Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dismantling Elites: UKIP and Podemos

It is a land I once knew but one which now exists in the periphery of vision, periodically demanding attention but then fading from view, obscured by the immediacies of a land that once upon a time I knew nothing of. The tragicomedy of Britain's political stage is one of those plays which from time to time does capture the attention and draws the irregular theatre-goer to the auditorium. The characters are flawed or incomplete. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, the identical leads, unsure as to who is who: Cameron and Miliband rehearsing their obituaries for Yorick. Alas poor Clegg, we knew him. And enter stage far-right, the boastful buffoon, the Falstaffian Farage.

Tom Stoppard plucked his characters out of the obscurity of minor roles in "Hamlet" and offered them centre-stage, one on which they could indulge themselves in their endless vacuity and shifting philosophies. These were characters of inherent irrelevance, engaged by the audience but ultimately disengaged from it. Falstaff has been reinvented many times but has remained a figure of comic genius, as he now is, his braggadocio and vanity tempting a Prince Hal of the British public astray. As for Yorick, in truth he was never more than a cranial footnote, now being prepared for the political mortuary.

The inseparable, indivisible unidimensionality of the Rosencrantz and Guildernstern of the Conservatives and Labour, their ineffectualness have opened the curtains to the Falstaff of UKIP to take to the boards littered with the recent bodies of immigrants, recession, fundamentalism and a disconnection on a European scale. The critics have not been completely unkind. Indeed, Farage might be an invention of Paul Dacre, were it not for the fact that UKIP has for so long been a slow burner, a cooker on a low heat mixing a concoction of far-right scraps thrown periodically into an inedible stew. To the thin gruel of one-time minority inconsequence have been added the bones of Farage's indiscreet tastes. Here, for example, boil the ideas of a Machiavellian, one-time BNP egghead strategist, exposed as an infiltrator. There are many other ingredients which have combined to make this odious casserole.

It is easy to style UKIP's performance as by-election blues that will turn to true blue or true red at the election. But was this just an Orpington moment or a Crosby moment, the signals for the Liberals in 1962 and the SDP in 1981 to take meaningful places in British politics which came to nothing or very little? Perhaps, but one should not underestimate Falstaff. The public can be partial to a buffoon. Boris Johnson might one day surpass Farage's interpretation.

UKIP is part of a wider tendency. It shares its place in the spotlight with the most unlikely of other cast members. Right-wing and Europhobic, it has tapped into a mean-spiritedness but also into a disaffection with an established political system. It is the peculiar distant cousin of Spain's Podemos, which would appear to be its polar opposite but which is a product of a similar disaffection.

Podemos is left-wing and anti-European. It is the progeny of the anti-globalisation and indignados movements. It is a protest political organisation. Votes for it at the European elections might be thought to have been protests, but like UKIP one fancies there is more staying power.

An oddity with Podemos was that its emergence was not from a slow burner. It was spontaneous combustion, and that of the left not of the right. But when one looks at opinion polls, it becomes clear that it has to have drawn support from across the political spectrum. A sharp decline in sympathy for the Partido Popular can be explained in different ways, and one of these is that Podemos has grabbed a sizable chunk of the PP floating voter.

Pablo Iglesias, its leader, is a kind of Count of Monte Cristo, taking revenge for a nation's imprisonment by a corrupt party political system, the current head of which is Mariano Rajoy, a man who can stare at a camera with eyes which seem to look into the void and which betray constant fear. He is right to be scared. Podemos's sudden eruption might have only sprayed lava on to the upper reaches of a political volcano, but one should not exclude the potential for it to slide into the valleys and plains.

Podemos's principal reason for being is its distaste for the political elite. It does not harbour the resentments of minorities that UKIP does, but it shares an antagonism towards elitism. However, UKIP cannot disguise an inter-breeding of its own elitism, and so it is very unlike Podemos, an organisation which, for now at any rate, can realistically claim to be of the people.

We will discover next year what the people really think of UKIP and Podemos. Falstaff and the Count of Monte Cristo. Who would your money be on?

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