Monday 6 May 2013

Thatcher and UKIP – the ‘patriots’ who hate Britain

Nigel Farage likes to boast that UKIP rather than the present-day Conservative Party represents the true spirit of Margaret Thatcher.

And he is right, but probably not in a way he would like you to think. Because the dirty secret about Thatcher and UKIP is that, for all their flag-waving jingoism, both dislike their own country.

Thatcher’s contempt for much of Britain emerges clearly in a remarkable essay by Andrew O’Hagan in The New York Review of Books: the end she left Britain a greedier and seedier place. Despite the pomp and circumstance of her funeral and the many plaudits she has garnered since her death, her great experiment actually didn’t work: the people who could get rich got richer, of course, but she and her followers had no plan to relieve the economic misery that befell the others, the people who were now forced to live on state benefits, which continued to grow. It is the communities of the other—where no new investment took hold, where no new jobs came to replace the ones that were scrapped—that continue to fester in modern Britain.
There was a country that died, the one in which the classes felt a little responsible for one another, survived wars together, a country in which young people used to have options outside the service industry or the gambling fraternity. And you can still see that country dying every day of the week on television. Gap-toothed and overlagered, unemployed and proud of nothing, the great-grandsons and daughters of the respectable working class are seen screaming at each other on The Jeremy Kyle Show, a tribute to Thatcher’s legacy and her impact on British social cohesion.
It was an impressive work of social engineering but ultimately a dreadful one. She created a population that is more dependent and less productive. She made us more individual but less cooperative. It must have looked heroic on paper or in the essays of Milton Friedman. But what she did was incredibly coarse in practice: she ground the unions down but left workers with no alternative form of self-esteem or protection, and the result, today, is a workforce of the alienated. She boasted of setting people free but British working people have never been more enslaved to the whims of fashion, corporate greed, and agism than they are now. A young person from a former mining community where there might have been classes in the evenings and a sense of propriety, decency, modesty, and community can now only hope for a place in “the zone”—the world of the “haves”—by winning a celebrity contest or by thriving on the black market.
Thatcher was a divisive figure because she governed only for her own kind:
She couldn’t hold the nation together, indeed she drove it apart, and that is because she didn’t really believe in the nation except as a sentimental or martial entity. That’s the strangest legacy of all about Maggie: if you listen to those who loved her and thought she was manifestly right, you find, after a while, that you are with people who don’t know their own country and don’t like it either. They think they like it because they don’t like Europe, but in fact, they abjure both. They like their own lives, of course, and their own kind, but they imagine the rest of Britain is mainly an unspeakable place of aliens and scroungers. This feeling borrows heavily from Thatcher and her notion that there is no such thing as society. We heard it recently from George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, when he spoke about people who are dependent on housing benefits, and you can find the same stuff every day in those apocalyptic screeds against the poor that adorn the Daily Mail...
None of her acolytes will grasp the irony of her political life: that, with Thatcherism, she set out to save the soul of the nation and ended up selling it off to the cheapest bidder.
Thatcher’s contempt for Britain and the British thrives in the present-day Conservative Party. It can be found in the recent book Britannia Unchained, in which a group of new Tory MPs condemned British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world”, adding that “too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work”.

This tirade of abuse prompted Robin McGhee to ask in Prospect magazine, “Conservatism in 2013 faces an existential problem: how can it reconcile free markets with traditional values?”. The authors of Britannia Unchained, like Thatcher, have clearly resolved this dilemma in favour of the former, and have thus ceased to be ‘conservative’ in the true sense of the word.

Ironically, UKIP has made a similar choice. Despite its claims to patriotism, UKIP actually has little time for most British people or the Britain of today. This emerged in a recent article in the Observer by Andrew Rawnsley, where he recounts a telling anecdote about UKIP voters:
All the main parties have cause to be anxious about Ukip and so all have been trying to understand the rise of the Farageists. One way they do this is to put together focus groups of voters who have switched to Ukip to try to fathom why these people are attracted to Nigel Farage’s gang. One senior party strategist says he listened in some wonderment as his focus group of Ukip voters spent an entire 90-minute session wailing and gnashing their teeth about the state of Britain. Not a good word did they have to say about the country today. At the end of the session, he thanked them for their time, and said he had one more question. Was there anything about Britain that made them feel proud? There was a silence. Then one man leant forward and said: “The past.” The rest of the group nodded in agreement.
The past they yearn for is imaginary, of course – a rose-tinted view of the 1950s. One suspects that if most UKIP voters were plonked down in the real 1950s, they would soon baulk at the thick smog, Teddy Boys and lack of choice in the shops – that is, if they weren’t already dead because of the retarded state of medical science.

Admittedly, they would not be as angry as they are with the Britain of today. Like Thatcher, they hate everyone who isn’t like them. And you cannot call yourself a patriot if you hold most of your fellow countrymen in contempt.

But there’s another irony about UKIP. The profound sense of loss that elderly UKIP voters feel is rooted in the erosion of society, an increasing sense of insecurity and a decline in traditional values. Those destructive trends are the result of Thatcher’s economistic values, where nothing matters anymore apart from the bottom line.

What has UKIP to say about this destruction? Far from wanting to rebuild social cohesion, UKIP supports precisely the sort of extreme laissez-faire policies that destroyed so much of the traditional Britain its elderly supporters mourn. It is doubtful that many UKIP supporters’ sense of security would be enhanced if UKIP stripped them of the welfare state, employment protection or health and safety regulations, and gave big business even more freedom to let rip.

Daniel Trilling made a similar observation in the New Statesman. Although UKIP appeals to “a more profound feeling of disenfranchisement”, its policies would make that problem worse:
The irony is that the kind of “independence” Ukip offers – opening Britain further still to the ravages of market forces – would intensify the process. Far from being anti-establishment, Ukip’s leaders want the same as the elite they condemn, only more so.
Is it patriotic to want a Britain organised for the benefit of a wealthy few and where everyone else is left to sink or swim? So long as Nigel Farage can keep the level of debate closer to the gut than the brain, it is a question he will not have to answer.

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