About a year ago I was having a chat with a friend of mine called Nick Lowles. Nick is the director of an organisation called Hope Not Hate, which campaigns against political extremism. I used to provide media advice for HnH, and Nick wanted to sound me out about Ukip.
He was becoming increasingly concerned about where the party was positioning itself. His members had forwarded him some campaign literature being distributed by local Ukip candidates, and to his eyes it wasn’t all that dissimilar to the sort of literature produced by the BNP. He’d also become aware of the increasingly strident language Nigel Farage was using around the issue of immigration. “I think we’re going to have to start challenging this,” he told me.
My response was succinct. “You can’t do that. Nigel Farage isn’t Nick Griffin, and Ukip isn’t the BNP. They have some strange views, but it’s not a racist or even an extremist party.”
As I say, that conversation was a year ago. Over the weekend I’ve been looking at the reports emerging from Ukip’s national spring conference. And it’s clear I was wrong. Ukip is now a racist and extremist party.
At the end of the party’s spring conference the delegates assembled for their gala dinner, where they were entertained by a comedian called Paul Eastwood. Milking what the Telegraph’s Steve Swinford described as “rapturous applause”, Eastwood told the following jokes.
Referring to the Olympics, Eastwood said: “Poland did well. They took home bronze, silver, gold, lead, copper – anything they could get their hands on.”
“Team Somalia – they did well, didn’t they? They had to apologise. Didn’t realise sailing and shooting were two different events.”
Implying the Midlands was mostly populated by Asian people he said: “Any Midlands people here? Wonderful! My favourite accent is a Midlands accent.” The comedian then tried to do an Asian accent and branded the Islamic call to prayer a “traditional Midlands folk song”.
That is the definition of racist humour. A white man standing up getting laughs as he makes derogatory jokes in a fake Asian accent. It’s the comedy of “Mind Your Language”. And the Ukip delegates loved it.
Any mainstream party leader would immediately disown such comments. Given the opportunity to do so Nigel Farage, pointedly, chose to defend them. “I’m not going to comment on individual jokes, but I think we’re in huge danger here. This was a guy telling jokes about national stereotypes, not racial stereotypes.”
That response was instructive. Not because of what it says about the Ukip leader’s sense of humour, but because it goes to the heart of his party’s entire political strategy.
Over the past year Ukip has gone beyond raising general concerns about immigration to directly targeting and stigmatising individual national groups. Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians are amongst the favourite targets. And, as Nigel Farage said at the weekend, he believes that’s fine because they represent national, not racial stereotypes.
But of course it isn’t fine. As Farage, in a separate context, has himself acknowledged.
Last May Farage visited Edinburgh, where he was met by a small but aggressive mob of protesters. Eventually he had to be escorted from the scene by police for his own safety.
Directly accusing the SNP of being behind the protest, Farage described the protesters as “racist Nazi scum”. The incident was, he said, “deeply racist and displayed a total hatred of the English”.
And he’s right. He wasn’t targeted on the basis of his race, but on the basis of his nationality. And as he said, that was racist. In the same way that when Ukip targets people on the basis of their nationality that’s racist as well.
I’m not sure what’s happened to Nigel Farage over the past couple of years. As I rightly told Nick Lowles, he’s not Nick Griffin. When he first appeared on the British political scene he was an eccentric but refreshing voice. Indeed one of his attractions was the way he was able to tap into the electorate’s mounting frustration at the political classes without having to resort to Griffin’s lazy bigotry. People who know him well – even those who don’t support his agenda – invariably paint a picture of a warm, engaging and thoughtful man.
But that man is no longer on public display. In a question-and-answer session with journalists at the weekend he told a bizarre story. “It was rush hour, from Charing Cross, it was the stopper going out. We stopped at London Bridge, New Cross, Hither Green. It wasn’t until after we got past Grove Park that I could actually hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward? Yes. I wonder what’s really going on. And I’m sure that’s a view that will be reflected by three quarters of the population, perhaps even more.”
I get that line back home to Lewisham. Nigel Farage’s tale is rubbish. There is no rush hour train from Charing Cross or any other London station that an English speaker would board and find themselves in a minority, or anything close to it.
So why did he tell the story? He told the story because the politics of division and subtle – and not-so-subtle – prejudice is now Ukip’s politics. There was a time when the party targeted elites and institutions. The European Parliament, the Commission, the Council of Ministers. Maybe the hapless Herman van Rompuy.
Now they target individuals. The person Nigel Farage sits next to on the 18.03 to Hither Green.
And the strategy may well work. It may find some resonance amongst people who feel immigration is too high. That their communities are being changed beyond recognition. That the traditional political parties are deaf to their concerns.
But we also need to be honest about what that strategy is. There is no longer any point in attempting to deconstruct Ukip in a vain effort to legitimise them. The laughter at Paul Eastwood’s jokes was genuine. Its slogan “Love Britain, Vote Ukip” was not appropriated from the BNP by accident. Nigel Farage’s ludicrous tale about the silence of the English north of Grove Park was deployed for a purpose.
Nick Lowles was right and I was wrong. Ukip is now an overtly racist and extremist party. And the time has come to challenge them over it.
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