The Pressure of the Populist Right

The Pressure of the Populist Right

Oscar Wilde once claimed: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”  My thread headers are, I must admit, less riveting than that.  Still, they have their moments.  Three years ago, I wrote about the UKIP leadership contest to replace Paul Nuttall.  The candidates formed a crew that one is compelled to describe as motley.  One candidate sought to mine the asteroids, while another was a survivalist who had once been shocked by a gay donkey that had sought to rape his horse.  We don’t get enough moments like that in politics.

Where are UKIP now? And, just as interestingly, where are the kipperati?

For UKIP, it’s been an eventful period.  Since August 2017 they’ve had seven different leaders (four permanent, three interim) and a period of two months with no leader at all.  All four of the permanent leaders in that time have either left or been suspended from the party.  The last permanent leader, Freddy Vachha, disputes the validity of his own suspension.  The current interim leader is Neil Hamilton, who should at least be able to empathise with those at loggerheads with their party establishment.

This turbulence does not seem to have helped UKIP.  It received 0.1% of the vote share nationwide in last December’s general election, 22,817 votes.  This is fewer than UKIP’s last recorded membership total (29,000 in April 2019).

It appears that just two of the eleven candidates who stood for the UKIP leadership remain in the party (Ben Walker, who is now chairman, and Marion Mason).  One, David Allen, appears to have left active politics although he still enthusiastically pushes Leave.EU messaging on social media and is a vehement lockdown sceptic.

You might think that the other eight would have been scooped up by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.  After all, this has been the populist right vehicle of choice in the last eighteen months. But you would be wrong.  Only Jane Collins is completely in the Brexit Party fold.  

Peter Whittle leads the Brexit Alliance Group.  Anne-Marie Waters founded For Britain.  John Rees-Evans founded Democrats & Veterans.  David Kurten has founded the Heritage Party.  Henry Bolton founded Our Nation (though he is now an independent). Aidan Powlesland discovered the stars, his destiny in the Libertarian Party. Like a purple Velvet Underground, not many people may have aspired to lead UKIP, but it seems that everyone who did went on to form another party.

We have not, of course, exhausted the parties of the populist right.  David Coburn wandered through the Brexit Party, sought but was refused membership of the Conservatives and is currently snuggling in Alliance For Unity alongside George Galloway – a gruesome twosome if ever you saw one.  If these choices do not tickle your palate, you can ponder the English Democrats in which a different David Allen is very active,  Shneur Odze appears to have plumped for the Conservatives for now, while still clearly carrying a torch for Nigel Farage.  Former MEP Patrick O’Flynn fetched up in the SDP.  Still more incongruously, another former MEP, Tim Aker, sat in the European Parliament for the Thurrock Independents for a while (he is now in the Brexit Party).

In this packed field, Laurence Fox is launching yet another new party, provisionally named Reclaim, to reclaim British values from politicians.  The uniqueness of this selling point in this section of the market is not obvious. Even the name has been half-inched.

I was brought up in a non-conformist church and this kind of fissiparity is very familiar.  It is also irrelevant to most of the outside world.  Some historians of the seventeenth century have made careers out of investigating the internal workings of deservedly obscure Puritan groups in the Civil War period.  The UKIP diaspora will similarly be a boon to PhD students in the future.  I am not, however, anxiously awaiting the eruption of survivalists or asteroid-miners into the political mainstream any time soon.

This ferment on the populist right does, however, tell us something.    There remains a sizeable appetite for further populist change and this has not been quenched by Brexit.  It has not yet found a coherent voice but that state of affairs may not last indefinitely.

Nigel Farage hasn’t gone away, you know.  Since being dumped by LBC, he has continued to bang an anti-immigrant drum and many of his acolytes are among the most militant lockdown sceptics.  While he has taken a detour to help launch a populist right financial service, Finance & Freedom (other f words spring to mind), having learned how to influence government decision-making from the outside, he looks ready to pounce on any backsliding towards traditional conservatism by the government.  

So the government feels obliged to shore up its right flank, nonsensically prattling on about how the asylum system is broken even as asylum claims sharply drop, and is unable to be led by the science on Covid-19 because it turns out economic experts aren’t the only ones that the populist right have had enough of.  And, of course, it has to make a great parade of antagonising the EU, no matter how immediately self-defeating that might be.

So the pressure of the populist right looks set to be an enduring force on British politics.  In turn, that means that those who oppose populist positions cannot assume that they will win by default.  The history of the last few years has been one of the establishment repeatedly losing by failing to oppose what it considers to be self-evidently stupid arguments.  

By that measure, Sir Keir Starmer has made a bad start as leader.  He has spent a lot of time explaining what he is not and almost no time explaining what he is. With his broadcast this week calling on the government to introduce a circuit break, he finally seems to have made a start on that front.  It’s his first positive step.  Time to tell the public what he stands for.

Alastair Meeks

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