Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Revolt on the Right" - the story of UKIP. A review.

"Revolt on the Right - Explaining support for the radical right in Britain" by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin 

 When I revealed on Twitter that I had bought a copy of "Revolt on the Right" Patrick O'Flynn, UKIP's "Director of Communications" and previously the Political Correspondent of the right wing and populist Daily Express told me to "read it" as I might "learn something". It was a classic line from Mr O'Flynn with whom I have crossed swords amicably (mostly) in the past. Whether he thought I had bought the book to look good on my bookshelves I don't know (unlikely as it has a bright photograph of Nigel Farage pint and fag in hand on the cover). Anyway I bought it to read it and I have now done so. And, yes, I did indeed learn something from this outstandingly good book about modern British politics. 

"Revolt on the Right" is, of course, about the United Kingdom Independence Party - but it is a great deal more than this. This is because it places UKIP's rise firmly in the context of not just the political world of the UK but our social circumstances as well. It also places UKIP in Britain alongside the new Right of Centre and often "insurgent" parties elsewhere in Europe as well. This is a book for political anoraks, like me, but it is as I say, much more. This is for three reasons. First the book is exceptionally well written - it is immensely readable and very well structured. Secondly it is extremely well researched - there is quantitative and qualitative support for every statement and assertion. Thirdly it is a cracking good story! The rise and rise of UKIP does matter - and for reasons that go beyond Party politics as well, of course, for the established political Parties. 

Back in the 1980s I was an early recruit of the Social Democratic Party - the SDP. It is the only political party I have ever joined and I am proud of having been a member. This is because I strongly still associate myself with the values and policies of the SDP. The SDP story is told in "Revolt on the Right" because it is the only comparable example of a fourth party being successful - albeit briefly. It is worth dwelling on the SDP for a moment because in 1983, in alliance with the Liberals, they secured 25.4% of the UK vote - and yet just 3.5% of the seats (23). It was scandalous. In that year Mrs Thatcher garnered 42.4 % of the popular vote but 61.1% of the seats in the House of Commons. That is the First Past the Post political system that distorts - I would say invalidates - much of our politics. In the 2015 General Election the same rules will apply and the authors confirm that the chances of UKIP securing any seats are slim. 

The UK’s iniquitous voting system contributes to the disillusionment with conventional politics that emerges as one of the three main reasons for UKIP's rise. There is a "populist backlash against the established political class" among UKIP voters. It is "None of the above" politics at its most raw. "Revolt on the Right" documents what is elsewhere often referred to as contempt for "LibLabCon" - the idea that all three main parties are the same led by the same Oxbridge educated elite who all cluster around broadly the same political imperatives. As the authors put it both Labour under Blair and the Conservatives under Cameron tried to build "election winning coalitions in a middle class society" and this created a class of "left behind" voters (or often non-voters). This has become the recruiting ground for UKIP, as it was for the British National Party (BNP) before. In “Revolt on the Right” the authors quote David Aaronovitch who said that both parties attract “ordinary” people who feel “betrayed by the political class”. More specifically they are the “older, less skilled and less well educated working-class voters”. This analysis is crucial and it may come as a surprise to those who see UKIP’s potential support as being among Eurosceptic Conservatives who are disenchanted with David Cameron. Certainly some UKIP voters are middle-class defectors from the Tories – but the vast majority are from the “left behind” blue collar population.

That UKIP has replaced the BNP as the right wing Party of protest is clear from the authors’ analysis. As recently as the 2010 local elections the BNP secured nearly 350,000 votes to UKIP’s 226,000. By 2013 UKIP had risen to an astonishing 1.14 million while the BNP had fallen to a derisory 13,000. The jibe that UKIP’s leaders are the “BNP in blazers” is unfair and untrue. But a significant proportion of their recent voter support in elections clearly does come from those who voted for the BNP in the past – perhaps holding their noses as they did it! What are these voters voting for and to what extent is UKIP a Party whose appeal is that it allows a respectable protest vote to be made without there being a charge of racism – as of course there had been with the BNP? And to what extent are UKIP’s policies important as opposed to their status as a repository for votes against the liberal, metropolitan elite of the three main parties?

The authors analyse UKIP’s policies as really only being in two areas – Europe and immigration. True there are some other totemic right of centre policies thrown into the mix, including a social conservatism (e.g. against Gay marriage) which will attract older Tory defectors. But in essence UKIP is about two things – withdrawal from the European Union and an end to immigration. Over recent times these positions have become inextricably linked as the doors have been opened to EU citizens from countries like Bulgaria and Romania – something that UKIP has successfully exploited among its target group. The unease that many in the “left behind” group feel about immigration and the directly linked opposition to the EU is the driver of UKIP’s success. You can regard UKIP as being like a three-legged stool with the legs being (1) Opposition to the current political class (2) Opposition to the European Union and (3) Opposition to immigration. Take one of these legs away and the stool falls over. Interlink them, as UKIP has increasingly realised it needs to do, and you have a sturdy construct that it’s hard to push over! 

What UKIP is against is clear. What it is for is another matter. And the same applies to its supporters and prospective voters. The social group that UKIP aims at used to be that which “Old Labour” could rely upon. Here an appeal that cites immigrants and the devilry of the EU as being the causes of unemployment, housing problems and difficulties with school places will be successful. Where Old Labour delivered public sector jobs, council housing and good non selective education the new political class of any established Party fails to do this – in the minds of the “left behind”. Making the EU and immigrants and the Oxbridge educated political elite responsible for the current malaise goes beyond scapegoating, though it certainly is that. It gives a concerted focus which although it has been present in the appeal of Far Right parties across Europe has previously been absent in Britain. The rise of UKIP has changed that. The BNP did the same but was clearly lacking totally in respectability. Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin are miles apart, but many of their erstwhile and current supporters are the same.

"Revolt on the Right” tells how good luck (e.g. the formation of the Coalition) and sometimes smart judgment has given UKIP its current strong position. It does not presume to analyse the intellectual logic of UKIP’s main policy positions. Those of us who oppose UKIP completely – this reviewer cannot think of one UKIP position with which he agrees – need to do more than just be contemptuous of what we may see as bigotry and prejudice. The case for Europe and the case for the benefits of past immigration are strong, but they need to be put far better. The case for believing in the inherent decency of politicians like David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg is also strong – but the more they distance themselves from the people and the more elitist they seem the more difficult it is to make. I would offer one reason why UKIP despite its recent successes lacks real credibility as a political movement that will endure. Unlike the SDP UKIP has attracted no politician defectors from any other political Party – a few minor characters aside. There are, I would guess, at least twenty or thirty Conservative MPs whose views are more in line with UKIP than they are with Cameron’s Conservatives. Not one of them has done what a similar number of Labour MPs once did and move to a new Party. This curiosity is not discussed in Ford and Goodwin’s book at all and I wonder why. But if in the run up to the 2015 election a few Tory MPs do defect then that election could be very interesting indeed! If not then we can expect a UKIP vote of 15% - 20% to deliver no MPs at all (Farage aside if he chooses the right constituency). The palpable injustice of that might just cause a revolt for electoral reform – and that really could change the face of British politics!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Thatcherite Banker running our Arts, Media, Sport and Culture? Be scared, be very scared.


Of course we must give Sajid Javid time to get his feet under the desk as our new  Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Equalities. But his decision to hang a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in his offce - and pose with it - doesn't bode well! Whatever her other qualities the Blessed Margaret was not a great patron of the Arts, she had no interest in Sport and she had a dismissive contempt for the Media, unless they towed her line. And many would say that gender, racial and sexual equality  hardly moved forward during her time in office.

As far as the Arts is concerned the model most often favoured by extreme neo-liberals like Mr Javid is the American one. In the US the Arts are supported not by the State but by private enterprise. So, for example, the Metropolitan Opera is funded by business and wealthy patrons and ticket sales.This is a prefectly resonable model - Glyndebourne here is not dissimiliar. But it is not the only way and across Europe, including in Britain, our main Arts institutions receive public funding to cover part of their costs. So the main Opera, Ballet and Theatre companies are supported by the taxpayer. This means that they are free to pursue excellence not with a disregard for commercial concerns - far from it - but without them being all dominant.

Mr Javid is a businessman, and a very successful one. He knows how many beans make five. But the world of the Arts is not just about counting beans. If it was then the BBC would not exist - at least not in its current model. In Australia a neo-liberal Prime Minister, not unlike Mr Javid in his oiutlook, is moving to disband the Australian equivalent of the BBC the "Australian Broadcasting Corporation" (ABC). Whether it actually happens we shall see but the threat is there. Some on the Right want to do the same with the BBC of course and the Corporation now falls into Mr Javid's in-tray. Be scared, be very scared!

As far as sport is concerned commercial considerations forced live cricket off our free-to-air screens. An unholy alliance between a neo-liberal businessman at the top of the England and Wales Cricket Board (Giles Clarke), the Murdoch media (Sky) and a right of centre Coalition government meant that we have to pay through the nose to watch live cricket on television. No doubt Mr Javid would have welcomed this free enterprise deal - will he want to apply these principles to other sports we presently get without having to pay directly for it? Don't hold your breath.

To have Sajid Javid, a Thatcherite, in the job that he is now in may not be Mr Cameron's cleverest appointment. But, as I say, lets give him time. But watch him very carefully indeed - The Arts, the BBC and our sporting heritage are Jewels in our Crown. Dont let a Banker bugger them up! 

  • Sunday, April 06, 2014

    An evening in the theatre that will live in the memory

    Like so much of Noel Coward’s output there is more to “Blithe Spirit” than meets the eye. He called it an “improbable farce”, and so it is. Highly improbable – unless you are a believer in the spirit world and the power of the séance. But below the surface of this deliberate unbelievability there is a clever and at times subtle piece of social commentary at work. I'm not suggesting that it is a “play with a message” – that was never Noel’s way. The stage was a place to entertain not to teach or to lecture. But the presence of a few home truths, some of them rather uncomfortable? That's another matter!

    In “Private Lives” there is a serious (sort of)  moment when Amanda and Elyot muse briefly on death. Elyot says:

    “Death’s very laughable, such a cunning little mystery. All done with mirrors”

    As Sheridan Morley put it:

     “The final victory over death was, for Noel, to laugh at it…”

    So “Blithe Spirit” is a play with not one but in the end two ghosts in it and yes it laughs at death by making it not really such a big deal! It was hugely popular when it opened in July 1941 at a time when death was all around – and not just on the battlefield.  The “Blitz” had, as it turned out, just finished, but the residents of London were not to know that and few had been untouched by it.  The “Blitz Spirit” was in part to laugh at privation – and the laughing at death of “Blithe Spirit” was only one step removed. “The Times” review of the first production at the “Piccadilly Theatre”  praised it fulsomely and said this:

    “…the denouement carries the possibly ungallant and certainly facile implication that wives present only one serious problem to the well regulated masculine mind: how are they to be got rid of ? But why in these days of low diet should we bother about implications, gallant or otherwise, when we are presented with a piece of fooling as delicious…”

    In his final speech Charles says:

    “You said in one of your more acid moments, Ruth, that I had been hag-ridden all my life! How right you were – but now I’m free, Ruth dear, not only of mother and Elvira… but free of you too and I should like to take this farewell opportunity of saying I'm enjoying it immensely…”


    This has the ring of misogyny about it and it is certainly true that the strongest and most dominant characters in “Blithe Spirit” are the women - as they are, if you think about it, in most of Noels’ plays. You also suspect that there is some tongue-in-cheek writing going on here. Charles remembers Elvira early in the play to Ruth as both “physically attractive” and “morally untidy” – a rather tantalising combination and one that Charles is unlikely to reject should it appear to him in another women – as it inevitably will! If he did feel trapped he’ll surely be trapped again!

    So if “Blithe Spirit” is a comedy about male/female relationships (it is) and if it presents the conclusion that women nearly always have the upper hand it is in the tradition of Coward's comedies - Amanda in “Private Lives” Julia and Jane in “Fallen Angels”, Judith Bliss in “Hay Fever” and so on. These subtleties were well explored in the brilliant new production at the Gielgud Theatre in which the direction of a fine cast made the play a great deal more than the pot boiler it is sometimes seen to be – and is!

    “Blithe Spirit” is so popular that it requires little promotion – most people know of it and in an average theatre-going lifetime we will probably see it at least half-a-dozen times. “Blithe Spirit's" inherent quality as a play is only partly an explanation of this phenomenon. Many if not all productions of the play centre around the Madame Arcati character. This is a part generally taken by a “National Treasure” of a certain age. A Grand Dame of the theatre strutting her stuff – often to continuous applause. Margaret Rutherford set the standard – though she was a comparatively youthful 49 in the first production and just a few years later in the 1945 film. In the last forty years Beryl Reid, Geraldine Page, Penelope Keith, Stephanie Cole and Alison Steadman (among others) have played the part. Steadman, the most recent, was miscast largely because she overacted and dominated the stage. That is not, I think, at all what Coward intended. It is of course a central role but the medium is really a catalyst in the action rather than driving it. Arcati is eccentric and perhaps slightly mad, but in Coward’s deft hands she is perfectly believable.

    In the new production at the Gielgud Madame Arcati is played by Angela Lansbury – certainly an authentic “National Treasure” – and, recently, a proper Dame of the British Empire to boot. I have to say I feared the worst – not least because Dame Angela is 88! Were we in for one of those gruesome evenings when an old Thesp well beyond his/her sell-by date gives a forgetful and forgettable performance and receives a standing ovation for it. Applause not for what he/she did but for what they were?

    Well there was a standing ovation alright – but it was as much for the sheer genius of Ms Lansbury's acting as it was for her memorable long career. She was outstanding in the role which she played I’m certain just as Noel would have wanted it played. Her take on the role was understated. She never sought to dominate proceedings but to be the slightly scatty, sincere “professional” of the world of spiritualism. It doesn't matter if as an audience members you think it is stuff and nonsense – nor if her fellow characters believe the same. She is a Spiritualist and that is her life. That the appearance of the ghosts proves her point she neither celebrates nor uses to silence the doubters. She is however very pleased by Elvira’s appearance – “At last – at last – a genuine materialisation” she cries out with delight.

    It is impossible to imagine a better performance of Madame Arcati than that given by Angela Lansbury. Her vitality and effort bely her years, indeed I think you would guess that she was at least twenty years younger. My impression was that the sheer quality of the performance must have inspired the rest of the cast who were all very good indeed. A totally memorable evening in the theatre that will live in the memory for a very long time. And confirmation that “Blithe Spirit” is so much more than just a vehicle for a Star. It is a very great play by the master.