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The British volcano

Published:Monday | October 13, 2014 | 10:00 AM
UKIP leader Nigel Farage looks out of the window of his campaign headquarters in Clacton-on-Sea, England, on October 10. The UK Independence Party candidate Douglas Carswell won a seat in the British Parliament for the first time, in a by-election. AP

To describe the election of the United Kingdom Independence Party's ((UKIP) first member of parliament as a political volcano is not a bad analogy. Like volcanoes, it resulted from the eruption of a long build-up of latent energy that finally exploded out of its confines.

That's not to dismiss the importance of immediate factors. UKIP, the right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-European party, is surging because it appeals to a large segment of the British public, those who feel most threatened by the turbulence and change of post-recession Britain. The party connects with both cloth-cap-wearing villagers raised Tory or inner-city workers who breathe Labour.

Partly, it's just good branding. Nigel Farage, the charismatic UKIP leader, is a marketing man's dream. He is a self-deprecating caricature of the average Englishman's self-image: jolly, unsophisticated-but-couldn't care less, wanting nothing more from life than a pint and crisps at the local pub. Set against this is Prime Minister David Cameron's awkward, leaden efforts to look hip, or Labour leader Ed Miliband's ... well, don't get me started, this column is too short.

Let's just say advertising executives summoned to the boss' office and told they're getting the Tory or Labour account must spend their happy hour downing their Stellas wondering what on earth they did to deserve this.

Partly, too, at a time of declining living standards and increasingly precarious employment, ordinary folk want to blame someone for their malaise. Hearing that Polish plumbers have taken their jobs, or that Belgian bureaucrats want to close their favourite chippies, even if untrue, at least strikes them as plausible. New immigrants looking for a better life generally move to the cities, and into the poor neighbourhoods they can afford - cheek by jowl with the very people most vulnerable in the age of cut-throat globalisation.

Current of sentiment

But UKIP is tapping into a current of sentiment that has been slowly building for decades, and whose roots go back centuries. In a nutshell, the British working class was built in no small measure atop the fruits of empire. In the mid-19th century, when amid the Industrial Revolution owners grew rich and workers grew miserable, Britain - and other European countries - faced revolution. What bought capitalism time was both the advent and gradual extension of the welfare state, and the rise in living standards.

As Britain exported into its colonial markets, employment rose. So did wages. Moreover, the cheap influx of raw materials and luxury goods from the colonies - as we know, the celebrated British penchant for sweets was nourished by cheap sugar from the plantations - enabled common folk to enjoy the fruits of industrial progress.

But in effect, what this did was outsource the exploitation of the working class. British wages rose in no small part because they were subsidised by workers in the colonies. After the colonies became independent and the home countries imposed border controls, there emerged a sort of global apartheid in which the best jobs were bottled up in the world economy's 'white suburbs'. Meanwhile, the 'townships' of the Third World continued to provide the cheap labour that maintained this luxury. Two centuries ago, workers' wages were more or less the same across the globe. By 2000, wages in the rich countries were 60 times those in the former colonies.

Obviously, it couldn't last. As globalisation advanced at the end of the last century, firms that produced tradable goods couldn't compete with the cheap labour of the periphery. They had to either outsource production or import cheap labour. If they didn't, their firms would go under - which would mean the economy would contract and living standards would decline. So, funnily enough, immigration has been a means to keep the British economy competitive and what remains of the welfare state in operation.

The chickens are coming home to roost. UKIP's solution will only worsen Britain's long-term position. But Nigel Farage is a clever fox, and he's enjoying harnessing all these chickens.

John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.