I’m worried about Ukip. It’s possible that my concerns are entirely misplaced but let me give you some examples of what I mean. First, a tweet from Ukip’s Newark candidate Roger Helmer (whose heroic stance on energy and climate change I greatly admire): ‘Meet Robert Jenrick, the Tory candidate for Newark: Gilded youth. Posh Tory boy. London property millionaire.’
Second, the party’s official response to a local newspaper interview given by Donna Rachel Edmunds, one of Ukip’s new councillors in Lewes, East Sussex, in which she argued — on perfectly sound libertarian principles — that businesses should be free to choose their customer base. So ardent Christian hoteliers should be at liberty to turn away gay couples as Jewish shopkeepers should be to refuse service to neo-Nazis. Ukip’s chairman Steve Crowther described this as ‘beyond what is acceptable’.
Third, the recent reactions of Nigel Farage when asked if he is a Thatcherite. In the past, he has been quite upfront about this: where Cameron is the heir to Blair, Farage has long seen himself as the true heir to Thatcher and leader of the Tory party in exile. Now, on at least two occasions, he has taken care to refer to his Thatcherite sympathies in the past tense. WTF?
Of course, I understand the theory behind what is going on here. Ukip cannot forever be the party of rebel outsiders. If they want to change the system they have to become part of it, and they’re not going to do that unless they play the political games regrettably necessary for gaining office.
In this light, Farage’s semi-renunciation of Thatcher can be understood as a sop to potential voters in former Labour strongholds like Rotherham, where the great woman’s name still tends to go down like a cup of cold sick. And Helmer’s crass appeal to class envy can — almost — be excused as a way of underlining the remoteness, complacency and QE-fuelled entitlement of Cameron’s Notting Hill Tories.
But strategically I think they’re making a huge mistake. Many harsh and unfair things have been said of Ukip in the last few weeks, but the one charge which sticks is that they’re defined by their negativity: they’re against unchecked immigration; they’re against the EU; they’re against gay marriage; they’re against Tory candidates with too many houses… Now the time has come for them to have the courage of their convictions and tell us what they’re actually for.
And this is where, again, I start to worry. I’ve been to Ukip conferences and I’ve been to Ukip fringe meetings and I’ve spoken at Ukip hustings and two things have struck me. One is that the membership have wildly different views about What Needs To Be Done: for some it’s a flat tax, for others it’s tighter immigration controls, for one of the candidates in Worcestershire it’s maintaining the ban on foxhunting(!). The other is the apparent lack of anyone like Margaret Thatcher had — a Keith Joseph, say, or a Norman Tebbit — with the ability to underpin party policy with some intellectual and ideological heft.
Farage — as well he knows — is not the answer here. He’s a man of instinct, not of the mind. This has served the party well in creating its general mood music (that of the man in pub who says what ordinary people really think). But it will be worse than useless in the face of arguments from some quarters that if the party is to build the electoral base it needs to come up with crap like it did last year at Wythenshawe and Sale when it put on its ‘red Ukip’ mask and promised to protect people’s welfare benefits.
There’s an obvious solution: what Ukip needs is a moment equivalent to the one in the mid-1970s when, shortly after becoming Tory party leader, Margaret Thatcher slapped down Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the table and declared ‘This is what we believe.’ What Ukip needs is an ‘-ism’.
It’s a shame that it has rejected Thatcherism because that would have been the ideal candidate. The only hard part would have been explaining to sceptical punters on the street that her philosophy could scarcely be more different from squishy, Tory grandeeism embodied by soft statist Conservatives from Macmillan through Heath to Cameron. That’s why the party sorely needs more ideologues of the Donna Rachel Edmunds persuasion: people capable of thinking from first principles and not being frightened — as Steve Crowther clearly was — by the strong, left-leaning cultural pressure always to think inside the box. If Ukip cannot fully embrace radicalism then it is nothing.
No really, nothing. What, pray, is the point of voting Ukip into power if all you’re going to get is another bunch of career politicians on the make, aping the cynical, vote-catch opportunism of the usual suspects from LibLabCon? You might get more grammar schools here, fewer wind farms there, but without a clear direction of travel you’d just get another party prey to the inevitable temptations of shoring up its power base with eye-catching initiatives aimed at grasping special interest groups.
Ukip will only succeed — and deserve to succeed — if it becomes the party of everyone. (Everyone apart from the quango-crats and Eurocrats and human rights lawyers and corporatists and renewable energy rent-seekers and welfare scroungers currently being catered for very nicely by LibLabCon). And the best way of doing that is by establishing itself clearly and unapologetically as the party of personal freedom and small government.
All the other terrain on the political map has already been fully occupied. Classical liberalism has not — and it’s about time it was. It’s the only political philosophy which acts genuinely in the interests of the ‘many, not the few’. Ukip could copyright that phrase — and, unlike the other parties, actually mean it.