By Mateo Quintero
Last week saw UKIP lose its sole MP, after Douglas Carswell decided to call it quits on the “People’s Army” and sit as an Independent. This week, meanwhile, will see Theresa May write a letter to the European Council signalling the UK’s formal intention to leave the European Union and become an independent nation once again. All this, compounded with a crisis of leadership and identity, has left many wondering if UKIP as a political unit will soon cease to exist.
Despite its often shambolic administration, it is undeniable that UKIP have been the dominant force of British Euroscepticism over the past decade or so. In many ways, UKIP’s predecessor was the “Referendum Party”, a similarly chaotic political party who were at the forefront of the Eurosceptic movement in the mid-1990s. It was a single-issue party founded in 1994 by the eccentric businessman Sir James Goldsmith (father of former Tory MP Zac Goldsmith) to campaign for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, which at the time had just signed the Schengen Agreement and was in the process of creating the Eurozone, and thus in the infancy of its superstate aspirations.
What is interesting is that Sir James Goldsmith chose to put his career and reputation on the line in order to run as a Parliamentary candidate in the 1997 general election against the Conservative Minister David Mellor in Putney. Mellor was stunningly unseated in the election, but it was the Labour Party candidate who unseated him and not James Goldsmith. However, it wasn’t the result in Putney which made headlines across the country, but the extraordinary way in which it was announced; with David Mellor delivering a fiery denunciation of the Referendum Party (below) and Sir James Goldsmith leading chants of “Out! Out! Out!” in the background. This remarkable piece of live television can be seen here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29934257.
David Mellor’s assessment of the Referendum Party as “dead in the water” was humorous and soon proved to be correct, with the party formally disbanding that same year after their hugely disappointing 2% of the vote in the general election, along with the untimely death of founder Sir James Goldsmith shortly after the election. The Referendum Party were also hurt by the fact that they were no longer the dominant force in British Euroscepticism, with other parties, namely UKIP, and some Eurosceptic sections of the Conservative Party, now able to compete more successfully electorally in the name of Euroscepticism.
This same “dead in the water” diagnosis can now be applied to UKIP who, despite achieving significantly more success than the Referendum Party, are in 2017 almost exactly what the Referendum Party were in 1997. In 2017, UKIP’s charismatic (if divisive) leader Nigel Farage was replaced by Paul Nuttall, who subsequently contested, and lost, the Stoke-on-Trent by-election, in what was favourable territory for UKIP. Both of these events mirror the Referendum Party’s charismatic leader James Goldsmith who was defeated in his attempt to enter Parliament and later left the leadership of the party, albeit because of untimely death. UKIP also mirror the Referendum Party in that they have now lost their unique selling point, with Theresa May’s proud adoption of a ‘Brexit means Brexit’ stance. All the while, UKIP’s existence is further threatened by damaging internal divisions, such as the challenge being made by UKIP donor, Arron Banks, who now threatens to fund a rival political movement.
All of this makes it difficult to see how the party will move on from 2017 and continue to be a mainstream political party capable of competing in future general elections. If UKIP cease to exist, as did the Referendum Party in 1997, we will miss out on some of the most entertaining antics in politics. Lest we forget the UKIP “calypso” (https://youtu.be/a7QYJ7pVhUo), Godfrey Bloom attacking reporter Michael Crick (https://youtu.be/jzPBn5SLcxE), and of course every time Nigel Farage opened his mouth in public (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxsnOvTV8vA).
That said, despite UKIP’s undoubted entertainment value, it did poison the atmosphere of British politics. It made many consider that euroscepticism and racism as two sides of the same right-wing coin. And for that, they won’t be missed.