Leaving aside the justice of this decision, is UKIP actually racist? It is certainly xenophobic but, in any case, this is to miss the point about UKIP.
During the 2005 general election campaign, I was campaigning in the (then) Liberal Democrat-held constituency of Teignbridge in Devon. One evening, I went to a hustings held in the parish church of Bovey Tracey, a small town on the edge of Dartmoor and in the least Liberal Democrat part of the constituency.
What was striking about this meeting was the age of the audience. Almost everyone was over 70. As the meeting progressed, it became clear that their sympathies were split roughly 50/50 between the Tories and UKIP.
But they were not driven by racism. All of their various interventions from the floor, whatever the issue, seemed to boil down to the same question: “Why can’t we turn the clock back to the 1950s?”
If you are not old enough to remember the 1950s or earlier, it is very hard to appreciate just how fundamental a social revolution has taken place since then. It is not just the extent of the change but also its speed.
Philip Larkin caught the moment in his poem Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse beganOf course, ‘golden ageism’ has always been with us. The idea that there was a golden age (perpetually 30 to 50 years ago) when things were much better can be found as far back as the writings of the Ancient Greeks. Believers habitually begin with the phrase, “In my day...”
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP
But because the depth and pace of change over the past fifty years have been unprecedented, today’s elderly aren’t merely nostalgic but often feel completely discombobulated.
And that is the essence of UKIP’s appeal. EU membership is not really the issue but a symbol of something deeper, a mourning for Britain’s loss of empire, a feeling that the country has gone to the dogs and a resentment towards an increasingly cosmopolitan culture.
UKIP understands that it is appealing to gut instincts, so it is no surprise that its policies amount to little more than a rag-bag of bar-room prejudices. But UKIP is quite distinct from the BNP. It is middle class and suburban in character, unlike the BNP, which is racist and appeals to a different constituency (and a different gut instinct) of urban working class.
Liberal Democrats often worry about this sentiment among UKIP and right-wing Tory supporters. They should not. Relatively few elderly people vote Liberal Democrat, and xenophobic and reactionary voters tossing up whether to vote UKIP or Tory will prefer the real McCoy to any insincere Liberal Democrats who try to mollify them.
But there’s a more important reason for not attempting to appease such sentiment. What UKIP’s supporters basically want cannot be delivered. It is simply not possible to turn the clock back to the 1950s. The British Empire cannot be restored. The toothpaste of people’s sense of personal liberation cannot be put back in the tube.
Britain leaving the European Union would not bring back the 1950s, any more than drinking Camp coffee, putting on Brylcreem or forcing BBC radio news announcers to wear a bow tie.
That is why UKIP is fundamentally dishonest; its nostalgic appeal is as fake as the commercials for Werther’s Originals (sweets from Germany, which were not sold in the UK until the 1990s).
Sometimes you have to be cruel to be cruel. Far from cowering in the corner when discussion turns to the EU, the Liberal Democrats should not be afraid to come out and deliver some harsh realities to any voters who believe the past is an option. But it isn’t necessary to take away their adopted children.