They are still there, the English of an older England, frequently overlooked, frequently looked down upon, stubbornly hitched to an unruly history too grand just to be packed away.
On May 2, in local elections in a large swath of England (and a small slice of Wales), a good number of them did what the English — a less genteel lot than Masterpiece Theatre might suggest — do when provoked too far: They pushed back hard, casting their votes for the United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP), an eccentric homebrew of euroskepticism, “commonsense” conservatism, and anti-establishment mutiny.
Let’s get some caveats out of the way. Local elections halfway through the life of a parliament (the next general election is due in 2015) have long been used to protest against whoever’s in charge, and the scale of that protest is generally exaggerated by a low turnout. The angry vote. The turnout this time was some 31 percent, not so different from the tally (35 percent) for Britain’s last elections to the EU parliament in 2009, another contest in which UKIP, not so coincidentally, scored very well.
On May 2, this understaffed (a dozen paid employees in the U.K.), underspent, under-organized party won 147 of the roughly 2,300 seats that were up for grabs, compared with, um, eight in 2009, and took in around 23 percent of the vote, up from, well, no one was really counting last time round. It was (very) arguably the most sizeable surge by an outsider party since the Normans unexpectedly entered government in 1066. Labour topped the popular vote with 29 percent, the Conservatives followed with 25 percent, and their Liberal Democratic coalition partners trailed with 14 percent.
Now some more caveats: There were no elections in either Scotland — where voters dance to a very different tune — or the greater part of Labour-dominated Wales, or in most of England’s larger cities. This was an electorate that skewed right, something that helps explain the discrepancy between national polls (where UKIP has been scoring, not unimpressively, in the low-to-middle double digits) and the result of the May 2 vote.
And yet, something is going on.
The turbulent years that followed UKIP’s founding in 1993 are simple enough to decode: There’s the crankiness of obsessives at odds with conventional wisdom, and the infighting (long a UKIP trademark) that marks countless clusters of the opinionated. All the same, it is a measure of British unhappiness with Brussels that this odd little group took 7 percent of the poll in the 1999 elections to the EU parliament, when it was little more than the flag for an idea that no “respectable” party would embrace: Britain’s exit from the EU.
Five years on, UKIP had made little progress on the domestic front, but its share of the British vote in the 2004 elections for the EU parliament rose to 16 percent. Glory was followed by farce, a regular presence in the UKIP story, when one of its new MEPs and easily its most prominent face, a former Labour MP turned talk-show host, attempted to take over the leadership in a putsch that ultimately failed. He then quit the party. The voters were more loyal. In the next EU elections (in 2009), the 16 percent stuck with the only party willing to respond fully to the discontent that the supposedly euroskeptic Tories were too nervous to harness.
Much-derided Conservative “splits” over the EU (in reality a genuinely principled debate) had left the Tories with a reputation for feuding that proved to be electoral poison for the better part of two decades. This was made all the more deadly by the way that Tory unease over the EU was used by the Conservative party’s opponents to reinforce its reputation as an asylum for reactionaries with no place in the bright new Britain that Tony Blair was building. David Cameron had to do away with that caricature if he was to have a chance of returning the Tories to power. With little subtlety and some success, that’s just what he did. Climate change was in; “banging on about Europe” was out. As for UKIP, they were “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly,” a dishonest and condescending jibe that played well — as it was designed to — with Britain’s metropolitan opinion-formers, but came to symbolize Tory carelessness with a right wing that, Cameron calculated, had nowhere else to go.