As the dust has settled on the European elections, activists and the electorate alike across the political landscape have celebrated and commiserated their respective results, and the country has made a start on understanding the outcome reflective of a newly-found, proud electoral tradition: voting for something that is somehow more complicated than what we last voted for.
Life remains complicated, but for pro-Europeans such as myself, I’ll admit that there is plenty to be pleased about. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats increased by 15 seats, making significant progress in areas such as Camden, and winning seats in areas not typically associated with the party - the South East, Yorkshire and The Humber. The Greens performed well at home and across the continent, particularly in France, breaking through to finish third. And perhaps most remarkably, Naomi Long secured a win for the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland. My Twitter feed in the days following was filled with nothing but ecstatic, relieved and pleasantly surprised positivity. And rightfully so.
However, we mustn’t be complacent in any success, or let our enthusiasm overshadow the worrying truth that the Brexit Party had an equally good showing.
Regardless of whether the Brexit Party’s success was simply the transferring of previously UKIP voters to this new party, winning 29 MEP’s and placing first in every region excluding London is something worth taking note of, and something worth being concerned about. The Brexit Party is an institutionally, unashamedly bigoted party, and has been given a ringing endorsement by the British public.
Undoubtedly, with a chauvinist at the helm, a share of their vote will have come from the perpetually xenophobic, World War 2-glorifying traces of colonial Britain. But, importantly and additionally, voters with genuine, euro-concerned sentiments have had to vote for the Brexit party, something that I am trying to understand but find increasingly upsetting. Remainers and leavers with a sense of democratic duty, eurosceptics who want out of the CAP, who dislike how the EU has treated other member states such as Greece, and Eurosceptics without scepticism founded in bigotry have had to vote for a fundamentally bigoted Party.
Nigel Farage, a man who deserves none of our attention, has pulled together both of these strands of the electorate. Lord Ashcroft's polling suggests 53% of 2017 Conservatives and 13% of 2017 Labour switched to back the Brexit Party. I don’t believe that in other circumstances many of them would have stood for his nonsense, and it frightens me that in this case concerns surrounding the EU that could have been discussed to resolution pre-2016, instead are now hand in hand with politics of marginalisation, giving the Brexit Party a place in political life.
While voting for the Brexit Party is not necessarily an endorsement of bigotry, but they will take it as such and it is enormously frustrating that Nigel Farage has momentum behind his dogmatic movement that isn't necessarily dogmatic itself.
What is even more frustrating is that Nigel Farage was in a position to gather momentum at all. Whilst it isn’t wrong to blame this on the collapse in any other credible voice for leaving the EU and the lingering social conservatism in parts of the country, we ourselves have to take some responsibility.
History shows that we are prone to entertain these politicians, for the sake of limp satire and new small talk. At first, they’re joke politicians. Being brazenly themselves in their bullish and unorthodox views makes them mavericks; points of interest. They seem so far-fetched, farcical and unlike anyone we’ve ever met in real life that they’re amusing. They’re invited on something satirical and do the rounds on Twitter.
We turn them into characters as their publicity grows: think Boris Johnson the bumbling, latinate fool, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the most well-to-do man you’ll ever meet. Then, as a following of interest grows behind them, as they become good television, they’re invited onto more serious television, such as Politics Live, Question Time and the like.
There’s nothing unusual to think of it at first, why shouldn’t we hear what they have to say? But as we make the same jokes about Boris’ hair and the Honourable Member for the 16th Century, these politicians with views out of place in a modern, forward-thinking society gather momentum from a base who were once ironically interested, now genuinely, and begin to think they have a respectable place within public life. We are complicit in legitimising their intolerance, in exchange for a cheap joke to be told on BBC 1 at 9pm and repeated on a different programme on BBC 2 at 10pm.
We should never have opened the door to Nigel Farage. We should have pushed him to retirement in some tax haven with an empty title, never to be seen in British political discourse again. Instead, his party won the largest share of the vote in the EU elections, and I have to contend with Ann Widdecombe as my MEP.
And now the Tory leadership contest has begun, and soon I’m sure a candidate with whacky, right-wing views and a character the best satirists couldn’t have convincingly written will enter the race.
There might be a joke or two in them, but let’s try and remember that whilst having them as a guest on Have I Got News For You might be amusing for five minutes, it’s just the right motivation for them to run for leader of the 1922 Committee and eventually Prime Minister.
Or who knows, in five years’ time, after the Anglo-French War, the great medication shortage of 2022 and Ann Widdecombe’s glorious return to Westminster politics, perhaps we’ll look back on these days as the endorsement of something wonderful.