UKIP leader Nigel Farage speaks in Lyndhurst
On Monday 19 September, largely out of curiosity, I attended an open meeting in Lyndhurst organised by UKIP, at which the speaker was its leader, Nigel Farage MEP. Although it had not been very well publicised, to my knowledge (I saw just a couple of posts on Twitter), it attracted over 160 people, only about 30 of whom were members of the party.
Mr Farage declined the offer of a microphone but was nevertheless very capable of making himself heard at the back of the hall.
The first half of the meeting consisted of his stump speech, as the Americans would call it. He prefaced it with the almost obligatory disclaimer that he was anti-EU, not anti-European, not least as his wife was German.
Describing how UKIP had been variously been derided as cranks, gadflies and – his favourite – fruitcakes, he retorted that he and his party had reclaimed the immigration debate from beyond the pale. The other major parties, he argued, had been taken over by college kids – career politicians who had never experienced life outside the Westminster village. ‘Where were all the former army officers and businessmen?’ he demanded.
Speaking earlier that day in Denmark, he commiserated with his hosts that they had just acquired a Kinnock as their new Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt being the daughter-in-law of Neil, now Lord Kinnock, former Labour leader, EU Commissioner and husband of Glenys, now Baroness Kinnock, a former MEP.
Neil Kinnock, Mr Farage reminded the audience, had been a leading member of the ‘No’ campaign in the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the Common Market; now, however, he had formed his own EU dynasty. The Iraq war had cost his successor as Labour leader, Tony Blair, all public credibility, whilst selling gold at the bottom of the market, failing to check the property boom and wrecking the public finances had done for Gordon Brown’s claims to prudence.
Coalition government was revealing the Liberal Democrats in their true colours, Mr Farage argued. No longer able to benefit from a post-Iraq protest vote, their u-turn over tuition fees had destroyed their attraction to their natural constituency of left-leaning students and academics. Yet the biggest breach of trust, he continued, was only just beginning: over support for the armed forces, repeal of the hunting ban, immigration and the promise of an EU referendum, Mr Cameron was almost deliberately flouting the concerns of his core vote.
Mr Farage noted the formation last week of a grouping by 120 backbench Eurosceptic Conservative but dismissed it as a whips operation, designed to give the impression to voters that the parliamentary party shared their views whilst, behind the scenes, EU-driven business carried on as usual. Reaching his peroration, to enthusiastic applause, Mr Farage concluded that only action, not words, from the government were what counted. You could play your part, he told the audience, by joining UKIP.
The questions that followed elicited Mr Farage’s views on a range of topics.
In 1990, virtually the whole political class were united in support of our membership of the ERM, which he thought was a bad idea and acted as a catalyst for the formation of UKIP.
Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was now a reality: the genie wasn’t going back in the bottle. Instead, he argued, we need an English parliament, a sensibly calculated Barnett formula for Scotland and an end to Alex Salmond goading English voters as a means to gain independence – it was time his bluff was called.
A Greek revolution might ensue, he suggested, as the popular response to unelected officials from a foreign power landing and telling the government what austerity measures they had to implement.
Earlier this year, the House of Commons voted virtually unanimously for the denial of the vote to prisoners, in defiancie of the European Court of Human Rights, yet the very next morning, Kenneth Clarke MP, the Justice Secretary, blithely said that he regarded the vote as null and void.
Once out, we would be able to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, he asserted: since the UK is France and Germany’s biggest single export market, it would not be in the interests of Mercedes Benz, for example, to face tarriffs when selling to UK consumers. Giscard d’Estaing once said that withdrawal would relegate us to the status of Switzerland. ‘Who wouldn’t mind that, now?’ he asked.
On immigration, he recalled that prominent LibDem supporter John Cleese had recently moved to Bath, saying that he doesn’t recognise London any more. In the borough of Newham, Mr Farage noted, 78% of schoolchildren didn’t speak English as their first language. In the last decade, there had been four amnesties on immigration, all of which only served to encourage the impression that we operated an open-door policy. Recent central guidance to police forces moreover recommended, he asserted, turning a blind eye to polygamy and sharia law courts.
Finally, Nadine O’Connor, representing Fathers 4 Justice, questioned Mr Farage on his attitude to paternal rights; he replied that he had been divorced but came to an amicable agreement with his former wife over access to their children. He supported the institution of marriage and support for all parties concerned when divorce became inevitable but accepted that this was an area where work remained on his party’s policy.
So, what to make of the event? Mr Farage is an accomplished orator, like David Cameron, whom I saw last year at a Cameron Direct event in Romsey. He is, however, unconstrained by either coalition or vested, bureaucratic interest and thus able to deliver an unashamedly right-wing, populist message that his audience clearly wanted to hear.
His party bears strong similarities, at least to me, with the Tea Party movement in the USA, harnessing a groundswell of popular revolt against the liberal establishment but so far lacking the organisation to achieve electoral breakthrough. Our electoral system militates against the success of small parties like UKIP and so, unless, Conservative MPs defect in significant numbers, Mr Farage’s best hope of success is to embolden others to secure the referendum on continued membership of the EU that he and may others – myself included – believe is long overdue.