No Longer Fruitcakes. . .

Barring legal maneuvers, a fringe party becomes part of a country’s mainstream politics for one of two reasons: because it sheds or conceals its extravagant views or because mainstream politics shifts in such a way as to make it relevant. The UK Independence Party, which won an average of 25 percent of the vote in the seats it contested in the recent local elections in Britain, belongs in the second category.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who once famously described UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, felt forced, the day after the stunning results, to say, “We need to show respect for people who have taken the choice to support this party.” The move from the early dismissal to the recent recognition of UKIP by the authorities is an ironic illustration of how the organization led by Nigel Farage, a relatively young former commodities broker who serves in the European Parliament, has transited from the margins of British politics to the center. And it has done so without shedding or concealing its ideas, which are essentially three: immigration is a scourge; the United Kingdom must leave the European Union, and the welfare state needs to be rolled back.

What has happened? The traumatic post-bubble scene in Britain and Europe has helped Farage’s cause, of course. So has the blurring of the ideological lines between the three dominant parties, including the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats, who used to be at opposite ends of the spectrum but have been, since the 2010 general election, allies in government. More fundamentally, however, what has happened is that UKIP now lies at the intersection of two powerful though mutually exclusive sentiments that have been gathering steam for many years in contemporary Britain: individualism and nationalism.

The first sentiment is a healthy reaction against the growth of government and social engineering, which have gradually interfered with, or even replaced, the old tradition of voluntary association and community that is a hallmark of the country’s democracy. The second sentiment is a fear of the disruptive forces of globalization, a distrust of things foreign and different. Of course, the lines are not always clearly demarcated: there is in part an individualistic ingredient in the xenophobic reaction against outsiders, mostly the disgust with the European bureaucracy in Brussels.

The point here is that UKIP has managed to capture a growing share of the electorate (we will have to wait until the general election of 2015 to see whether this phenomenon has long legs) because the mainstream parties have not been able to address these two sentiments. Even if they had tried, it would not have been an easy task at all because there is a contradiction at heart between wanting to push back the state (both the British and the European states) and rejecting the consequences of the free circulation of goods, services, capital and people.

This contradiction is tearing apart the mainstream parties themselves. As is well known, the Tories have been deeply divided over Europe for a long while. So much so that at least one hundred Conservative MPs in Westminster, about one third of Cameron’s party, are much closer in ideological terms to UKIP than to the government they support. Because he knows this, Cameron has promised a referendum on whether the UK will stay in the European Union after the next general election if he wins.

Numerous voices in Britain are dismissing the recent elections as a typical case of mid-term discontent rather than a sea change in British politics. Nobody knows for sure. But the connection that Farage has established with the two potent sentiments that have taken grip of a large chunk of the electorate suggests the traditional parties need to do a lot more than hope this is a passing fad.

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