Sometimes what doesn’t occasion interest or drama or controversy is more interesting – or at least more telling – than what does. So perhaps it is a tribute to the extent to which Nigel Farage and UKIP are now entrenched in the body politic that Farage’s speech to the party’s latest conference appears, as best I can tell, to have been treated as just another routine appearance by just another politician. Move along now, not a lot to see here. Not much news, not many dead.
That is, the reaction has been There he goes again. We know Farage’s thing these days and it no longer shocks or even, I fancy, entertains. So when the mask slips no-one is surprised any more. Because the mask is no disguise at all. It is just the same as the face behind it.
Even so, Farage’s comments last week merit some attention. They reveal a party hopelessly, proudly, out of touch with modern Britain (and modern England especially). A party that is defiantly reactionary. A party that flaunts its prejudices and parades them proudly. A party that no longer bothers with dog-whistles.
Britain, Farage says, is an “unrecognisable” country. Worse still, it has been “taken over” by foreigners. Once upon a time UKIP was keen to differentiate itself from the BNP. And with good reason. UKIP’s followers may be reactionary pessimists but they are not fascists. But when Farage talks like this, the line between UKIP and the ultra-right becomes harder to discern.
Farage trotted out a little story about being on a London commuter train and striving in vain to hear English being spoken. I suspect his account was, as Dan Hodges says, exaggerated but even if it were not, so what?
Perhaps Farage should be given a modest sum of credit for admitting his fears and prejudices. Being on a train with so many people – of races undefined – made him “uncomfortable” and “awkward”.
This, he suggested, “is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren”. The reference to the latter is telling. UKIP is largely (though not of course exclusively) a party for pensioners. Nothing wrong with that, of course. I see no reason why pensioners, even reactionary pensioners, should be denied a party that reflects and promotes their prejudices.
And of course in many respects Farage is right. Britain, and London especially, really is an unrecognisable place these days. It’s just that most of the changes have been for the better, not the worse. There is little comparison between London 2014 and London 1974. The latter was a tired and failing place, the clapped-out capital of a clapped-out country.
Forty years later and London, remarkably, is once again one of the world’s greatest cities. A place, as it has always been, for Britons to seek their future but also a global city in which what you did before you reached these shores – and where you came from – matters vastly less than what you do now you’re here. A city, in fact, that rejects the idea of inevitable decline. A city that has the kind of dynamic optimism we more commonly associate with the United States than with little old Britain.
Like most complex phenomena that revitalisation cannot be reduced to a single cause but it is also reasonable to think London’s success – or renaissance – is at least in part attributable to its ability to attract immigrants from across the planet.
Farage’s comments remind me of those Americans who despise that country’s great metropolitan melting pots. There are large parts of New York City and Los Angeles in which English is a second language and conservatives – or reactionaries – have long fretted that such communities are unrecognisably American. Each wave of immigration – whether from Ireland, Italy, eastern europe or latin America – has been the occasion for more fretting that America is being made unrecognisable.
And of course, in some sense, it is. But that is the nature of the thing. Things and times change but the idea of America endures and, despite everything, retains its power. We do not think of the British idea in quite the same way and it’s fashionable to sneer at a concept as optimistic as the American Dream but, nevertheless, Britain’s ability to attract immigrants is something of which to be proud, not ashamed. We should say that more often. The greatest compliment you can pay a country is to choose to live in it. London – and England’s – ability to attract immigrants is a success to be managed, not a problem to be confronted.
Does this cause upheaval? Sure. Does it disconcert some people? Sure. Are those concerns necessarily reprehensible? Not at all. They are human and natural. Nevertheless, these fears are not everything. Not when measured against the greater gains of liberty and opportunity afforded by immigration.
Nor, as UKIP’s hostility to immigration from european countries demonstrates, is this only a matter of race. It is simpler than that for it is xenophobia pure and simple. All foreigners are suspect (though those form non-English-speaking countries are more suspect than most) and there’s little difference between an immigrant from Poland, Peru or Pakistan.
So when Farage says he wants a “sensible, open-minded immigration policy” we are entitled to laugh. Perhaps there are immigrants of whom Farage approves, it’s just desperately hard to find them.
Perhaps we can dispense with the pretence that jolly old Nigel is just a card. On the contrary, there is something rancid at the heart of UKIP and it behoves those of us who think so to say so. In my experience these fearless speakers of truth to power become most upset when other people’s truths are pointed out but so be it. UKIP’s Little Englanders – and it is England, not Britain they are defending – are good at dishing it out but not so good at taking it.
Well, tough. If they are not a party for racists they are certainly a party for xenophobes and reactionaries. That’s their prerogative but like many an inveterate pessimist they seem to have missed the fact that Britain remains a place worth living and that many of the changes that make modern Britain unrecognisable have been changes for the good. Like other parts of the English-speaking world this is, broadly speaking, a relaxed, tolerant, open-minded country and all the better for it. Immigration is part of the Anglophone tradition and there’s room for many Britains, populated by people of many colours, languages and races.
UKIP dislike modern Britain – and modern England especially – and that’s their right too but some of us are rather fond of the old country and the opportunities it affords to people who had the misfortune to be born elsewhere and thus, at birth, denied the prize of a winning lottery ticket.