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Are UKIP “profoundly un-British”?

farage against union jackFormer Prime Minister John Major certainly thinks so. I believe the answer is more nuanced than that. Speaking on Andrew Marr yesterday, the grey man of politics said UKIP were un-British because they are “anti-everything“, particularly “anti-foreigner” and “anti-immigrant“. He added that this is “the negativity of the four-ale bar. That’s not the way to get into Parliament, it’s not the way to run a country.” Finally, Major mused that as the economy gets better, you can expect UKIP support to die back. Possibly, John, but only if people’s sense of self-security gets better.

On the general charge of being “un-British”, what does that actually mean? Can one be un-Danish, un-French, un-Polish? It seems like a silly attack to make. Or, to be more accurate, it would have been nonsensical to level such a charge say 20 years ago. Since then nationality in Britain, and particularly Britishness has undergone a profound change. In a process of rewriting from above and below, what it means to be British is to be tolerant, inclusive, respectful, and polite. It’s an identity predicated around sets of “British values”, such as liberty, freedom of speech, conscience and religion, of sticking up for the underdog, playing fair, and securing by common endeavour a health service free at the point of need.

How does UKIP measure up to these facets of contemporary Britishness? Not very well. It peddles lies and bigotry about immigrants, blames the least powerful for problems generated at the top, feels profoundly threatened by “alien” cultures and would like to see some visible expression of faiths, such as the hijab, banned outright. It also thinks gay people should not be allowed to marry, denying them a liberty afforded heterosexual couples; and Farage himself have been caught on tape favouring an American-style system of privatised health cover. Slam dunk to John Major then.

This Britishness, however, is very recent. In many ways it has come to resemble the character of Americanness. From the outset, the US and its nationalism were predicated around sets of values and promises. These are set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. American national identity is explicitly an ideological – in the wide sense – project. If you come to America, accept the values on which it is founded, and spend the rest of your life as a US passport holder, you are as American as anyone born there. And, potentially, anyone can become American.

Multiculturalism from below and inclusively-minded initiatives from official society have adapted Britishness along the same lines. Originally an elite project to cohere the ruling classes of the multinational United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, it had a certain inclusiveness already built in, albeit one directed outwards to Johnny Foreigner and colonial land grabs.

The retreat from Empire, starting with Irish independence down to decolonisation saw that construct colonised by imperial nostalgia. It was clung to more tightly as the original wellspring ran to a trickle and dried up. After being mobilised by Thatcher in support of the Falklands adventure, and the occasional bit of official flag waving for national occasions, the association of Britishness with narrowness and unreconstructed nationalism proceeded until the 1990s, where the perfect storm of footballing success, a self-consciously British musical movement, New Labour, the popular rejection of racism, and the growing integration and social mobility of minority ethnicities begat its reinvention. It follows that being British is no longer predicated being born on this island.

All that was horrible, stupid and bigoted about “old” Britishness has not gone away, but has found a home in UKIP. And it too has changed. UKIP is less a British and more an English nationalist party. Britishness has been ceded to the metropolitans, the lefties, and “the ethnics” while it seeks to cohere a base around a very white notion of traditionalism, nationalism, and a paternal relationship with the Commonwealth. It responds to the uncertainty of a new Britain in the age of globalisation by counterposing a narrow Englishness, that nevertheless remains thoroughly British – even if its legitimacy is not what it used to be.

As such UKIP are an embarrassment, a throwback, an atavistic reminder – especially to the centre right – of the awful, toxic politics that are very, very British too. That is part of UKIP’s appeal. And is one of the reasons why more thoughtful Tories with the longer term view, like Major, are very keen to put clear water between his party and theirs.

7 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Well labour has fallen into the trap for god sake, labour now says we made mistakes with immigration.

    Your saying that Farage is anti immigration so is Cameron and Miliband.

    I’ve decided that my best bet at the next election is to stay at home and let those that want to vote for the people they want.

    None are worth voting for to be honest

    1. James Martin says:

      Yes, but wasn’t it you who actually voted for UKIP at the last election Robert, and then tried to defend voting for racist NHS privatisers by saying it was a protest vote against Labour being so right-ring (odd protest as that may be)? And now you are a born again anarchist who refuses to vote? What next, propaganda by the deed?

      1. Rod says:

        Protest votes are just that: protest votes. It doesn’t really matter if the recipient party is left or right.

        And as for NHS privatisers, are you familiar with Labour’s record on NHS privatisation? If you want to vote against NHS privatisation you wouldn’t vote Labour.

        1. James Martin says:

          Well voting BNP could have been seen as a ‘protest vote’ too Robert. The problem is, once you start to vote for right-wing racists and nationalists and they gain momentum it unfortunately does matter rather a lot.

          1. Robert says:

            yes and you of course voted and believed in Blair and his progress party. And now you think Miliband has the answers to UKIP by becoming UKIP that a bit rich mate.

      2. Robert says:

        Nope I’ve not yet voted UKIP but I may do so in the future after all labour is now the party of anti Immigration.

        I was a fully paid up member of labour from 1963 to 2010 but a protest vote yes I may well do so if I thought it would change anything it will not labour is now off on it vote catching of UKIP members.

        1. swatantra says:

          They are an English Independence Party in essence, similar to Plaid and the SNP and Sinn Fein

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