Mark Steyn: The Rise of Third Parties


Why a sneering media are increasingly out of touch with the public




It’s all but impossible to launch a new political party under America’s electoral arrangements, and extremely easy to do so under European proportional representation. The UK’s Westminster first-past-the-post system puts the task somewhere in between: tough, but not entirely the realm of fantasy. The Labour party came into being at the dawn of the 20th century, and formed its first government in 1924. The United Kingdom Independence party was born in 1993 and now, a mere two decades later, is on the brink of . . . well, okay, not forming its first government, but it did do eerily well in May’s local elections. The Liberals were reduced to their all-time lowest share of the vote, the Tories to their lowest since 1982, and for the first time ever, none of the three “mainstream” parties cracked 30 percent: Labour had a good night with 29, the Conservatives came second at 25, and nipping at their heels was the United Kingdom Independence party with 23 percent.

They achieved this impressive result against not three opponents but also a fourth — a media that have almost universally derided the party as a sinkhole of nutters and cranks. UKIP’s leader, the boundlessly affable Nigel Farage, went to P. G. Wodehouse’s old high school, Dulwich College, and to a sneering metropolitan press, Farage’s party is a déclassé Wodehousean touring company mired in an elysian England that never was, populated only by golf-club duffers, halfwit toffs, rustic simpletons, and hail-fellow-well-met bores from the snug of the village pub. When I shared a platform with him in Toronto a few months back, Mr. Farage explained his party’s rise by citing not Wodehouse but another Dulwich old boy, the late British comic Bob Monkhouse: “They all laughed when I said I’d become a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”

The British media spent 20 years laughing at UKIP. But they’re not laughing now — not when one in four electors takes them seriously enough to vote for them. So, having dismissed him as a joke, Fleet Street now warns that Farage uses his famous sense of humor as a sly cover for his dark totalitarian agenda — the same well-trod path to power used by other famous quipsters and gag-merchants such as Adolf Hitler, whose Nuremberg open-mike nights were legendary. “Nigel Farage is easy to laugh at . . . that means he’s dangerous,” declared the Independent. The Mirror warned of an “unfulfilled capacity for evil.” “Stop laughing,” ordered Jemma Wayne in the British edition of the Huffington Post. “Farage would lead us back to the dark ages.” The more the “mainstream” shriek about how mad, bad, and dangerous UKIP is, the more they sound like the ones who’ve come unhinged.

UKIP is pronounced “You-kip,” kip being Brit slang for “sleep.” When they write the book on how we came to this state of affairs, they’ll call it While England Kipped. A complacent elite assured itself that UKIP would remain an irritating protest vote, but that’s all. It was born in 1993 to protest the Maastricht treaty, the point at which a continent-wide “common market” finally cast off the pretense of being an economic arrangement and announced itself as a “European Union,” a pseudo-state complete with “European citizenship.” The United Kingdom Independence party was just that: a liberation movement. Its founder, a man who knew something about incoherent Euro-polities, was the Habsburg-history specialist Alan Sked, who now dismisses the party as a bunch of “fruitcakes.” As old-time Perotistas will understand, new movements are prone to internecine feuds. UKIP briefly fell under the spell of the oleaginous telly huckster Robert Kilroy-Silk, who subsequently quit to found a party called “Veritas,” which he has since also quit.

But Farage was there at the founding, as UKIP’s first-ever parliamentary candidate. In 1994, a rising star of the Tory party, Stephen Milligan, was found dead on his kitchen table, with a satsuma and an Ecstasy tab in his mouth, and naked except for three lady’s stockings, two on his legs and one on his arm. In his entertaining book, one of the few political memoirs one can read without forcing oneself to finish, Farage has a melancholy reflection on Milligan’s bizarrely memorable end: “It was the sad destiny . . . of this former President of the Oxford Union to contribute more to public awareness — albeit of a very arcane nature — by the manner of his death than by his work in life.” That’s to say, the late Mr. Milligan more or less singlehandedly planted the practice of “auto-erotic asphyxiation” in the public consciousness — since when (as John O’Sullivan suggested here a while back) the Tory party seems to have embraced it as a political philosophy.

At the time, Milligan’s death enabled a by-election in the constituency of Eastleigh. Farage stood for UKIP, got 952 votes (or 1.4 percent), and narrowly beat the perennial fringe candidate Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony party, which, in a perceptive insight into the nature of government, was demanding more than one Monopolies Commission (the British equivalent of the Antitrust Division). While waiting for the count, Lord Sutch said, “Oi, Nige. Let’s go for a drink, shall we? The rest of this lot are a bunch of wankers.” In the BBC footage of the announcement of the results, Mr. Farage appears to be flushed and swaying slightly. Let Kilroy-Silk split to form a breakaway party called Veritas; Farage is happy to be in vino. He is a prodigious drinker and smoker. I can personally testify to the former after our Toronto appearance. As to the latter, not even Obama can get away with that in public. But Farage does.

The wobbly boozer turned out to be the steady hand at the tiller UKIP needed. He was elected (via proportional representation) to the European Parliament, which for the aspiring Brit politician is Siberia with an expense account. Then, in 2010, Farage became a global Internet sensation by raining on the EU’s most ridiculous parade — the inaugural appearance by the first supposed “President of Europe,” not a popularly elected or even parliamentarily accountable figure but just another backroom deal by the commissars of Eutopia. The new “President” was revealed to be, after the usual Franco-German stitch-up, a fellow from Belgium called Herman van Rompuy. “Who are you?” demanded Farage from his seat in the European Parliament during President van Rompuy’s address thereto. “No one in Europe has ever heard of you.” Which was quite true. One day, Mr. van Rompuy was an obscure Belgian, the next he was an obscure Belgian with a business card reading “President of Europe.” But, as is his wont, Nigel warmed to his theme and told President van Rompuy that he had “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” A few days later, having conferred in their inner sanctum, the Eurocrats ordered Farage to make a public apology. So he did — to low-grade bank clerks for having been so ill-mannered as to compare them to President van Rompuy. He was then fined 2,980 euros (about $4,000) for his impertinence, since when he has referred to the European president as Rumpy-Pumpy, a British synonym for a bloody good shag.

This is rude, and to Britain’s horrified chattering classes, appallingly “xenophobic.” But it’s not altogether unwarranted. Mr. van Rompuy is one of those chaps “no one has ever heard of” who nevertheless decide everything that matters. As M. le Président remarked casually, “2009 is the first year of global governance.” I don’t remember getting the memo on that, and it’s not altogether clear, if one chances to differ with Mr. van Rompuy, where one would go to vote it down. So if it takes a barrage of cheap invective from Farage followed by a fine for lèse-majesté to make the faceless transnational hacks into household names, bring it on.
Not everyone feels the same. As the aforementioned Jemma Wayne wrote, “To see politicians and voters fleeing to the UKIP camp is therefore a terrible indictment of Britain’s zeitgeist.” Which sounds like the plonkingly humorless Miss Wayne’s characteristically leaden way of acknowledging that there might be something to the late Lord Sutch’s assertion that “the rest of this lot are a bunch of wankers.” As I understand it, at some point in the last decade a Labour prime minister exited 10 Downing Street by the back door and a Conservative prime minister came in through the front. And yet nothing changed. And the more frantically Tory loyalists talk up the rare sightings of genuine conservatism — Education Secretary Michael Gove’s proposed reforms! — the more they remind you of how few there are.

And, even more than the policies, the men advancing them are increasingly interchangeable. I lived in London for a long time and still get to Britain every few months, but I can barely tell any of these guys apart. They look the same, dress the same, talk the same. The equivalent British shorthand for “the Beltway” is “the Westminster village,” which accurately conveys both its size and its parochialism but not perhaps the increasingly Stepfordesque quality of its inhabitants. The Labour, Liberal, and Tory leaders all came off the assembly line within 20 minutes of each other in the 1960s and, before they achieved their present ascendancy, worked only as consultants, special advisers, public-relations men. One of them did something at the European Commission, another was something to do with a think tank for social justice — the non-jobs that now serve as political apprenticeships. The men waiting to succeed them are also all the same. There are mild variations in background — this one went to Eton, that one is heir to an Irish baronetcy — but once they determine on a life in politics they all lapse into the same smarmy voice, and they all hold the same opinions, on everything from the joys of gay marriage and the vibrant contributions of Islam to the vital necessity of wind farms and the historical inevitability of the EU. And they sound even more alike on the stuff they stay silent on — ruinous welfare, transformative immigration, a once-great nation’s shrunken armed forces . . .

Occasionally, the realities of electoral politics oblige the village’s denizens to dissemble to the barbarians beyond, as in David Cameron’s current pledge of a referendum on EU membership sometime after his re-election, which is intended to staunch defections to UKIP by seizing the nuanced ground of pretending that he’s not entirely opposed to adopting the position of conceding the prospect of admitting the possibility of potentially considering the theoretical option of exploring the hypothetical scenario of discussing in a roundabout way Britain’s leaving the EU. He doesn’t mean it, of course, but he has to toss a bone out there from time to time. Lord Feldman, the Tories’ co-chairman and Cameron’s tennis partner, rather gave the game away when he was overheard dismissing the massed ranks of his party as “mad, swivel-eyed loons.” Weary of being insulted by Cameron and his Oxford chums, Conservative voters began phoning the local UKIP office for membership applications. In nothing flat, “swivel-eyed loons” became a badge of honor, and the prime minister was giving speeches to the effect that, underneath the insincere unprincipled elitist veneer, he was a swivel-eyed loon himself.

If only. After UKIP cost the Tories control of Oxfordshire County Council, that body’s longtime leader offered some advice to the prime minister: “You have to work out how to be one of us without affectation.” Good idea; maybe we can focus-group it. As for the UKIP leader: “He is unafraid to be filmed with a pint of beer and a cigarette in his hand when all of our media training tells us to eschew either image. He also uses soundbites that appeal to Conservatives. I suspect many are unrehearsed — again something professionals are trained never to do.” Yet, oddly enough, untrained, un-media-handled, liquored up and lit up and detouring at whim into eccentric anecdotes about a night at a strip club with a French presidential candidate (“not Sarko”), Farage manages to stay effortlessly on message.

The most telling item on David Cameron’s thin résumé is the job he held in the Nineties, when it fell to him to supply au courant pop-culture references to heavyweight Tories before their appearances on the BBC’s top-rated discussion show Question Time — so they could sit across the table from the Labour guy and say, “You are the weakest link — goodbye!” or “I think we all agree we need to vote Mr. Blair off the island” or “I’m afraid the prime minister didn’t have me at hello” or “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want, and that’s for you to resign!” And the impressionable rubes would think wow, this dull middle-aged bloke in a suit is really cool. The man who provided fake populist flourishes was subsequently hired as party leader, with all too predictable consequences.

On the other hand, Nigel Farage, who skipped university and made a ton of money in the City of London in the Thatcher years, has a genuinely popular touch. Unlike the “mainstream” parties’ tripartisan agreement, in the wake of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals, to gang up for a disgraceful assault on freedom of the press, he is a free-speech absolutist — as am I. But I usually dust off the same old John Milton quotes from three centuries back, whereas Farage essays a different approach, recalling that Murdoch’s News of the World did a big exposé on him, but one that revealed he was “hung like a donkey” and could “do it seven times.” “Which isn’t true,” he adds, modestly. He is a great sayer of the unsayable, and he understands that what the control freaks of the Westminster village really want is to put ever more topics beyond the bounds of public discourse, so that any even slightly unorthodox thought on, say, immigration puts you in potential “hate speech” territory.

On the Continent, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of a hermetically sealed elite, and with predictable consequences: If the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain topics, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones. As noted, Farage is too funny to make a convincing fascist, but, with the great unwashed pounding on the fence of their gated community, the Westminster village have redoubled their efforts. To be sure, as with any fledgling party whose candidate-selection process lacks the ruthless filtering of the Big Three, UKIP’s members are somewhat variable: One recently expressed an antipathy toward women in trousers, another was glimpsed in a cell-phone photograph either doing a Nazi salute (albeit sitting down and with his left hand) or reaching out to seize the phone in mid-snap. Considering the oppo research launched against UKIP by all three major parties plus the media, these are thin pickings.

The Tories in particular might be better off thinking seriously about UKIP’s appeal: If you reckon things are grand just as they are, having a choice between three indistinguishable “social democrat” parties — as Farage calls Labour, Liberal, and Conservative — is fine. If you don’t think things are grand, then it seems increasingly strange and, indeed, unhealthy that not one of the three “mainstream” parties is prepared to support policies that command the support of half the electorate (EU withdrawal) and significantly more than half (serious border enforcement). Underneath the contempt for UKIP lies a careless assumption by the antiseptic metropolitan elite that their condescension is universally shared — that these beery coves with fag ash down their golf-club ties are demographic dinosaurs in a Britain ever more diverse, more Muslim, more lesbian, more transgendered. But the Britain to which UKIP speaks resonates beyond the 19th hole. It was not just that the party won an unprecedented number of seats in May’s elections, but that they achieved more second-place finishes than anybody else. Beyond the leafy suburbs and stockbroker counties, in parts of Britain where the traditional working class has been hung out to dry by Labour in pursuit of more fashionable demographics, UKIP has significant appeal.

Yet, holed up in the Westminster village, on they push. By wanting out of the European Union before it collapses under its Eutopian vanities, Farage is a “Little Englander” or a “19th-century imperialist.” As an old-school imperialist a century past my sell-by date, I didn’t find him backward-looking at all. When we appeared together in Toronto, my National Review colleague Conrad Black, noting the woes of both America and the European Union, observed that Britain and its Commonwealth cousins — Canada, India, and Australia — between them account for about half the GDP of the U.S. or the EU, and that this was a basis for future economic arrangements. In a thoughtful response, Farage, while agreeing with Conrad on the economic logic, insisted that any such Anglospheric rebirth would require a new name, as the Commonwealth carried too much imperial baggage. He’s more forward-looking than Tory, Labour, or Liberal, all of whom remain, on Europe, wedded to a 1970s solution to a 1940s problem.

He understands, too, that, unless you lead the stunted, reductive lives of the lifelong residents of the Westminster village, political success doesn’t necessarily mean being in government, or even getting elected. Farage is a close student of the near-total collapse of the intellectually bankrupt Canadian Conservative party in the early Nineties, and its split into various factions. The western-based Reform party could not get elected nationwide, but they kept certain political ideas in play, which moved the governing Liberals to the right, and eventually enabled them to engineer a reverse takeover of the Tory party. UKIP, likewise, is keeping certain important, indeed existential questions in play, and it’s not inconceivable that Farage, who regards himself as a member of “the Tory family,” could yet engineer a reverse takeover of whatever post-Cameron husk remains half a decade down the road.

After all, what, other than the walled-up windows of the Westminster village, makes UKIP’s 23 percent the “lunatic fringe” and the Conservatives’ 25 percent the “mainstream”? The real problem facing Britain (and Europe) is a lunatic mainstream, determined on a course of profound, existential change for which there is no popular mandate whatsoever. UKIP — like Nigel Farage’s bar bill at ten in the evening — will climb a lot higher yet.