Alex Andreou has had a go at UKIP on the New Statesman website. It’s a detailed, but relatively standard, attempt to critique the party – that they have no coherent, let alone costed, policies, and that many of the people in the party or associated with the party are either nasty or mad or both. I do not disagree with either of these broad points, but I wonder whether attacking UKIP in this way actually works as a means of opposition.
For UKIP this sort of critique does not matter. They are the anti-party party, and while Alex’s critique appeals to someone like me who reads the New Statesman, or the sort of political pragmatists who will already vote for the mainstream parties, such a critique is not going to really do much good to stop UKIP’s rise.
Another recent example made me reflect further about the sort of dilemma when dealing with UKIP.
In a debate last month in the European Parliament after François Hollande had spoken there, Nigel Farage stated that he was opposed to European military action in Mali. How and why can this be so, people wondered, because UKIP has been critical of islamic extremism in the past?
The answer is, I think, that before the pragmatic intervene-or-not question is even asked, a different question is asked by Farage and UKIP first and foremost. This question is essentially: how does a Mali intervention fit our world view? If it’s ‘Europeans’ doing military things, when military matters must be a matter for the British people, then whatever the intervention, it is going to be wrong.
To put it another way, you have Farage arguing for something on the basis of his interpretation of the legitimacy of the process, while everyone else is arguing about the grindingly pragmatic matters of whether to launch a military intervention or not.
Extrapolate this example to UKIP’s approach in general and you then begin to see why arguments against UKIP tend to fail, or at least not gain traction. The party’s view, in its essence, is that the European Union is to blame for a lot of the problems the UK faces – the economy, immigration, foreign policy etc.* – and vague policy pronouncements flow from that. The policies themselves may be unworkable and not pragmatic, but the way UKIP (and especially Farage) argues is often consistent and somehow ideologically driven. Meeting those arguments with a “your policies don’t work” response, or with a “well, politics is a the complicated matter of governing and compromise” doesn’t really cut it, because those are typically pragmatic, political class sorts of answers that in the current environment in the UK resonate less and less.
* – this doesn’t always work. I have no idea how opposition to gay marriage stems from that. That’s probably just pure populism.