Over the past week, Britain has been shaken by a political earthquake. The previously marginal UK Independence Party (UKIP) burst onto center stage to capture almost a quarter of the votes in local elections around the country, threatening to upset the stable two-party system that has existed for the last century. Nigel Farage ‑ the Claret-quaffing, cigar-smoking former city trader who leads the party ‑ breathed life into abstract ideas of sovereignty by highlighting the inability of European Union member states to control their borders. He predicted “hordes” of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens legally migrating to the UK. The mainstream parties are struggling to respond.
UKIP is just a small part of a broader phenomenon spreading across the developed world that resembles a political backlash against globalization and interdependence.
A recent study showed that policy issues are secondary to potential UKIP supporters. (Only 7 percent of UKIP supporters say Europe is the single most important issue for them.) In focus groups, UKIP supporters reel off a litany of complaints, both imagined and real, about the cultural and social state of Britain. For example: Your school is not allowed to hold a nativity play; you cannot fly the flag of Saint George; you cannot call Christmas “Christmas” anymore; you cannot be promoted in the police force unless you are a minority; you cannot wear an England team shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you cannot even speak up about these things, because you’ll be labeled a racist. “All of these examples,” says Lord Ashcroft, the study’s author, “make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.”
It seems that UKIP’s support comes from a very similar constituency as the Tea Party in the United States, Geert Wilders’ far-right PVV in the Netherlands, Joerg Haider’s party in Austria, and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary. Sunder Katwala of the think tank British Future described UKIP to me as “a cultural movement of angry white men over the age of 55.”
In essence, support for UKIP, like other populist parties in the West, is a cry by an empowered majority afraid of losing its position as a result of the economic, demographic and cultural changes of globalization. As power and wealth spread from west to east, an increasing number of people fear their children’s lives will be worse than theirs; and that the cultural makeup of their countries will change.