By Matthew Lynn, author of 'Independently Minded: The Rise of Nigel Farage'
It would be hard to imagine a more English politician than Nigel Farage. With his pin-striped suits, pints of bitter, and self-deprecating humour, there isn't anywhere else he could come from. And yet, although he is best known for campaigning to take the UK out of the European Union, Farage is in fact a very European politician.
The United Kingdom Independence Party leader is set for the most momentous year of its short life. The European elections in May should see the party win first place n the polls, and in the general election of 2015 it could make significant gains as well, at least in votes if not seats. With its rising membership as well as votes, England (although not Scotland or Wales, since UKIP gets hardly any votes in either country) is witnessing the emergence of its first new major political party since Labour arose from the trade union movement more than a century ago.
And yet, for all its nationalist camouflage, UKIP is a very American or European movement. Right-wing, populist, and anti-establishment parties are now a global phenomenon, not just a British one. The United States has its Tea Party, France the National Front, Italy Beppe Grillo, Finland the True Finns, Holland the Freedom Party, and so on. They all feed on the same trends - economic insecurity, top-heavy government, and a manipulative political classes. People are angry and disillusioned and new parties have arisen to exploit that.
But each comes with national characteristics. The Americans get hysterical, gun-worshipping eccentrics, the Italians a comedian, and the French a hectoring school marm with fascist overtones. This being England, our anger is channelled through a bloke called Nigel, who enjoys a pint and a smoke, and doesn't take himself very serious. In other countries it is a cry of rage. In England, as you might expect, it is more a chortle of wry despair, and no one captures that better than Farage.
The Westminster establishment is used to protest votes. They can usually be safely dismissed - they flare up, and then die out again relatively quickly. But if the European analogy is right, Ukip is no mere protest. It is a party that is here to stay. And regardless of whether it ever wins a share of power of not, that is going to permanently change the political culture of the country.
Our politics has usually been dominated by two big parties of the right and left. But across Europe, there are often six, seven or eight mainstream parties, representing a spectrum of different views. Governments are painfully negotiated coalitions. If UKIP takes a steady 10% plus of the vote, with the Lib Dems on a similar number, that may well be how British politics works as well from now on. Perhaps Farage will one day take us out of the EU. But paradoxically, he will leave behind a more European multi-party system.
Matthew Lynn is the author of 'Independently Minded: The Rise of Nigel Farage', published by Endeavour Press.