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UKIP, image & reality: brash, loud and uncompromising – naff but canny

UKIP+RosetteThis tweet (shown below) by Ellie Mae O’Hagan planted a seed. Strip away the populist politics for a moment, what is it that UKIP’s chosen symbol – the pound sign – says about their party? Or, to be more accurate, what is it about the logo that resonates. What about Nigel Farage. Is his appeal solely down to his cigarette quaffing, pint-smoking persona? Let’s play with the signs that feature prominently in kipper material and prise them apart like so much mouldy pulled pork. What does it say about message and audience?

The first thing, perhaps what one might be tempted to overlook are the party colours. This leaflet from Northamptonshire is typical. Apart from the blatant “factually accurate” scaremongering, if anything the chosen colour scheme wrenches my guts more than the putrid politics. There’s nothing wrong with purple or yellow in themselves. Design-wise the LibDem make okay use of their colour. And Progress combine purple with red and white to give their website and publication a pleasing pastel vibe. It’s inoffensive without being twee. Which is exactly why UKIP have plumped for the opposite. The rancid colour clash is more than just a refusal to bow to good taste. It’s brash, loud and uncompromising, exactly how the party likes to see itself. The bold colouring is accompanied by bold, spiky policies. It’s also instantly recognisable. With the LibLabCon competing for space on your doormat, UKIP’s rancid colour scheme stands out a mile.

Then there’s the pound sign. A naff choice to be sure, but then again UKIP are not interested in appealing to reasoned debate, let alone electorates who prefer their politics progressive side up. As a nationalist movement it will annex everything and anything redolent of Englishness and Britishness. Can’t use the royals because they’re neutral (and, whisper it, not really British anyway). Can’t use Westminster because it supposedly embodies everything UKIP is against. Putting aside sporting endeavour and iconic wartime imagery, there’s not a lot left. A cup of tea? Chicken tikka masala? Not on your nelly. But good old sterling? Why not. It’s quintessentially British and is instantly recognisable wherever you go.

As symbols go we interact with it everyday, acting as a banal reminder that this is England/Britain and that our money remains our own. It symbolises economic might, certainty and sovereignty. Packed into what would otherwise be a nonsensical squiggle is the DNA of a nation – enterprise, hard graft, and independence. The pound is not stained by the blood of empire, tainted by lingering racism or the stuff and nonsense of the hooray henry classes. It’s the one thoroughly democratic symbol all Britons have no problem acknowledging. And what’s more the semiotics suggest that if this irreducibly British totem is sacrificed on the Euro’s altar, it won’t be long before our plucky national character follows the currency into an unnecessary grave. So yes, a naff choice. A canny choice.

Now to Farage. I think we’ve only got part of his appeal right. The plain speaking man in the pub, yadda, yadda, yadda. But leaving it at that underestimates the connection Farage has to his late middle age and elderly white male core vote. Dave Renton notes this core voter is someone who’s worked all or most of their life, has acquired a modest to middling capital through savings and home ownership, were educated in the school of hard knocks and the university of life and feel a deep unease about the social change sweeping the land. While it counts some former Labour voters among the cohort, most are from that segment of working class/middle class men who don’t vote Labour.

Enter Farage. His is a deeply reassuring presence for men so positioned. He’s less the pub bore and more the hands-on company owner mucking in with his employees. He’s well heeled, had every advantage moneyed birth can convey, but avoids condescension and patrician off-handedness. At some point in their careers millions of UKIP voters have met or become acquainted with an employer like Farage. Someone who knows it’s a tough life, expects you to do the job he’s given you and in return he’ll level with you. Not for one to hide behind management suits, if he thinks you’re crap he’ll tell you. If you’re shit he’ll sack you. No verbal warnings or second written warnings. This is straight down the line you-know-where-you-stand-ism.

Farage has a non-showy confidence in his self-presentation and what he says. Like the best bosses, he knows the score and is on top of what needs to be done. The boss of old might have won grudging respect, even if he was a bastard. But he gave it in return. What Farage has got going for him then is a masochistic nostalgia that speaks to senses of “how bad” kippers had it back in the day. Farage speaks to a band of bloodied brothers manhandled and battered by life, but who narcissistically revel in their tougher, more authentic, more certain past. That’s why millions of older men are besotted and bowled over by his peculiar charisma. His like is already positively embedded in their life experience.

Loud and proud. Identity and sovereignty. Certainty and authenticity. These are concentrated in UKIP’s art style, semiology, and person of their Gaffer. The fit between them is almost seamless. Decoupling them is one of the many things that need to be done to eradicate their poisonous presence for good.

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