Since the beginning of the European elections campaign, not a day has passed without some vicious new assault in the media on UKIP. But as we’ve seen, far from denting UKIP’s popularity in the polls all this free publicity – bolstering its status as the rebel-outsider, none-of-the-above party – has seen it go from strength to strength. So now its media enemies appear to be trying a different tactic: smother it with kindness and strained sympathy.
Hence yesterday’s op ed in The Times by former opinion editor Tim Montgomerie.
The Times is no friend to UKIP thanks, inter alia, to its Executive Editor Danny Finkelstein (ennobled by the Tories as Lord Finkelstein) and his very cosy relationship with David Cameron and George Osborne (“Mr Osborne once reportedly remarked that he spoke to Mr Finkelstein more often then he did to his wife,” Peter Oborne once wrote in The Spectator). Montgomerie – wet-ish founder of the ConservativeHome website – is no friend to UKIP either.
So when we read a headline like “UKIP voters aren’t racist. They’re in despair”, we shouldn’t necessarily take it at face value as a principled, caring, nurturing apologia for all those people out there – getting on for 40 per cent of the population – who are tempted to go for UKIP in the Euro elections. Rather we should view it as one might a boa constrictor when it appears to be cuddling up silkily to the sweet little mouse that the keeper of the reptile house has just put into its tank…
Some of it is fair enough. “UKIP is not a grown-up party. There are huge contradictions in its spend-more, tax-less policy agenda.” Sure. I agree. There is room for improvement, definitely, and the party still looks far too much like a one-man band.
But Montgomerie’s mask of reasonableness soon slips. “If we do want to understand the UKIP phenomenon we should identify the errors being made by politicians and journalists that are helping to keep Mr Farage’s face on what seems like every TV broadcast.” I think the frustration and irritation and mild disgust are pretty palpable there, don’t you?
Montgomerie advances eight explanations for UKIP’s popularity: Anger at globalisation (which is depressing wages for low-skilled British workers); large-scale immigration; broken promises (he cites Nick Clegg on tuition fees; Labour not delivering an EU referendum; but not, oddly enough, Cast Iron Dave’s promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty); protest voting; the emergence of a political class (the Westminster bubble); an illiberal liberalism (I think he means liberal fascism towards people who, say, oppose gay marriage on heartfelt religious grounds); David Cameron’s misdiagnosis of the Tory problem (apparently – says Montgomerie – what voters really want is “right-wingery with compassion for the low-paid”); and pundits who are so rude about “the right” that they drive many people to vote UKIP on the sod-you principle.
Buried in Montgomerie’s argument are some nuggets of truth but the take-home message for me remains the same: the mainstream media still doesn’t get UKIP – and quite possibly never will.
Back in the days when the scabrous John Wilkes fought for press freedom, the relationship between the media and politicians was a healthy one: they utterly despised one another. But that most certainly hasn’t been the case during my lifetime – nor, I suspect, the lifetime of anyone living today. It has become far too consensual.
To give one example, plucked from the ether, the other day I was reading an unlikely paean to Roy Jenkins written by Bruce Anderson in The Spectator. I say “unlikely” because Anderson is a Tory and Lord Jenkins was anything but: from multiculturalism to closer integration with the EU he was, over several decades, one of the prime movers of pretty much every bankrupt left-liberal cause that has contributed to the ruination of Britain and for which every natural conservative should never forgive him. Yet Anderson clearly adored Jenkins all the same.
Why? Because socially Jenkins was clubbable; and as a politician he was a skilled operator. And as a political writer Anderson, like most political writers inside the Westminster (or indeed the D.C.) bubble, was seduced by these qualities.
Even if they don’t start out that way, political correspondents quickly go native: like victims of Stockholm Syndrome they find themselves identifying with the people they ought to hate. Instead of being interested in the battle of ideas, they become obsessed – just like politicians – with process. That is, they judge politicians not so much on the merits of their policies as on their ability to railroad those policies through the system regardless of how good they are. Politics, viewed in this light, becomes a Machiavellian struggle to get things done by whatever means necessary. It’s a game.
But it’s not just political correspondents who think this way. So too do most senior media folk because it makes them feel they are in the loop and it’s always nice for a hack to think he or she can stride with the best of them in the corridors of power. This is why – though of course the mainstream media does lambast and scrutinise politicians on occasion – the political class as a body gets off far more lightly than it ought. Politicians and the mainstream media are part of the same Establishment and have a mutual interest in preserving the status quo.
The people who aren’t part of this Establishment, however, not remotely, are the people in the country at large. They feel, for any of number of reasons, that they have become disenfranchised; that the Establishment looks after its own interests but not theirs. For some the problem is political correctness; for others it’s immigration; for others it’s the plethora of regulations over which they feel they have no democratic control regardless of which political party is in power; for others still it’s the sense that, despite this blessed recovery we keep reading about in all the newspapers, their standard of living appears to be going down.
It’s not so much what UKIP stands for that is attracting so many voters as what it stands against: everything they hate.
And what is the embodiment of everything they hate? The Establishment, of course. No wonder the media arm of this Establishment is as proving as discombobulated as the political wing of this Establishment: they’re all in the same boat.
Unlike on the Continent, we don’t really do bloody revolutions in this country. But that doesn’t mean we’re not on occasion capable of rising up en masse and overturning the cart of rotten apples.
I think we’re living through one of those periods now. Interesting times.