The EU Commission and Council do their work unmolested by public scrutiny, but, if so minded, you can visit the European Parliament. I did so in 2016, by invitation of one of my MEPs, and was so excited by watching euro-democracy at the coalface that I went again the following year.
Both times I travelled with a group led by a UKIP MEP for Yorkshire and North Lincs, by ferry from Hull. It was a nice feeling using a boat to get to the continent for the first time in two decades. And boy, things had changed. Gone were the battered old Sealink troop transports with their Brotherhood of Man tribute acts and their gangs of seasick drunks. The P&O services across to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge were floating palaces. Jamborees like this, subsidised to nearly giveaway levels by the preening EU itself, were one of the few perks of being a member of a party that is reviled by the media, marginalised and permanently skint.
That first time, we crossed to Rotterdam. Replete with a magnificent all-you-can-eat 25-pound buffet dinner, a couple of us kippers sat and watched the Humber shore recede while listening to a lounge-lizard pianist from Iran doing the evergreens. He had worked hard on the pronunciation, but not quite hard enough: Your Laaain Nyes, caint hard your lain nyes. .. I wanna be your larva baby ..
Whenever you put two or three UKIP members in the same room you will get a long moan-fest about how hard it is being a UKIP member. Everybody will have a story — of being insulted, shouted at or even spat on, of having leaflets torn up, garden signs pulled down, tyres spiked and campaign letters dumped by the Royal Mail, of not daring to tell friends or work colleagues what party they joined. (On the plus side, this treatment does screen out the dilettanti. No problem with political hacks in UKIP when even some of the few donors feel obliged to make their donations indirectly). You have to really believe in the mission to stay aboard this ship.
So who exactly are the crew? A few generalisations hold true: kippers are indeed mostly white and on the down-slope of life, and they are indeed usually from the right. Otherwise, their backgrounds are very varied. Membership in the local branch I’m involved with has included a management consultant, a game designer, a secretary, a retired gynaecologist, an e-trader in tool parts, a number of ex-military, a scrap merchant, a store owner, an apartment landlord, a solicitor and a former union rep — many of them well-connected local movers and shakers. Most were not originally political animals, and joined because they felt they had to, to make some personal gesture to help get Britain out of the European Union. That’s why I joined.
And what a voyage it’s been. Five years of hustings and ballot counts, of manning stalls in the rain, of trudging around suburban backstreets you never knew existed, of tedious meetings and heated encounters, of hopes and disappointments, of seemingly constant chaos. Of course, the weeks before the EU referendum were when it all came to a head. Somehow, with a team of about a dozen activists, we managed to leaflet a city of a quarter of a million people (none of the other pro-Leave groups were able to systematically get boots on the street). That took some organising — renting an office, choosing, ordering and delivering tens of thousands of leaflets, preparing maps, coordinating teams and zones, and all on a budget that would barely upholster a sofa. We had octogenarians out there. Some of the veterans were indefatigable: a single leafletter called Hilary managed to cover an entire ward. She must have hiked a dozen miles a day for a week — a canvassing Peddar’s Way.
As you might expect with a party not noted for military discipline, things sometimes got shambolic. Poster and leaflet sets were delivered to the wrong address, or 24 hours before polls opened, or the same houses were leafleted twice. There were no-shows and squabbles over petty expenses. Some of the leafleting sorties hovered on the edge of Last of the Summer Wine territory. My diary for 2016 contains the following entry:
I had to meet up with a “Mike,” who I did not know. “Oldish bloke,” (our organiser) J said. “Everybody in UKIP is old,” I replied. “Cheeky bugger,” J replied. It took half an hour to get us together. There we were, four dozy old codgers who could not find the meeting point (no satnavs), could not read the street map when we got there, and kept losing each other — K., scruffy and unshaven as a tramp, wandered off the radar for 20 minutes. At the end, M. managed to forget where he had parked. We cruised around the neighbourhood in J’s car for fifteen minutes looking for the lost Toyota.
It’s hard to meaningfully summarise all that has happened since 2014, but certain moments stood out. In the 2017 election, when UKIP had fallen apart after securing a victory it had not really expected or prepared for, one of our candidates I shall call Ron attended what may have been his first hustings. He had the misfortune of sharing the panel with nationally known figures from both the LibDems and Green Party, two media-savvy, left-leaning heavyweights (and all-round sanctimonious plonkers). Under these big guns, I feared for Ron, a salt-of-the-earth local businessman with little charisma or political experience and a portfolio of health problems. Sure enough, while Ron clumsily tried to win over the hostile middle-class audience by bashing EU red tape and migrant benefits abuse (“what’s all tha’ abaat, then?”), the LibDem drew cheers by going on about weeping Polish nurses and how Brexit would cripple the NHS. The Greenie provided the hallelujah chorus in praise of “multiculturalism” (sorry about the speechmarks, but this word, like “Islamophobia” is an invented propaganda term). When the inevitable UKIP-attacking immigration question came — I forget exactly what it was — both must have been thinking, now we are going to slaughter this jumped-up bricklayer bigot.
Ron was last to answer. I braced myself. He calmly began with a homespun, softly-spoken account of the life of his father, an Irish immigrant who served in both wars and died from health problems caused by his wounds. For a few moments, he silenced the hall. He still lost the election handsomely, but that was a scene to remember.
Other moments were emotional for different reasons. As said, if you are a UKIP activist, you have to accept that you are going to attract nastiness. Typically it comes from white, middle-class Marxists. You’d get one or two each stall session, brain-washed, green-quiffed human parrots with studs in their faces and sweary placards, social misfits who had never been told you can get help for Tourette’s. But they were little more than an annoyance, and ultimately a bit pathetic.
Far more impressive were the immigrants who challenged you, because they were usually normal people, with a polite manner and legitimate complaints. Like the Indian doctor in the audience at one hustings, who got up and said, “My family came here in the 1960s, and I was brought up here. I feel we have contributed over the years to this country, contributed enough. And now there is all this rhetoric. This rhetoric everywhere. Now I feel I have to somehow justify myself at work, be better than my colleagues. What are you going to do about all this rhetoric?” Like the young surgeon, also Indian, who saw me leafletting one day. I knew him superficially from a sports club; he said with a smile, “I do not support you because you are dangerous.” I found it strange, not to say enraging, being told by an immigrant in my own country that I was “dangerous” because I wanted England to stay English. But he was not unpleasant about it; he was entitled to his opinion, and, though I do not seek out his company, I still play badminton with him now and then at a local club.
Most of all, I remember the black kid. I was standing in the middle of town handing out leaflets. He was about seven, in a group of three schoolboys. The other two were white.
“Are you racists?” one of the white boys asked me, innocently.
“No,” I said, “we just want to leave the European Union.”
“So you don’t want to send foreigners home?” the black boy asked, again without evident hostility. The question caught me off-guard, and, not being very fast on my feet, I gave him a really stupid answer.
“No. We spend about 55 million pounds a day to stay in the EU. And so we want to leave.”
Even as the rote line came out I winced at myself. He probably did not even know what the EU was.
“So you’re not racists?”
As a rule, I ignore this insult framed as a question. But with this child, I could not.
“No,” I said. “We are not.”
Then the boy said quietly, to the others or just to himself, “Bullshit.”
I was probably the first UKIP member he had ever met (heaven knows there are few enough of us to go round). It angered me that his teachers or family had lied to him, had told him my party wanted to send him “back” to Jamaica, to divide him from his friends.
Yes, this sort of thing made me feel bad. But so does the way UKIP members are treated. I know somebody who stood in a council election but felt he had to keep it secret from his employers, for which reason he sought out a ward where he had zero chance of winning and did no campaigning. The last thing he wanted was victory. He did it to give voters an option. I know also of UKIP members with migrant origins — a Yemeni in particular comes to mind — who were told to their faces they were traitors when they knocked on doors in their communities. In Britain, no racism is worse than that of certain immigrant communities when their own people have the wrong affiliations.
Is UKIP divisive? No, it damned well isn’t. Like all the “populist” parties in Europe, UKIP is the symptom, not the cause, of the cleaving of society caused by unwanted massive immigration and the demographic transformation of long-established communities. UKIP gives a voice and a platform to millions of people who have been made to feel they do not have the right to express an opinion about what sort of country they want to live in. And that’s why I am still a member.
I don’t remember exactly what we talked about that night on the ferry, but it would certainly have been along those lines. The tally of empties rose, the Iranian pianist continued his struggle with the English language (… you mike me feel lark dayn–cing … When a ma-an loves a wombat …), and the lights of Holderness and Immingham finally vanished from view. Finally we retired, plastered, to our tiny but well appointed berths. I was told at breakfast next day that I kept my cabin companion awake half the night with my drunken snoring. Proper knuckle-dragging UKIP, that.
Taken from Mijn Vlakke Land, my travelogue of the Low Countries. For this and my other free downloadable pdf travel books on Europe and East Asia, please visit this website: https://www.itabibito.com/. The link for Mijn Vlakke Land is halfway down the page.
© Joe Slater 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file