The United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) win in Sunday’s European Union (EU) elections and its strong showing in last week’s local English council races are but one more lesson that politics are about place and culture as much as they are about anything. UKIP is nationalist, Euroskeptic, and populist. Substitute New York for London and Tea Party for UKIP, and the cultural and geographic contours that shape American politics come into view. Although multiculturalism has won the hearts and minds of elites on both sides of the Atlantic, nationalism and pride of place remain strong political currents in the heartlands of England and the United States.
In the EU vote, UKIP won almost 30 percent, finishing ahead of both England’s Conservative and Labour parties. UKIP ran strongly across England, with the exception of London, Europe’s de facto financial capital.
But UKIP’s performance both in and outside of London should have come as no surprise as Sunday was history seemingly repeating itself in a matter of days. A mere three days earlier, on Thursday, in England’s council elections, UKIP garnered only a meager 7 percent in London, but in rest of the country it won almost one-in-four voters. At the same time that the English voted for their councils, they voted for who would represent them in Brussels; it’s just that announcement of the EU vote was delayed.
Class, culture, and the resentments they generate mattered in both elections. UKIP favors the withdrawal of Britain from the EU and opposes economic immigration from the rest of Europe, noting the jump in immigration from poorer ex-Soviet satellites like Bulgaria and Romania. In the words of UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, “If people want to get both the volume and the quality of immigration under control then it is perfectly clear they should vote UKIP today.” UKIP also supports the monarchy and the established Church of England.
After the council elections, UKIP spokeswoman Suzanne Evans took London to task, and hammered away at the cultural and income divides between Britain’s capital and the rest of the country. According to Evans: “I think it’s simple, and I think most people understand. London is its own person, its own body, its own individual character. It’s very different from the rest of the country. Look at the social demographic—you have the sort of metropolitan elite who cannot really understand the heartache and the pain people around the country are feeling.”
For the less cosmopolitan, a vote for UKIP was a reminder that there is more to England than the City, and a foreign-money fueled real estate boom. Yet even as Evans was bemoaning her party’s lack of traction in London, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times and sometimes of Morning Joe commented on how “London has become like Constantinople—the centre of a trading empire divorced from its hinterland.”
The gulf between mercantile hubs and the polities in which they are lodged is not new. Writing about America’s first astronauts and the ticker tape reception they received in New York City in the early 1960s, Tom Wolfe wrote in his book The Right Stuff, which looked at America’s early space program: “Like most military people… [The astronauts] didn’t really consider New York part of the U.S. It was like a free port, a stateless city, an international protectorate, Danzig in the Polish Corridor, Beirut the crossroads of the Middle East.” Noticeably missing from Wolfe’s list was London.
UKIP’s performance does not augur one thing or another for the upcoming U.S. congressional midterms. Still, it is a reminder that those elections too will once again reflect the divide between cosmopolitan and traditional, urban and rural. In 2010, big cities went Democratic by almost two-to-one, while rural America voted Republican by an almost identical margin. Although the suburbs cast nearly half of all votes, it was the battle between urban and rural America that set the tenor of that campaign, as well as the never-ending culture wars, be they about the size and role of government, abortion, immigration, or same-sex marriage.
The world described by Wolfe back in 1979 and yearned for by UKIP seems more and more distant, like the shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the New York City depicted in The Right Stuff or on AMC’s Mad Men, New York today is a majority-minority town, which has witnessed its working- and middle-class white-ethnic population seep out, and its non-financial industries exit.
But equally important in comparing now to then is the fact that the rest of the United States is growing ever more diverse. In 1980, whites comprised 88 percent of the electorate, but in 2012 they were less than three-quarters of votes cast. Nationally, the Democratic Party is on track to become a majority-minority party in less than a decade, while America’s whites are projected to lose majority status by mid-century.
In Britain, UKIP is already earning a newfound respect from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories, which is not all that surprising given that disaffected Conservatives were the key to UKIP’s success. Cameron had once dismissed UKIP as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” but not anymore. Now, George Osborne, Great Britain’s chancellor, is saying, “We should show the highest respect for those who go out and cast their vote and respect too those who cast their vote for another party. That includes those who voted for UKIP.” After the EU vote, talk abounds of the Conservatives and UKIP partnering in Britain’s parliamentary elections.
That the Eton- and Oxford-educated Cameron can come to terms with the realities of numbers should come as no surprise. In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, son a U.S. Senator and Wall Street banker, native of Greenwich, Conn., and graduate of Andover and Yale, learned to love pork rinds and country music. He also got himself elected president.
Still, whether the Conservatives offer UKIP’s voters more than bromides remains to be seen; look at America and the GOP. Although the Republican Party’s reliable core is now working and middle class, the only tangible things the GOP offers its base are cuts to Medicare and Social Security.