A walk through Britain’s flag-waving heartlands

‘Back in the tail end of 2009, Nigel Farage stepped aside from his leadership of the United Kingdom Independence Party to concentrate on challenging the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, in the parliamentary elections of 2010. In a characteristically forthright statement, Farage said that Bercow “represented the worst” of a legislature that had “broken the trust” of the British people. In due course Bercow, a somewhat maverick Tory, was returned to parliament and the speaker’s throne, but not before Farage himself had been spectacularly unseated. It was during an election stunt, while he was flying his light aircraft high over the Angleterre profonde of Northants. The banner trailing the plane, and bearing the legend “Vote for Your Country, Vote for Ukip”, created a little too much drag, and the habitually ebullient Farage fell to Earth.

‘Photographs from the crash site showed Farage disentangling himself from the wreckage and, with what was either astonishing insouciance or simply shock, walking away, his typically rubious face only a touch drained of colour. This Biggles-like tale would add lustre to any politician’s image, yet for Farage and the party he subsequently returned to helm, the most telling detail is not that he escaped unscathed, but that it was blazoning Ukip’s unashamed nationalism that had caused him to fall.

‘In the wake of Ukip’s triumphant outing in the Eastleigh byelection last week – pushing the Conservatives into a humiliating third place – it’s worth asking ourselves if Farage’s party, now indisputably in the ascendant, can maintain its semi-benign cast, or, if the runner-up does indeed begin to run over the Tories, the mask will slip to reveal a more sinister visage. After all, Farage has for some years now been the MEP for the Southeast of England, which means that he sits in a democratically elected assembly the legitimacy of which he utterly denies. A benign view of this would be that he and the rest of Ukip are simply plucky small-nation nationalists standing up against an oppressive suzerainty; a darker perspective would be that some Ukip supporters have a more deep-seated antagonism to our current constitutional settlement, one they share with a quiescent sector of our society, that, when the time is right, will blossom not into a lovely English rose but a poisonous xenophobia.

‘In the spring of last year my then 10-year-old son and I set off from our home in Stockwell, South London, for our annual long-distance walk. On this occasion our destination was the manor house in Worcestershire belonging to friends. Our route took us past the tube station where a middle-aged white woman has a greengrocery stall. I often see her chatting happily with her customers – many of whom belong to ethnic minorities. During the 2010 general election I had conducted a vox pop for the Evening Standard in the area, and asked her how she would be voting: “Oh, BNP, I s’pose.” When I had remonstrated with her, pointing out that, despite their disavowals, Nick Griffin’s party remained racist and fascist to the core, she came back at me with the habitual plaint of the London white working class: “I’m not racial – but …” The “buts” in her case were those so carefully analysed by Daniel Trilling in Bloody Nasty People, his recent study of the rise of the British National Party. She was not opposed to black and brown Britons per se; what she objected to were recent immigrants of any colour scrounging social benefits, including healthcare and council housing. She despaired of any of the mainstream parties curtailing mass immigration, and looked to the BNP as the only credible promoter of what she saw as the rights of indigenous, white working people.’

Read the rest of Will Self’s essay for Guardian Review here.