Monday, 13 October 2014

UKIP's not-so-usable past

Narratives and stories matter more in politics than any mere policies ever have.

And that's what the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its grinning leader, Nigel Farage (above) really show us when we examine recent elections. For their spectacular victory in this year's elections to the European Parliament, their triumph in Conservative Clacton and near-triumph in Labour Heywood and Middleton, tells us much about the world that many fellow citizens want to live in.

What UKIP carefully evoke and then appeal to - on the Left as much as the Right - is a world of certainty. Of connection. Place and space and warmth and fellow-feeling and above all community. For there can be little doubt that many voters are struggling right now. We have lived through nearly all of a Parliament in which real wages have risen in one month in four-and-a-half years. We are living through a period of globalisation that is scattering old certainties - about nation, economy, society, land, travel, health and wealth - to the four winds. And in which the complacent main Westminster parties just say 'it's all right, steady as she goes, with a bit of a tinker here and a tidy there, all will be well'.

Well, many Britons don't think it will be, and they rather like the sound of an anti-party - a new-old source of authority that's just enough like a party to pull some thin shreds of credibility around its nonsensical policy agenda.

But it's all based on a mythic past - on a 1950s when a Dixon of Dock Green might clip you round the ear; when you didn't have to lock your doors; when you knew your neighbours; and when your neighbours were like you. When you went to work, nine to five, your wages went up every year, and things felt better every time you went to the polls. When - Labour or Conservative - you were proud of being 'British'. A sheltered world of order and peace and plenty.

It's baloney. Historians should stand up and say: this world never existed, and where and when it did, it didn't make everybody happy anyway. As Paul Mason has put it today, you might have known more people in your street, but Britain 'was also [part of] a world of repression, pointless hierarchies, sexism, racism and absolutely rampant homophobia'. And whoever said that recognising more local faces made you feel more secure? Let us point you to ex-Home Secretary Alan Johnson's superb memoir of growing up poor in West London, This Boy:
Casting my mind back now, I don't think I ever felt safe on those streets. For while there was a genuine sense of community in our neighbourhood, the threat of violence that bubbled perpetually beneath the surface was a part of our everyday lives. It erupted frequently. Adult men would fight outside the pubs on a Saturday night and gangs of boys, keen to prove how tough they were, would attack if provoked. And it didn't take a lot to provoke them. Sometimes it was enough to make the simple mistake of looking at them. Having said that, sometimes not looking at them could be interpreted as weakness and lead to the same outcome.
Do we really want to let UKIP do our remembering, our memorialising, our history-writing and our teaching for us? No, I don't think that we do, thank you very much.

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