For a populist party, Ukip is surprisingly free of the anti-capitalist pitchfork tendency that usually defines protest movements.
Like other parties of its kind, it is patriotic and anti-immigration, but unlike them it doesn’t indulge in endless banker-bashing, big business bating or tirades against free trade.
It is not a libertarian party: while it is uncensorious towards some aspects of personal morality, especially those involving alcohol, tobacco and heterosexual sex, it supports some authoritarian policies, would end the free movement of people within Europe, opposes gay marriage and many of its members are disgruntled social conservatives. For free-market liberals, younger neo-Thatcherites and the majority of business and City leaders, these are major stumbling blocks and help to explain why many still back the Tories, despite despairing at their lack of courage.
But neither is Ukip anti-globalisation in the way that Ross Perot was in the US in the 1990s, obsessed with the “giant sucking sound” of trade with Mexico, or as Pauline Hanson was in Australia in the 2000s, calling for a return to high tariffs on imports. It has equally little in common with the kinds of protesters who hate global brands and call for the mass jailing of “banksters”.
Ukip dislikes one element of globalisation – large-scale immigration – but doesn’t object to the trade or technology aspect, and supports UK membership of the World Trade Organisation. It is closer to the Tea Party or to Canada’s Reform party of the 1990s than it is to the Poujadisme of the anti-big business, collectivist and anti-change French right.
In that respect, those business leaders aghast at Ukip’s rise should count themselves lucky: its ideas would be far less disruptive than those of either the hard left (including parts of Labour), radical environmentalism or of any other populist protest movement, and would be radically pro-enterprise on tax and red tape. Some Ukip members hate finance and banks, and are prone to inane conspiracy theories in private, but Nigel Farage’s background in, and affinity towards, the City, and his opposition to the idiotic financial transactions tax, has helped neutralise that tendency. If anything, Ukip’s leadership spends far less time bashing banks than the Lib Dems or Labour, or until recently at least, the Tories.
This very British combination – and because it is led by men who would have been at ease in the 1980s Tory party – is what makes Ukip such a threat to David Cameron, despite its amateurishness and lack of heavyweight support. This helps to explain why it has reached 22pc in a Survation poll, a mere two points behind the Tories.
Ukip’s problem is that its policy positions are uncosted aspirations, rather than properly thought-through proposals. Until this is sorted, they risk being torn to shreds as media scrutiny increases. Those who simply wish to protest against a snooty establishment, or who like how Farage “represents people like us”, won’t mind; but much of the country will, and Ukip’s bubble would deflate almost as fast as it takes its leader to down a pint.
In particular, Ukip doesn’t have a plan to exit the EU and to introduce alternative trading arrangements that reflect the complexities of the modern economy. The challenge is especially acute when it comes to complex rules of origin for manufactured goods, and to protect London’s financial services industry against protectionism. This problem is shared by the broader Eurosceptic movement, including in the Tory party; a lot of work is needed, and fast. For those of us who agree that the European project is a busted flush and that the UK’s ties with the EU need to be significantly loosened, this is a source of major frustration.
Unlike the Cameroons, Ukip understands that the state needs to be shrunk, that regulations need to be torn up and taxes cut. Ukip’s leadership instinctively grasps that lower taxes will unleash growth by bolstering incentives to work, save and invest – supply-side, Reaganesque thinking snubbed by George Osborne’s uber-mainstream Treasury. Again, however, there are huge black holes at the heart of Ukip’s proposals. The party promises spending hikes – on the uniformed services and on student fees – as well as tax cuts, without detailing how the sums would add up. It backs taking minimum earners out of income tax, and merging national insurance with income tax, two excellent but seriously revenue-reducing policies.
Depressingly, Ukip is currently arguing among itself about its flat tax policy. Some members resigned when Farage recently appeared to ditch the policy, calling instead for a top rate of tax of 40p; in theory, the party has yet to make up its mind. A flat tax, if executed properly and gradually, and accompanied by an overall reduction in spending as a share of GDP, would be brilliantly transformative, but the devil is in the detail, something that Farage’s party doesn’t do.
Ukip is more ambitious at cutting waste than the Tories, and sensibly wants to slash foreign aid – again, however, merely talking about all of this isn’t enough. The pint of beer act is fine – but a serious party needs to demonstrate a proper, realistic plan of action and a team of expert advisers with the operational ability to implement these. Ukip has neither. To say that this didn’t deter the Lib Dems isn’t good enough.
The Tories want to slash immigration while remaining members of the single market, so are having to cut back on non-EU incomers, including students; Ukip wants to quit the single market to restrict Eastern European migration. But, if negotiated badly, exit could mean that French or German professionals could no longer move here, and that Brits could no longer retire in Spain, and could create massive problems for business. It is this area where the gulf is greatest between a public deeply worried about immigration, and the City and economists, who are far more liberal. Those of us who utterly oppose the EU’s political project but support the original four freedoms – the free movement of goods, services, capital and people – across Europe, albeit accompanied by radical reform of the welfare state to prevent abuse, are in a small minority.
Another worry is monetary policy. Osborne’s position is inadequate, but Farage appears to believe that the Bank of England should focus more on “growth”, or perhaps adopt a dual, US-style jobs and inflation mandate. But one reason why so many traditional conservatives support him is because nobody cares about inflation anymore. Going soft on this would be senseless.
Cameron’s decision to embrace corporatism, high taxes, endlessly cheap money and state-directed credit – and jump into bed with big business – has alienated his base. Farage has an opportunity to outline a more traditionally Thatcherite approach to the economy – but he needs to reach out to business groups and recruit some serious figures. Most important of all, he needs to sort out the detail of his policies – at the moment, they simply do not stand up to detailed scrutiny.