Today is the Newark by-election and however well UKIP and its candidate Roger Helmer do in their attempts to overturn the Conservatives’ vast majority, one thing is clear: UKIP are now well past the stage when they can be dismissed as a bunch of maverick outsiders. Why else would the Conservatives have dispatched one in three of their MPs to canvas in one of their safest seats? Because they’re genuinely nervous of the UKIP threat, is why.
I’m nervous about UKIP for different reasons. My concern is that if they’re not careful they’re going to end up just like all the other members of the political class in the LibLabCon bubble – more interested in the pursuit and retention of power by telling special interests groups whatever they want to hear rather than in ideological principle.
Already we’ve seen some discouraging signs of this: the “Red UKIP” promises at the Wythenshawe and Sale East by election along the lines of “your benefits are safe with us”; UKIP’s cynical aping of Labour’s position on the “bedroom tax”; Nigel Farage talking about his Thatcherist instincts not in the present tense but in the past tense in at least two recent interviews; UKIP councillor Donna Rachel Edmunds being slapped down by the party chairman for coming over too libertarian in a newspaper interview.
Discussing this with one of UKIP’s Young Turks Michael Heaver on the Spectator podcast, I wasn’t terribly reassured by his response. UKIP, apparently, are going to wheel out all manner of splendid, thought-through policies which we’re all going to love when they bring out their new manifesto, come the Autumn conference season. But policy detail is the obsession of wonks, not real people. What those of us in the normal world want to know most of all is this: What does UKIP actually believe in?
This matters because if UKIP doesn’t have a coherent ideology then a) it will be just like all the other parties which have long since jettisoned any last vestige of principle and b) it will find it impossible to justify and defend its positions with any intellectual consistency.
Many of the things that need to be done if Britain is to recover from the damage done during the Blair, Brown and Cameron years are not going to be popular: Quangos need to be dismantled; government spending cut; renewables subsidies slashed; nuclear power and fracking brought forward; the NHS radically restructured; our relationship with Europe completely renegotiated; Islamist aggression confronted…
All manner of special interest groups will be threatened by these changes and all manner of campaigns will be marshalled to stop the change happening. It will require not just tremendous courage to stand up to these assaults but also a coherent ideological position.
As I wrote in the Spectator this week: 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.
What UKIP needs is an “Ism”. The fact that already it has rejected Thatcherism is not a good sign. It suggests to me not a party of fearless conviction but one which is afraid to make the case for unpopular decisions. I hope I’m wrong – but if I’m right about this, then UKIP are never going to shake up the political system in the way some of us hoped. They’re just going to give it a gentle slap and tickle, before joining the cosy club.