A key story in British politics this year has been the rise of UKIP. In spite, or because, of this success their opponents are increasingly vocal. In itself, this is positive as all movements and ideas require scrutiny and confrontation, especially when they have political significance. However, most criticism of UKIP has taken a worrying form.
Rather than engaging with policies, criticism tends to be emotional rather than rational. This involves capitalising on labelling UKIP as racist and marginal. Even if these attacks had substance, in practise such labels are used as slurs without explanation or context. At best, a distorted version of a UKIP policy or its supposed motivation will be presented. More often, ‘arguments’ against UKIP go no further than yelling ‘racist’.
I do not sympathise with UKIP. Their support for grammar schools has merits, and I like their aim of removing minimum-wage earners from income tax. They also serve a useful role in highlighting popular disaffection with Europe. However, their too much of the platform is unpleasant and authoritarian - their opposition to same-sex marriage and desire to renew Trident for example.
This is not to mention their stringent and unnecessary policies concerning immigration. A ‘points-based’ system is an unfairly blunt tool, and the proposal to make overstaying a visa a criminal offence is very draconian. Not much needs to be said about plans to ‘root out’ illegal immigrants. Asides from humanitarian concerns, this narrow-minded perspective ignores the economic benefits of mobile labour.
However, rather than citing such issues, critics prefer to argue that being anti-immigration is intrinsically racist. It is true that many individuals who oppose open borders are racist, and a lot of arguments (and much rhetoric) have an unpleasant undertone. However, this does not mean that supporting strong controls on immigration equates with racism.
For example, the proposal, that immigrants only be allowed to claim benefits after five years of working in the UK, has been described as ‘determining entitlements based on race’. This is nonsense. The policy does discriminate based on nationality and place of birth, but this is not the same as racism. For example, someone of Anglo-Saxon origin with foreign citizenship would be subject to the law, whilst someone of South-Asian heritage born in the UK would not.
The aim of tying benefits to contributions is fair. However, arbitrarily focusing on whether someone is indigenous or a migrant is the wrong approach to take, as it favours the unemployable native (who has never and never will contribute) over the hardworking but transitionally unemployed migrant. But this is not racist, just wrong.
Asides from content, the manner of criticism is also notable. In a notorious incident in Edinburgh, jeering protestors attacked and mobbed leading UKIP members. Any attempted dialogue quickly degenerated into squawks of ‘racism’ and ‘irrelevant in Scotland’. More recently, Nigel Farage faced a similar style of ‘debate’ when speaking in Sussex.
Justification for this focuses on the apparent need to attack the ‘far right’ to prevent proliferation of their views. This odd argument suggests that without a handful of aggressively outspoken protestors, huge numbers of people would be won over by UKIP. Thus, their platform has to be restricted so that the gullible masses can’t be tricked into supporting them.
Leaving aside how strikingly anti-democratic this is, such a perspective is misguided and counter-intuitive. The approach is based on falsely equating UKIP with fascism and the far right. Aside from being an unfair smear, this blurs important issues and downplays the malevolence of genuine fascism.
Further, it cannot be understated how objectionable the ‘chanting’ approach to politics is. Whilst people may have the right to do this, it is a totally negative exercise. It achieves nothing and actually damages the case being advanced. If you resort to forming a mob and shouting at your opponents, you have already lost the argument by implying that you have nothing intelligent to say.
This is problematic when there is a worthwhile opinion to advance. UKIP does need criticism. As a growing political force they require scrutiny, and many of their views are unsavoury or misguided. But shouting inaccurate slurs is the opposite of effective criticism, as it makes it appear that there is no coherent argument for opposing them. This is unfortunate as there are very good reasons to challenge populist opposition to immigration. However, intelligent argument cannot be substituted for vague accusations of ‘reactionary’ and ‘racist’.