No election night is complete without a man dressed as King Arthur waving a plastic sword as the result is read out. Eccentricity is the bedrock of British democracy. The freedom of a madman to waste £500 to get on the ballot is precious. On these islands, we have a right to rave. And sometimes what we rant about is quite revealing.
I’ve been fascinated by eccentric independent candidates ever since as a teenager I met Mr Mark Ellis, a perennial independent running against EU domination and casual littering. He used to patrol Sevenoaks high street with a shopping trolley, collecting rubbish. A profile in the local newspaper revealed that he slept on two chairs pushed together in his living room, and that he shared his house with a duck. Mr Ellis’s platform was a mix of conspiracy theory and a commitment to public service — and it’s that slightly misdirected desire to help others that informs the best of the fringe candidates.
Now that I have moved to Brighton, I’m spoilt for choice in eccentric independents. Brightonians are just children with adult tastes. Charlotte Rose, a ‘high-class courtesan’ from Exeter, is using her Brighton Pavilion candidacy to get people to talk more honestly about sex. ‘Sex is the second biggest human drive, after survival,’ she writes in her manifesto, ‘and yet it is ignored in politics.’ Ms Rose has clearly never been to the Strangers Bar at 2 a.m. She also wonders if the best-qualified people to teach sex education in schools might be professional ‘experts’, by which she means prostitutes. I for one would have matured much faster if my biology classes had been taught by Miss Whiplash and her human ashtray.
On the ballot next door in Hove is Joe Neilson, ‘OAP and retired Amazon explorer’. Matt Taylor, running in the same constituency, is opposed to ‘street drinkers and heroin addicts’ — although, lest we think he is a reactionary, he adds, ‘My sister and nieces are street drinkers and heroin addicts.’ And, ‘having spoken extensively with my sister on this issue’, he thinks it’s time to stop selling drinks to people likely to ‘indulge in anti-social behaviour’. Which could be a dig at his sister, or at Nigel Farage. Like many eccentric independents, Mr Taylor’s manifesto is quite rational when it sticks to local issues but falls apart when attention turns to the national scene: ‘I am the only politician in 1,500 years to conjure up the spirit of King Arthur II in a British general election. Legend says that King Arthur will return in the nation’s hour of need. The hour is Now.’
Wrong, Mr Taylor. King Arthur has already returned: he is running in Salisbury. King Arthur Uther Pendragon, a white-haired druid formerly known as John Timothy Rothwell, discovered that he was a reincarnation of the English hero in the mid-1980s. He ran for Salisbury in 2010 and came second from last, with 257 votes.
The great pioneer of the eccentric independent candidacy was Lt Cdr William George Boaks DSC (1904–1986). This former Royal Navy officer stood for his first seat in 1951 on the ‘Admiral’ ticket (Association of Democratic Monarchists Representing All Women). He intended to run against Prime Minister Clement Attlee but mistakenly filled out the papers for Walthamstow East rather than Walthamstow West. Later, he took the title Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident — which sounds racist but, he insisted, was simply an accurate signifier of who he was and what he stood for. Lt Cdr Boaks was obsessed with road safety. Frustrated at the ballot box, he sometimes resorted to direct action, pushing a pram full of bricks repeatedly across zebra crossings and sitting on a deckchair in the middle of the motorway.
How self-aware is the eccentric independent? The Official Monster Raving Loony Party was really a vehicle for satire rather than genuine looniness: its founder, Screaming Lord Sutch, was a troubled man who sadly hanged himself in 1999. The Loony Party’s modern heir is the Eccentric Party, run by Lord Toby Jug. Its policies are sensible stuff: putting super-glue in lip balm to reduce obesity and fitting a coin slot meter to mobile phones to reduce their use. Immigration will be slashed by putting up photos of Katie Hopkins and Russell Brand at airports. And while Al Murray’s run in South Thanet is left-wing activism dressed up as ’aving a laugh, Lord Jug’s contempt for all ideologies is palpable. ‘We’ll nationalise crime to make sure it doesn’t pay,’ says the wickedly funny manifesto.
Some of the new parties on the block, however, are deadly serious. Liberty GB might be a party rather than a clutch of independents, but I’m counting it among the eccentrics because its shrill denunciation of Islam smacks of classic conspiracy thinking. The name sounds like a racing-car team. I don’t know why parties of the far right conform to a lower-middle-class aesthetic, but Liberty’s leader, Paul Weston, definitely looks like he could do you a good deal on a lawnmower. ‘Was Germanwings pilot a Muslim convert?’ asks their website, the tawdry source for all your Islamophobic needs.
Yes, the men standing at the back dressed as King Arthur really are a good barometer of how a significant minority of people feel about modern life. Many of them think there’s a plot to ruin Britain; accusations of graft or paedophilia among the establishment are common. And the anti-Westminster spirit is high: there are parties demanding a separate parliament for Cornwall, Wessex and Yorkshire. Matt Taylor thinks Brighton should have its own currency. Of course, none of this should come as a surprise — the very nature of the eccentric independent campaign is opposition to big parties and business as usual. But the aggressive ‘anti’ mood is overwhelming. Where has the positive, life-enhancing spirit of, say, the Natural Law Party gone? For those who have forgotten, those were the yogic fliers in the 1990s who said they could end crime by bouncing about the room on their knees. And, to be fair, crime rates did fall.
But even in bleaker times, the eccentric independent still represents the best of British bloody-mindedness — the ‘I will have my say’ attitude of Speakers’ Corner and the far end of a thousand pub bars. And the fact that ‘serious’ politicians have to share a platform with them on election night, to smile politely and shake the hand of King Arthur Uther Pendragon, is a necessary corrective to their oversized egos.