Scotland’s Eurovision Entry: UKIP and the Culture War
(This article was originally published at Bella Caledonia, as ‘Scotland’s Eurovision Entry: UKIP and the Culture War‘, on 15th May 2014)
By Thomas Coles
Last Friday evening (9th May) Nigel Farage’s trip to Edinburgh was disrupted for a second year in a row. This time not by simple visceral hatred of the man and what he represents – and a refusal to give him the space to operate – but by the celebration of community and values, and a rejection of division and hatred. It was robust, it still blocked and shamed UKIP, but it was overwhelmingly positive and joyful.
Nigel Farage boasts that he cannot remember the content of the last UKIP manifesto. We should be very clear what this means – at this stage in its rise UKIP does not principally operate with policy, but with a very effective sort of dog-whistle politics. Even its one fixed policy – an exit from the European Union – is symbolic rather than instrumental. We must exit Europe, but we are not told what exiting Europe means. It has something to do with the idea that we must make Britain great again – not economically or politically, but libidinally.
“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”
We are told that standards have slipped, and that we must return to the values and borders that existed before things went wrong. UKIP and Farage do not operate with facts and figures, but within the space of what “everyone knows”. The issue for UKIP is culture. The issue UKIP has with ‘the left’, as the supporters who descended on the twitter accounts and facebook pages of those protesting said, our agenda. The homosexual agenda, the European agenda, the communist agenda, the feminist agenda, the immigrant agenda. These things are meant to turn the stomachs of all patriots. He relies on the inability of all major parties – including the SNP – to outline what it is about our economic system that is creating such desperation and poverty in our communities. You cannot defeat UKIP on its own terms, you need a counter-narrative which exposes the poverty of its proposal.
‘Europe’ for Farage is a useful set of values – effeminate, trans*, trans-national, left-wing, racially plural, collaborative – which he can reject. He ignores the fact that by many measures the European project is currently carrying out policies that his libertarian economic ideals would support: destroying living standards, enforcing austerity and creating a plight for migrants as heinous as any dreamt up by the UK Border Agency. His Europe is the bogeyman of the ‘liberal agenda’. And while we have to be careful not to throw around terms such as ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’, in case they wear thin with cynicism, we must remember what fascism looks like, and know that ignoring it as a form of appeasement doesn’t make it go away or stop it developing. Terrifyingly, Faragist common-sense is quickly becoming a sort of British common-sense. We should take note of what author Michael Rosen noted:
I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you… It doesn’t walk in saying, “Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
All the professionals of media debate threatened the demonstrators that protesting against Farage would give him what he wants: publicity and more normalisation through the media lens. As if he wasn’t already the darling of Lord Rothermere and Murdoch. They said he would look depressingly good when confronted with the rabble, and instead we should debate with him. Or rather, we should give those journalists a quick vox pop and let them chalk up the ‘debate’ thus: “Farage says immigrants cause poverty, others disagree”. They were proven wrong. Farage doesn’t want a debate, he wants yet another a picture of himself in the newspaper with a pint and a fag so people could smile and say “that man’s got his priorities straight!”
The protest by a motley crew of 400 meant that the media had to contend with a strong, immovable counter agenda. Like Occupy Wall Street or the student protests of 2010 it could perhaps be criticised for being unfocused, raucous, a street party rather than a political statement. It didn’t have a clear ‘message’. It didn’t have a White Paper or a demand. But still it was in the street, refusing to hide its agenda. Its agenda was obvious. It was against the establishment counter-revolution that Farage embodies. It was the Scottish entry to the European Song Contest, with all its glorious campness, embodied by this year’s explicit rejection of gender norms represented by the Austrian winner Conchita Wurst.
This was the message. Everyone understood why singing the ‘YMCA’, ‘Gay Bar’ and ‘I Will Survive’ was important. As were the signs bearing “Mon the Multi-Culture!” and the chants of “We’re Here! We’re queer!” When Farage complains that he is against ‘political correctness’ those protesting understood exactly what the political phrasing hides – to be against ‘political correctness’ is to say that society attends too closely to the needs of minorities, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. To talk of ‘controlling immigration’ is to reject the right of people to move where they want in the world – even if you say “its not racist to impose limits”.
We know that to live our lives by the old “common sense” and nod along with “what everyone knows” isn’t good enough. We know that the global movement of financial capital outweighs in its destructive effect even the most dramatic of contemporary movements of people. Farage’s politics only works by ignoring this, and whistling eeny meeny miney mo. It is a deep cultural conservatism, and a mode of politics that comes out of the ‘culture wars’ of the American right and Thatcher’s war against the ‘enemy within’. We must always remember that the vilification of the working class and the destruction of its political institutions will not be undone by the persecution of minorities. The working class does not come only in a white skinned variety – it is global.
Over the pond this conservative trend has kept the American political system tacked to an extremist right-wing position since Reagan’s claim to represent the ‘moral majority’. While to an extent UK neoliberalism arrived in somewhat tolerant ‘Cool Britannia’ robes, UKIP is attempting to redress this. When Farage says people over 70 are uncomfortable with homosexuality – although he is wrong in my experience – he is not saying we should all start throwing ‘Gays and Grannies’ potlucks. He is telling the old to be afraid, and gay people to get back in the closet. He is not primarily interested in winning power at the moment, but in narrowing what is politically thinkable. He claims to speak for the ‘moral majority’. In 1992 American politician Pat Buchanan gave a chilling speech that helped re-launch the radical right-wing which today expresses as a UKIP brother-in-arms, the American tea-party movement. He exclaimed:
Friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America–abortion on demand… homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat – that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.
And he finished, referring to the Los Angeles ‘uprising’ in 1992 after the beating by police of young black man Rodney King:
The mob was heading in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women. When the troopers arrived, M-16s at the ready, the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated. It had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, backed by courage…. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.
We must always be aware, as Rosen said, that what starts with promises of safety, that promises a counter-revolution against ‘foreign’, ‘effeminate’, ‘urban’, culture, can always end with troops on the ground. We only saw a hint of this in London – the retributive lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice after the Mark Duggan riots. The popular broom-squads cleaning up the streets afterwards. We saw a more sinister version this weekend, where a group calling itself Britain First offered to protect Farage with ‘armoured vehicles’. We remember the National Front and the casuals. What starts with the claims of a moral majority ends with “force, rooted in justice, backed by courage”. American and British foreign policy post 9/11 gave in to fear – domestic policy is going the same way.
As a community we have to make a choice over what our values are. Do we respond with violence to a ‘mob’ of young, frustrated people in the streets calling for justice? Do we claim they are completely outside politics? Do we put more weapons in the hands of the police? Do we respond with tolerance? If there is to be a cultural war in Britain, is it one that claims to ‘take back our country’ or one that tries to build a new country? Do we let a thousand flowers bloom, or console ourselves with the one true way? Are the poor an excluded detritus?
There is nothing especially ‘British’ about intolerance, or something nobly ‘Scottish’ about tolerance. There is only our individual and collective commitment to enacting and building the sort of society we want to see. As Terry Eagleton says, “Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone’s different needs.”
From what I saw, Nigel got the perfect response in Scotland, yet again. Rather than sending it into the comments pages of the Herald or the Scotsman, the young and old of Scotland shoved their agenda right under Farage’s miserable face and waggled it about. Rather than giving in and blaming the weak for the crimes of the rich they danced, they mocked him, they had a drink, they queered their resistance and yes, they told him to fuck off. One day soon this may not be sufficient, but for the moment it sets the terms of the struggle.