiment. Ukip’s high water mark was at the General Election of 2015 when it came third in terms of votes with nearly 13 per cent, and it seemed to be on the verge of a major electoral breakthrough.
But the Tory Party did what it had to do to survive and neutered Ukip’s flagship policy. The Tories appeared a better electoral bet to deliver Brexit and Ukip lost its motor. Under Gerard Batten the party, close to insolvency, attempted to replace one central policy, Brexit, with another, opposing Islam. Farage, who had successfully made an issue of immigration, was able to dismiss the party claiming that ‘Ukip wasn’t founded to be a party based on fighting a religious crusade’. But what Farage had done skilfully, Batten attempted to do bluntly, and Ukip was left reeling from a loss of electoral appeal and party members.
To save the party from possible extinction the former Tory MP, Neil Hamilton, took over last September. As a lawyer, he had to spend much of his first few months dealing with legal actions involving former leaders but more recently he has quietly begun to put the party back on track, with a vision that chimes with my own view of what is wrong with British politics and what is necessary to put it right.
I am a populist. I believe that the central dynamic in liberal democracies is a clash between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism is no longer about a better society for all based on free speech, understanding and equal rights. It is now a caricature of the ideas developed by liberal thinkers during the Enlightenment. Liberalism today is about using rights for the privileged few (based on their power or identity) to undermine the democracy that is society’s only protection for the many.
Brexit was championed by Ukip as the party that seeks to advance the interests of ordinary working people. The European Union is the elites’ dream institution because it vests power in technocrats, bureaucrats and lawyers and takes it away from the ballot box. So Brexit had to be Ukip’s primary policy objective. With Brexit done (albeit with serious legacy issues) there are many other causes to fight for, and identity politics now poses the greatest threat to ordinary working people because it is an ideological tool used by the elite and powerful few to dismiss the many as unworthy. Identity politics is a menace to democracy.
When class was central to British politics, ordinary people had trade unions and the Labour Party to advance their interests. Now that culture has replaced class as the main cleavage of political debate, these institutions cannot defend the working class, who are readily dismissed with derogatory words ending in ‘ist’ or ‘ic’. The left, even those who consider themselves to be non-woke, cannot resist today’s liberals because they will not stand up for conservative beliefs on the family, community and nation.
Ukip is a socially conservative party that is patriotic, strong on borders, tough on crime, principled on free speech and recognises that repeal of the Equality Act is a precondition for challenging the woke. Unlike organisations of the left, it is a credible candidate for progress.
True, there are other parties including Reform UK and Reclaim which broadly agree with the paragraphs above. But Ukip differs from them in one important respect: it is a party based on members. Ukip recognises that ordinary working people – the millions who have families, go to work, enjoy their communities and take pride in their nation and its culture – are a force for progress. As George Orwell observed: ‘if there is hope it lies in the proles.’ Orwell appreciated the power of a class with views formed from engaging with reality rather than by imbibing an ideology from on high. Orwell’s comment, in his dystopian novel 1984, is apposite today when an elitist ideology is enforced by a woke tyranny of cancel culture that is rejected by most ordinary people.
Ukip’s determination to challenge elite politics prompted David Cameron to dismiss it in 2006 as a ‘bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists’. Ukip has survived because, in the words of a former general secretary: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’. Ukip does not care what the mainstream thinks of it – it is the views of ordinary people, from whom its members are drawn, that count.
The problem Reform UK and Reclaim have is that they are parties in name only: they have no members, just followers, and no internal democracy.
As a matter of principle, parties which reject democracy for themselves have no moral authority to win it for society. As a matter of practice, parties without members will, in time, fall under the influence of the middle-class sentiment that prevails in British politics. They will, in other words, become mainstream political parties. The middle class, unlike ordinary people, have a comfortable stake in society and their interests lie in compromise, conciliation and maintaining the status quo. But while they seek to contain, the woke seek to win. This dynamic, unfettered by the corrective influence of ordinary people, has been playing out for years and explains why there is little difference between all the mainstream political parties. They are all to varying degrees political parties that are of, by and for the middle class.
Ukip’s unique selling point is its membership. But if these members are serious about challenging today’s liberal clerisy, they need to be schooled in understanding the world and how to change it. The Ukip of old that had little internal political discussion and debate will not survive. The Ukip under Neil Hamilton will survive if it is able to deliver on his desire to make Ukip membership more meaningful. Ukip needs to train people to win broader political arguments in the battle of ideas where the elite will continue to use their considerable power to belittle ordinary people and undermine any organisation that champions them. Ukip needs to become the party of, by and for the forgotten many. Having been driven out of the legal profession for standing up to the woke I’m up for this challenge: are you?