UKIP is the formation of a new political elite – nothing more

UKIP are no radical insurgents nor are they a threat to the established order - they are trying to preserve the Britain of the 1950s. They are entirely embedded within elite politics.

Anthony Painter
3 December 2014

It makes for great political drama. Suddenly, apparently from nowhere, a new political force appears. The mould is smashed, politics as usual is over, everything is up in the air. So on and so forth. The media licks its lips. Voters’ ears prick up again. This is pretty much where things are with the rise of UKIP. Will it last? There’s no way of telling but it’s not improbable.

Stepping away from the fray, what would we really see? In reality, there’s nothing new about UKIP. Quite simply, they have spotted a market opportunity and they are exploiting it with a certain degree of skill. That’s the oldest political trick in the world.

A few years ago, Nick Lowles of Hope not Hate and I published a report into the politics of identity, the Fear and Hope report. It identified a group deeply concerned about immigration, cultural change, and the direction of the country. They were both working class and professionals so it wasn’t simply about economics. It is this group that UKIP speaks to in a way that the Conservatives and Labour are increasingly struggling to. That is UKIP’s market opportunity. But they are simply another elite market entrant. Having spotted a market opportunity, they are exploiting it.

It is Schumpeterian political creative destruction in action. Schumpeter saw politics as a competition between shifting groups of elites. New opportunities emerge and skilful and charismatic political enterprises exploit these opportunities. The mistake that is being made is seeing UKIP as a threat to the political order in and of itself. In fact, it’s simply the latest participant in the established political order. We’ve seen it all before and I’m pretty sure we’ll see it again. For example, there feels like a gap for a moderate, liberal centre party to be filled given the collapse of the Liberal Democrat brand. We’ll see.

Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Front National in France are all in the same category of new elites. The term ‘anti-politics’ has been used as a label to describe the various new political forces tapping into voter anger and anxiety. It is wrong-headed. UKIP like so many others are intensely political. Their vehicle is the traditional media-political process. How this can quite be ‘anti-politics’ is perplexing.

The more interesting question for politics comes from a more radical and threatening force than a new political brand. It comes through deeper and more profound changes that western societies are experiencing. Society is disaggregating. This is not the same thing as atomising. It is more about social pluralism. The majority society has disappeared. We are still bound by some notion of core identity, language, laws, a democratic system, social citizenship, and value. However, these allegiances don’t seep into strongly bonded forms of class, religion, or culture. This means that the majoritarian politics of old—and its elite parties—is teetering.

This pluralism is likely to have two effects. It will insist on a radically opened out politics where political movement, parties, interests, and cause become more transitory and conditional. A politics of tribal loyalty fits very awkwardly in this context as does, in the case of the UK, a majoritarian set of political institutions at both national and local level.

There is another notion of pluralism that is important too. David Runciman has investigated the history of institutional pluralism. Pluralism in this sense looks at where political and sovereign authority might reside. The resounding answer since the eighteenth century has been the nation-state. The nation-state itself will endure but increasingly it may have to share power in new ways. The devolution debate that is gathering some steam is one aspect of this power-sharing impulse. However, in a less centralised and state-driven society such as our own, a new institutional pluralism is gathering some considerable pace. That society is the United States of America.

There is a flourishing Tocquevillian institutional creativity beyond the state. It is seen in new co-operative enterprises such as Evergreen in Cleveland, Ohio. New workers networks in the fast food sector are creating new capacities to mobilise change. The enormous growth of the ‘B Corporation’ movement which includes firms such as Etsy, Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia are a further example of a swelling institutional pluralism. Shared energy and recycling operations pop up simultaneously. This is where the UK will head if it manages to cast off its institutional majoritarianism. This would be real pluralism in action.

UKIP has precisely nothing to say about political, social and economic pluralism – at least nothing beyond its rejection. Notwithstanding the defection of Douglas Carswell who is genuinely politically radical, its vision is of an old, majoritarian society. Its focus is the nation-state circa 1950, romantically unencumbered by international obligations, co-operation and constraint. It exists as a defence of an old political order rather than heralding anything new. It’s difficult to imagine a party more opposed to the flow of a new pluralism. Though in this regard it is only marginally worse than Labour and the Conservatives.

So we are seeing nothing more than an interlude; a re-distribution of power within political elites. In many ways, UKIP is a defence of an old order. What is really needed is powerful questioning of how power flows, to whom it flows, and how it can utilised in a nation characterised by its pluralism. There are too few answers to this at present. The focus on UKIP is simply avoiding the question.


This article originally appeared at the RSA blog.

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