Just because someone identifies the problem doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on the solutions. I say this because I – in common, I suspect, with many conservatives – view Ukip with a degree of cognitive dissonance. In the last two years they have become an undeniable force in British politics. They now keep our politicians awake at night, plagued by visions of a man cackling in corduroy with a fag and a pint in hand.
“Why?” is the question on everyone’s lips. The answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem. Ukip doesn’t succeed because British people are obsessed with Europe. Of course, some of us are, but it’s not what drives the vast majority of new Ukip voters. Instead, they are motivated by something else: a sense of abandonment and by the suspicion that our political class views them with a toxic mixture of derision and dismay.
White van drivers from Essex, golf club anecdotalists, self-made businessmen, builders, plumbers and mothers who work in supermarkets: they know, deep down, that this country’s rulers don’t really want them. They have been treated like embarrassing relatives dancing badly at the wedding – and there is palpable frustration among many in the backrooms of politics and on the comment pages of newspapers that these uncouth malingerers hold any sway whatsoever. They should have got on with it and become barristers in Islington, employing imported workers to do the kind of menial work they ought to have left behind long ago. No one in their right mind wants to work in a factory: except actually some people do. And those people are now, understandably, lashing out at their condescending masters.
And how do our rulers react? They respond to this anger like a therapist talking down a prospective suicide. “We hear you,” they say – all the while nodding their heads and gravely furrowing their brows. But then they plough onwards with the very policies and attitudes that got us here. There’s only so much condescension any normal person can take. And make no mistake, when it comes to most Ukip voters, we are talking about perfectly normal folk.
It is entirely morally and politically bankrupt to acknowledge the misery of masses of voters but then, in the same breath, to hasten it. And both main parties have done precisely that. Labour killed working-class communities with mechanical kindness. They stripped families of agency via a benefits system that kept millions out of the labour market and patronised workers by topping up their appalling wages via the taxpayer. They invited millions of workers in – at a time when peer economies chose instead to impose temporary controls – in a concerted effort to force mass cultural change so that every community could be, in estate agent vernacular, “vibrant”. And they hysterically monitored and regulated people’s pastimes – from smoking to fox hunting – so that fewer and fewer of the old associations remained. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have abandoned the alliance of gentry and bourgeoise that once made them mighty, preferring instead the company of spivs and speculators, and worshipping the market as both all-knowing and justly all-powerful. Neither party attracts the section of England that Ukip does because, in truth, neither party really wants it.
So I do understand Farage’s appeal. But for me, Ukip is not the answer to all this. Purple and yellow will not be my colours – and not simply because that is a palette beyond even my eccentric fashion sense. The diagnosis may be correct, but Ukip’s prescriptions leave me cold. I fail to see, for example, how the libertarian economics and “global free trade” preached by most of the Ukip high-command hold the answer for millions who already feel powerless and voiceless, working for faceless and fickle multinationals. I cannot understand either what is good, Christian or British about refusing people entry to Britain to study or work simply on the basis of an illness. And I am at a loss to explain how any of the sums in their ever-growing list of promised spending and pledged tax cuts can add up. But it is no good just attacking Ukip; other answers need to be identified.
Luckily, as in most things, the Church has already done the hard work for us. Catholic social teaching holds within it, I believe, much of the meat and bones of what a compassionate and dynamic response might be to the complex web of social and economic changes that have so disenfranchised so many of our people. Subsidiarity – the idea that decisions must be taken at the lowest level possible – holds within it the key to both ending politics’ capture by distant elites and to restoring municipalities and communities to their rightful place at the centre of people’s public lives. Structures beyond the state and the individual can be built on the principles of solidarity and charity in truth.
Through these values we can remember what it means to act in support of one another and to exercise moral judgment in the process. The laws of distributive justice, meanwhile, dictate that as far as possible the market should be directed so as to promote social justice and empower all who contribute towards its success. Of course, these values will have different manifestations for individuals in different parties – Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem (I suppose) and yes, even Ukip – but as Christians we can and we should press for them at the heart of the policy process.
There is hope for the old parties. Jon Cruddas, Frank Field and Maurice Glasman in Labour, Jesse Norman, Theresa May and Zac Goldsmith in the Tories – all of them are driven by an affinity for aspects of the teaching first set out in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (even if they might not choose to describe their ideas in that way). We need to be cheering from the sidelines. Because, if Thatcher and Blair have taught us anything, it is surely that the aim is not to win elections but rather to change the consensus. In this era of disarray, sorrow and despair we need Catholic social thought to become the new mainstream more than ever.
This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald (October 17 2014)