February 11, 2007

Loonies No Longer

By: Alvino-Mario Fantini

LONDON — I probably wouldn’t have said this a few months ago but the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) increasingly seems like the only alternative left for British conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals. With the Conservative Party forsaking principle for pragmatism under the so-called leadership of David Cameron, more and more Tories are voting with their feet and defecting to the UKIP.

Yes, I did say the UKIP — the same party that Cameron once famously described as a party of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.” But under the leadership of Nigel Farage, the UKIP has taken steps to move away from the fever swamps and become more mainstream.

Founded in 1993, the UKIP originally stood for two simple things: opposition to Brussels and resistance to immigration. It moved along the fringes of British politics until 2004, when it shocked observers by coming in third in European elections — ahead even of the Liberal Democrats — giving them 12 seats in the European parliament. (They currently hold only ten.)

At the national level, however, the party has never fared too well. In the 2005 General Election, the UKIP received less than 3% of the votes. Since then, the UKIP has started to embrace a broader, more sophisticated policy platform that includes deregulation, tax cuts, fiscal devolution, and local independence.

In addition, in contrast to an earlier strategy that pitted it squarely against the Conservative Party, the UKIP has begun to work with current Tory MPs. Last month, Farage sent all 646 Tory MPs a letter asking them to pledge to support the “Better Off Out” campaign which would take Britain out of the EU. In exchange, the UKIP promised not to run any UKIP candidates against them. Nine MPs signed up before Cameron ordered his MPs not to bow to what he called “blackmail.”

Farage knows he is onto something. And with an eye on the upcoming local elections of May 3, Farage has already announced plans to simplify the party’s name to the “Independence Party” in an attempt to broaden its base. With Cameron at the helm of the Conservative Party, the UKIP has simply become the default refuge of traditional British conservatism — which is decentralist, independent and local.

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As many Tories have realized, there’s just not much substance to Cameron. His misguided attempts to “switch on” a whole new generation of hoodie-wearing voters are seen as pure hype. And in an effort to “modernize” his party and make it more “relevant”, he has pursued some truly silly activities. He set up Webcameron, an online video log in which he fumbles with viewer questions. He has also happily hopped onto the environmental bandwagon, walking on glaciers and bragging about how “green” the Conservatives can be.

And, tellingly, Cameron — who has lived a life of privilege that most Englishmen will never know — has moved away from a no-new-taxes pledge that would benefit most of Britain.

For some Tories, the final straw came in November when Cameron made the ridiculous suggestion that columnist Polly Toynbee — who, according to The Times, “has made a career of attacking all things right-wing” — should be invited to the next Conservative Party conference. (Apparently, during a Conservative policy review, Tory advisors had identified Toynbee’s rants about poverty and oppression as exceedingly marketable — and thus ideal for adoption by Cameron’s kinder and gentler Conservative Party.)

To be fair, Cameron has said that he would block further British integration into the EU. He has even promised to oppose any attempts to revive the failed European constitution. But who can believe him?

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Cameron may have been educated in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford but he shows no signs of understanding the grand Tory tradition of Bolingbroke, Burke, Disraeli and Salisbury. It is no wonder we are seeing the first signs of a Tory schism.

In December, following in the steps of other Tory defectors, two high-profile members of the Conservative Party announced they were joining the UKIP: Mark Hudson, a well-heeled Tory candidate for parliament and chairman of a conservative association in Kent, and Toby Horton, formerly chairman of Conservative leader William Hague’s constituency in Richmond.

“I didn’t leave the Conservative Party, the Conservative Party has left me,” Horton told The Times in December.

Then, in January, honorably putting principle above loyalty, two Tory peers — Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Willoughby de Broke — also defected to the UKIP. This has given the UKIP a much-needed parliamentary foothold from which it can continue to grow and influence policy.

A recent article in The Daily Telegraph suggests that the UKIP may be welcoming additional defectors in the coming months. There’s Stuart Wheeler, a financial tycoon and formerly a top Tory donor, who recently met privately with UKIP leader Farage. There’s economist Tim Congdon, a leading Thatcherite, who told reporters that he too soon would be joining the UKIP. And then there’s Lord Kalms of Edgware, a former treasurer of the Conservative Party, who told the Telegraph that he is seriously considering supporting the UKIP.

Mr. Cameron, the writing is on the wall.

Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.