Or, is the future Orange for British politics?
This piece first appeared in Varsity, the Cambridge University student newspaper
For all the thundering rhetoric, the press pack simply isn’t taking Robert Kilroy-Silk seriously. He’s not surprised, of course; since the outcry over the Sunday Express article, he’s learned a thing or two about how the media operates – not that he didn’t already have a pretty shrewd idea. But he is, understandably, saddened, because knowing something’s inevitable doesn’t make it any less frustrating, and all he wants is for them to tell the truth: “I know you come with your agenda. I understand your agenda. I know about that, remember. I’ve been around a long time.” There is a moment’s pause as he surveys the throng.
“What you have to understand,” he ominously adds, “is that we reach beyond you.” Another pause while the attendant hacks take this in. And, a little later, it comes - the inevitable question, on the lips of every follower of Britain’s orangest politico: “Is your tan Veritas?”
When Robert Kilroy-Silk launched his new party last week, it is safe to say that the attendant members of the press were not suitably impressed. But even if the raft of policies (which, so far, consists of: “We have a mass immigration policy in this country! It’s out of control!” And, “They lie all the time! They are still lying today!”) rather lacks breadth, it would be foolish to dismiss Veritas out of hand: like it or not, plenty of people think Kilroy has a point on the EU, and immigration, and lies, and he’s certainly more telegenic than UKIP’s cravate-wearing buffoons. Standing at the podium at the press conference with adoring followers gazing at him and hanging on his every word – do these look like patsies to you? Are you patsies, he demands? No! the not-patsies respond, as one – he does look every inch the airbrushed, coiffeured, and –yes – fake-tanned modern politician.
It’s all an awfully long way from Knowlesley North, the Labour seat which Kilroy-Silk occupied back in 1986. That was the year his life (and, incidentally, the future of the right-wing shoestring of British politics) veered in a different direction, when he stood down from the constituency he had held since 1974. Kilroy decided television was a better gig – “I am not into news or current affairs,” he said at the time: “I am into entertainment. That is my business.” (Some would say that remains his policy now.) His colleagues were not best pleased.
They don’t like him much now, either; but it’s safe to say that the likes of Kilroy-Silk are rather more worrying to Michael Howard than Tony Blair. The Tories are being squeezed from both sides, and it doesn’t give them much room for manoeuvre. The key question, according to one Guardian journalist who attended the Veritas launch, is “whether they’re just a joke, or whether they’re slightly scary… I lean towards the latter.” But, he adds, “the evidence of his personality is that his ego will get in the way of doing anything practical.”
So much for Kilroy-Silk, perhaps. A sad figure trying to find the best way of maintaining fame despite the rapid descent of an orange-tinted twilight; a mildly racist call a spade a spade some of my best friends are limb amputators the European Commissioners want to straighten our bananas quivering mass of clichés. Veritas, barring a very rapid infusion of some people who aren’t Their Glorious Leader, look destined to remain principally a cheerleading operation. But the wider question of the emergence of a pick-your-own political category is a knottier one.
There are 276 parties listed with the Electoral Commission, and most of them can be counted out as A Bit Crazeee, like the Church of the Militant Elvis Party, or properly mental, like the Telepathic Partnership. Somewhere in the middle is the potentially troublesome group, just earnest enough not to get laughed at, and just articulate enough not to get sectioned. Kilroy-Silk, it is widely rumoured, tried to link up with two such parties before founding his own: the New Party, and the English Democrats. The New Party claim to be all about politics by consensus, and have a policy raft driven principally by opinion polls; the English Democrat hook is a devolved English parliament with the same powers as the Scottish version. Both are anti-European and anti-asylum seekers, but that should be taken as read.
Whilst neither has caught the public imagination yet, there’s evidence to suggest that, if you were trying to recruit supporters for a new ideology, now wouldn’t be such a bad time to be trying. Recent ICM research shows that the proportion of people who identify with a particular party has dropped from 80% in 1964 to around 50% in late 2003. On the other hand, new research published on Tuesday (by MORI) suggested that 81% of young people say they feel strongly about political issues. So it isn’t all apathy: it’s disengagement.
When asked for an explanation of this mysterious disconnection, John Harris, author of So now who do we vote for?, points to an end to the political tribalism of previous generations: ‘It used to be either of the main parties could say, given three facts about your lifestyle, whether you would vote for them or not. That’s not true any more: you ain’t gonna get the voters by dealing in the old rhetoric of, say, trade unions versus bosses.’ The big tent has eliminated the grand narrative, and now politics is more an argument over who can micro-manage the best than it is a great debate over competing visions of a better future. Harris remembers a meeting with Mark Oaten, Lib Dem MP for Winchester, in the course of research for his book: ‘he said, basically, you’ll find the three main parties agree on a lot of things now – and I said, did I miss a meeting? I found that chilling, to be frank.’
And that’s where a new political force might find a foothold. The big tent might be peaceful, but it leaves gaps at the edges: the thing that will stir voters into action, according to the Electoral Commission’s Gemma Crosland, is an effort to ‘try to make people connect the issues they feel passionate about with voting. People want politicians to come from the same backgrounds as them, to have led the same kinds of lives as they lead.’ Not for nothing did ITV recently run Vote For Me, which was widely known as Politics Idol: things are getting weird when we trust TV to choose our legislators more than we trust the democratic process. The winner was on an anti-immigration ticket, incidentally.
This is, perhaps, evidence of one universal trend in modern politics: anti-politics. There are two versions: anti-politics from the inside, which is when George Bush or Tony Blair or Michael Howard say that there’s too much adversarial rowing for the sake of point scoring, and their administration will be one which listens to ideas from all across the spectrum, and don’t really mean it; and there’s the outsider version, which is when Charles Kennedy or UKIP’s Roger Knapman, or George Galloway (leader of the Respect Coalition, which is like a left wing UKIP, only fewer blazers), or Robert Kilroy-Silk, says, ‘this left-right thing is nonsense’, or ‘everyone in Westminster’s the same’, or ‘the politicians are out of touch, and we’re the real voice of the people.’ And they don’t mean it either. In the end, as Harris says, ‘all industrial societies are built on the same faultline – the split between individualism and collectivism. Soon enough normal service will be resumed.’
If Gordon Brown’s likely (though by no means certain) ascent to the Prime Ministership will pull things a little more into the old perspectives, though, we still haven’t an explanation for why these odd little parties keep cropping up. What’s so peculiar about them is how strong the resemblances are: you’d struggle to fit a cigarette paper between UKIP, Veritas and the English Democrats, and even the New Party follows a broadly conservative agenda, for all its talk of consensus-building polls. Their quarry owning benefactor and chairman, Robert Durward, rejects this interpretation, calling the labels of left and right ‘virtually useless to describe the much more complex issues of today,’ and blaming it on ‘lazy journalism’. (Politicians, or would-be politicians, talk a lot about lazy journalism, just like English people complain about the weather when they leave their umbrella at home.)
Slack hacks or no, what’s clear is that the people most engaged by the new parties are… well, themselves. It’s simple, really: mainly, they’re people who like being in charge of stuff. IT’S TIME FOR CHANGE, the New Party website blares; WE WANT OUR COUNTRY BACK, UKIP counters. PUTTING ENGLAND FIRST, leer the English democrats. None of this is any more meaningless than FORWARD NOT BACK, Alastair Campbell’s slogan for the forthcoming election; but Labour has the significant advantage of already being in charge. These are not, ultimately, the strikingly original taglines of movements with a new vision of how the world should work. If they were, one of them would probably be in government by now. As it is, they’ll have to settle for the occasional glorious press conference; and, better still, the burning, certain knowledge that they’re right.