Thanet, where Nigel Farage will try to win a Westminster seat at the next election, lies nicely along the axis of his commute between his home in South London and his office at the European Parliament in Brussels. If Kent, cartographically speaking, is England’s right foot, the Isle of Thanet is its big toe, pointing east into the sea towards Belgium. It hasn’t been an actual island since the 15th century, when the channel separating it from the English mainland silted up, but it’s still surrounded by water on three sides, and when the sun shines in summer, the light suffusing the air over the chubby peninsula has a vertiginous depthlessness, as if you’d come to the rim of the world and a few steps forward would take you into some infinite, radiant void. It’s easy to see why Turner told Ruskin that the skies over Thanet were the most beautiful in Europe.
Thanet has two parliamentary constituencies, North Thanet and South Thanet, and a single local council, also called Thanet. Otherwise ‘Thanet’ is a concept linking three seaside towns that live side by side without surrendering their individuality, like three people sharing a flat. There’s Ramsgate, а former ferry port on the south side of the peninsula; Broadstairs, a genteel resort facing east; and Margate, the faded one-time summer playground of industrial Britain, to the north. Farage will contest South Thanet, which comprises Ramsgate, Broadstairs, a sliver of coastal Margate called Cliftonville, and a swathe of extra-Thanetary land to the south that includes the town of Sandwich.
One evening in early summer, before Farage had confirmed he would run, I took the train from London to Ramsgate, where a local secondary school, the Ellington and Hereson, was staging a version of Question Time, with the Ukip leader on the panel. The high-speed train from London, which has been running since 2009, is a 21st-century thing, fast, air-conditioned and made in Japan. The new service doesn’t have first and second-class carriages: instead, it’s overpriced to all, without favour. The trains shoot out of concrete and glass metropolitan halls and streak through Kent along the Eurostar track at 140 mph, reaching Ramsgate in an hour and twenty minutes. Soon they will be faster still. Yet when my train hummed into Ramsgate and I stepped out into the stillness of the seaside suburbs I felt I’d journeyed to the England of the 1970s. An air of homely neglect hung over the broad avenues of large semis. In London there is more money than space, or time; here, it was the opposite.
The Ellington and Hereson School is a set of shining white blocks built in 2007 as part of Labour’s PFI programme. As well as Farage, Charlie Leys, the sixth-former who had organised and was chairing the event, had managed to pull in South Thanet’s sitting Tory MP, Laura Sandys, a believer in EU membership who is standing down at the next election, and the candidates from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. I watched Farage while the others were taking their turns to speak. Photographs and news footage always show him goofily grinning or laughing; it was strange to see him without a smile. I remembered watching Gordon Brown at a press conference once while Tony Blair was PM, curious about what he would do with his face while Blair was taking questions, and I saw Farage was doing what Brown had: looking away from the other speakers and the audience, not reacting to jokes or thrusts, managing to make it look as if he was giving the minimum attention necessary to prove his assumption that nothing interesting was being said, while he devoted the greater part of his mind to the future of Britain. It’s hard to do that without looking aloof, and Farage did look aloof.
In his answers he hopped through his populist, contradictory programme, in which all problems – except drugs, where he’s open to liberalisation if experts recommend it – lead back to the European Union. It’s the EU that wouldn’t want the government to subsidise the local airport in order to keep it open. It was the EU that had damaged the economy by giving workers too many rights. It was the EU’s fault that British companies didn’t export more to India. European immigrants were to blame for the shortage of social housing.
It wasn’t his natural audience. Clever teenagers, teachers, the entourages of rival politicians. Only soft drinks were on offer. He failed to sparkle. The vote at the end was won by the stern young Labour candidate, Will Scobie; Ian Driver, the Green, came second. Farage was last. That doesn’t mean he won’t be South Thanet’s next MP. He and his party are popular there. The latest poll by Lord Ashcroft gives Ukip the seat, with 33 per cent of the vote. It’s easy to see why Farage wants South Thanet. Less clear is what South Thanet wants from him. As an individual, he’s a celebrity: he’d put Ramsgate and Broadstairs on the map. But do voters think leaving the EU is the priority for Britain? Do they want Ukip to run the country? Or do they simply want to send Farage floating into Parliament, like the astronaut at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to start methodically extracting the circuits from the out-of-control controller’s brain?
There’s plenty of evidence in Thanet to support Ukip’s general proposition that local power is being diminished while the power of remote, faceless authorities is growing. But the overwhelming might of those remote, faceless authorities has little to do with Brussels. It has to do with global business and chainification. It has to do with the neoliberal political agenda: privatisation, jurisdiction-hopping, protection of inherited wealth and a shift of taxation from rich to poor. The Ellington and Hereson School supposedly belongs to Kent County Council, but in fact, until 2032, the premises are owned, maintained and controlled by a Luxembourg-based investment vehicle called Bilfinger Berger Global Infrastructure, which also owns hospitals in Canada and prisons in Australia. Bilfinger Berger, in turn, subcontracts the job of running the school to the outsourcing company Mitie, which, among its many other deals, has the government contract for the forced removal of immigrants through Heathrow. The school is obliged to rent its own buildings, and to pay Mitie’s charges for maintenance or alterations. ‘Every time we want to change a light bulb, it costs £25,’ Colin Harris, the deputy head, told me. Ellington and Hereson has been trying to break away from Kent’s traditional selective education system – the county retains the 11-plus – by becoming an academy, which would result in its being funded directly from central government. But it would still have Bilfinger Berger as its landlord. Ellington and Hereson’s bid for academy status has been held up because Whitehall and Kent County can’t agree on who should pay the rent and service charge to Bilfinger Berger’s diffuse cloud of global investors.
This year Ann Gloag, the Perthshire castle-dwelling Scottish demi-billionaire, bought Thanet’s airport at Manston for £1, then closed it down; 144 people lost their jobs. Hornby, the model-train maker, which has been in Margate for sixty years, moved its distribution warehouse to another part of Kent, but there was little hullabaloo: the trains themselves have been made in China for a long time. Another part of the constituency, Sandwich, is still trying to pick itself up from the blow inflicted three years ago by the US drugs group Pfizer when it closed down most of its vast research lab, leaving only six hundred scientists where there had been 2500. The most promising development site in Ramsgate, the one-time Pleasurama amusement park on the seafront, has been left derelict by its absentee leaseholders for a decade. Of the 53 shops and restaurants in Broadstairs’s new Westwood Cross shopping centre, only two – a burger joint and a store selling boast-brand accessories – aren’t part of retail chains headquartered elsewhere. Westwood Cross has sucked the life out of Ramsgate’s high street, where the branches of the big banks look isolated among derelict shopfronts, charity shops, junk shops, pound shops and Bright House hire purchase, which offers a washing machine for £6 a week, at an annual interest rate of 65 per cent. Westwood Cross belongs to the London-based mega-landlord Land Securities, owner of 35 shopping centres and retail parks around the country.
Along the horizon offshore are the spinning turbines of Thanet Wind Farm, the world’s third largest. It belongs to Vattenfall, Sweden’s state electricity company. Thanet’s water supply and drainage system belongs to Southern Water, which is owned by a consortium of Hong Kong investment funds and Australian and Canadian pension funds, advised by an American and a Swiss merchant bank. Sewage spills by Southern regularly force the closure of Thanet beaches.
The growth of absentee landlordism and privatisation in Farage’s chosen battleground, the alienation of its economy and infrastructure from the people who live there, is overwhelmingly to do with choices made by successive British governments. To the extent it has anything to do with the EU, it’s the part of the EU that was designed by people like the former commodities broker who said recently at the Euromoney Global Borrowers and Investors Forum: ‘If, post-EU … we come up with a regulatory framework which is cheaper and more competitive, but retains the confidence of the customers, we can actually make London a more competitive marketplace for foreign banks from all over the world.’ The ex-broker was Nigel Farage.
The evidence at street level from Thanet is that while a sense of being taken for a ride by remote powers – Brussels, Westminster, Holyrood, Pfizer – draws people to Ukip, it isn’t the key attraction. Asked the morning after the Scottish independence referendum whether ‘the English question’ – should there be an England-only legislature to match those of Britain’s other three constituent nations? – could garner Ukip more votes than Europe, Farage said it was another Westminster misgovernment issue, as good for Ukip as Europe and immigration. But there’s no doubt which of those three Ukip is pursuing with most success in Thanet. The significance of the West Lothian question is as subtle and hard to grasp as the significance of those armies of Australian pensioners who benefit when the people of Ramsgate fill their kettles. Gloag’s financial manoeuvrings over Manston airport are as complex and tedious as the Common Fisheries Policy. What’s easy to understand is that in the streets of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate, people have appeared who speak Eastern European languages. This, according to Ukip, is the problem. ‘The UK’s population went up by half a million last year,’ a Ukip handout blares. ‘enough is enough.’ The handout shows a picture of the white cliffs of Dover with a sign hung on it reading ‘Sorry we’re full.’
‘What we have here, and this is what irks the youngsters, is all the unskilled jobs are going to East Europeans,’ said Martyn Heale, Ukip’s campaign manager in South Thanet. His logic was that the number of people from mainland Europe working in Britain and the number of unemployed indigenous Britons was about the same. His solution was a job swap: expel the Europeans and put Britons in their place, coercing them, if necessary. ‘Over two million Europeans are working in this country,’ he said. ‘The sensible way, over a two-year period, would be to train our people to replace Europeans in the jobs they’re working in. We would turn round to unemployed people and say if they don’t take the job, all benefits would cease. You have to encourage people to go back to work with a big stick sometimes.’
Heale was sitting behind his desk in Ukip’s Thanet headquarters, a narrow shop freshly painted in the party’s purple and yellow livery on a run-down thoroughfare off Ramsgate High Street. He’s a comfortably spread man with a Tudor beard and a permanent gentle smile of reassurance. I met him in high summer, weeks before Farage went public on where he would fight, but Heale and his deputy, Aaron Knight, were already on full salaries. Heale, originally from north Devon, has been many things: an apprentice chef after leaving school at 17, a prison officer. Most recently, he trained and provided a large door-to-door sales force as a subcontractor for the Scottish power company SSE. In 2011, SSE abandoned the doorstep selling of electricity when it was convicted of tricking customers into switching supplier. Heale says that his salespeople didn’t do anything wrong, that they were made scapegoats for the actions of other SSE staff. He is proud of the way he trained his troops to make a tough sell on the doorstep. ‘If you accept every time you get a no you’re a little bit closer to getting a yes, you’re closer to getting a sale.’
Heale was one of 17 Ukip members elected to Kent County Council last May, making them the second biggest party. (Of the eight seats in Thanet, Ukip won seven.) Before that, in 2003, Heale stood as an independent against a Tory councillor but lost. Before that, he was a Conservative for twenty years. Before that, living in London, he was in a group called the Progress Party; before that, he hung out with the anti-immigrant fringe politician Dennis Delderfield; before that, in 1978, he was a branch organiser with the National Front. ‘I met a lot of people in the prison service and families who were ex-forces,’ he said. ‘It was a bit of a social club. Initially the National Front was just a group of retired people and soldiers.’
In 1978, a trades union report catalogued more than a hundred violent racist attacks on Bengalis in the East End of London: ‘Hammer attacks, stabbings, slashed faces, punctured lungs, clubbings, gunshot wounds, people beaten with bricks, sticks and umbrellas, and kicked unconscious in broad daylight’. The report didn’t attribute the violence directly to the National Front, but accused them of encouraging it. That year, under the leadership of the anti-Semitic former neo-Nazi John Tyndall, the Front launched a racist campaign aimed at schoolchildren called How to Spot a Red Teacher: ‘You can recognise them when they sneer at our White race and nation and everything that has made Britain great.’ In view of Ukip’s insistence that it isn’t a racist party, I thought Heale might be defensive, or embarrassed, or apologetic, about having been a member of the NF in 1978. To my surprise, he came to its defence. ‘There’s been an attempt by many people to associate the National Front with the far right,’ he said, ‘but that’s not fair, that’s not true.’ Heale left the NF when he fell in love with and married an Egyptian woman. After some ugly encounters with other ex-members who were unhappy that he’d married outside his race, he moved to the coast.
Much of Heale’s organisational work is devoted to trying to broaden the party’s base beyond the middle-aged and the elderly. He’s had some success. The combination of Farage’s personality and the appeal of blaming Europe for Britain’s problems has drawn some young people to Ukip, among them the organiser of the school debate, Charlie Leys. Leys, who has just turned 18, hands out Ukip leaflets first thing each morning, goes to school, then works on the fish counter at the Ramsgate Waitrose in the late afternoon. Next year he’ll run for a seat on the local council.
I arranged to meet him again at the branch of Caffè Nero on the high street. Since Farage confirmed his candidacy Ramsgate has become infested by journalists. I was early for our meeting and sat down next to a preoccupied-looking man in the corner at the back. This meant I ended up talking to Leys in front of Kevin Hull, the producer of Channel Four’s Benefits Street, who is making a film about Thanet. Leys told me he’d experienced no hostility at school, though on the street he’d been called a racist, a homophobe, a bigot and a sexist. His career in politics began after a classroom session just before the 2010 election, when it became clear his teacher didn’t have a good grip on what a hung parliament was. Leys hit the internet. For the whole of his childhood up until then, he had known no government but Labour, and the economy had crashed; he concluded that it must be Labour’s fault, so couldn’t support them. He credited the Conservatives with putting the economy back on track, and did an internship with Laura Sandys, but couldn’t back the party fully because they were in favour of continued EU membership. Then, in his own words, he ‘found Ukip when they were still quite repressed’. ‘Repressed’, he meant, in the sense of being belittled and trivialised in the media. He finally joined the party in July, just after the school debate. Unbeknown to either of them, his father had joined Ukip at the same time.
I asked whether he or any member of his family had ever been obstructed or harmed by the European Union. ‘Personally, it’s never affected me,’ he said. ‘But it may well affect me in a negative way. In trying to get jobs. If we have an open door to Europe there’s potential for millions of people to come over.’ Leys was a fortnight shy of 18 at this point, but he voiced the same sentiment about Farage’s approachability you hear from older men: ‘I think the fact you can go and sit down in the pub and have a drink with Nigel is brilliant.’
For now, Farage has managed to maintain the perilous balance of seeming both a cheery squire from a pre-Blair pastoral – a comfortingly old-style conservative figure for old Conservatives, a kind of Denis Thatcherite – and a radical who annoys the establishment and wants to smash things up. In the absence of a populist left-wing party wanting to build a new world on the ruins of the old, the Ukip idea of rebuilding an old world on the ruins of the new is exciting enough to draw the young. But the closer Ukip gets to anything resembling power, the more it will be forced to channel rebelliousness into policy. Everyone in the party is bound to like it when Charlie Leys says about the European Union: ‘I don’t agree with most of our laws being made outside our country, and us having no say.’Not everyone in the party will like his uncompromising support for gay marriage. (‘I don’t like being told what to do’).
One evening I went for a drink with Aaron Knight, Martyn Heale’s 28-year-old assistant. His little cousin came with him and they both drank juice. ‘Martyn said I’m his secret weapon,’ Knight said. ‘I’m charismatic … I understand what Ukip wants to achieve. I truly believe I will be one of their key assets.’ But not unconditionally. ‘I said if the path they’re going on I deem not to be right I will walk away. I’m not there to pledge allegiance through light and darkness, I’m there to fight the noble cause.’
Knight is another Ramsgate native. His father died when he was 15. He began studying media at Thanet College, dropped out, moved away, did various jobs, moved back. ‘I don’t want to join the slave industry,’ he said. ‘I don’t like the concept of money. It seems to bring out the worst in people. I’m very much against it. I delved into conspiracy theory. Instead of listening to what everyone told me I decided to stop, listen and look at things from outside. I started to see patterns. I’m very interested in history, so I did a lot of reading history, science, religion. I kind of came up with a conception about how the world worked … I was very anti-politics for a long time. I decided to look at all the parties and see which ones aligned themselves with me in terms of how best for the future. I read a lot about them. I listened to Nigel Farage.’
Knight said he didn’t believe in all conspiracy theories, but there were ‘certain things where there is an alternative view of what occurred,’ like the attacks of 9/11, which he believes were carried out by the American government to create an excuse to invade Iraq, not for oil, but for archaeology. ‘I think they’re trying to dig up the ancient world,’ he said. I asked Knight where he gets his information from. He tends to begin the day, he said, with a Hungarian website called RSOE EDIS, which provides a map of newsy emergencies like earthquakes or Ebola outbreaks around the world – ‘just to keep track’. He uses the BBC. He regularly glances at Disclose.tv – ‘that’s my conspiracy forum I used to be on.’ He doesn’t tweet, but he does use Facebook. He expressed the orthodox purple and yellow creed on immigration – ‘British people, the natives, have become an underclass. The opinions we have are branded as racist’ – but without the bitterness that often accompanies it. ‘Ukip are genuinely the best option for here,’ he said. ‘I’m not saying countrywide.’
In 2012, Lord Ashcroft, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, published a report called They’re Thinking What We’re Thinking: Understanding the UKIP Temptation, based on a poll of twenty thousand people and 14 focus groups. He concluded that people were drawn to vote Ukip not because of its policies on Europe or immigration, but because it was the only party that gave voice to the cloud of fears, grumbles and prejudices they had previously been too afraid to utter:
Schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children. All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by Ukip voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.
Ashcroft warned against panic in Tory ranks, and against trying to emulate Ukip. ‘The Tories said once before that Britain was becoming a foreign land,’ he wrote, referring to William Hague in 2001. ‘We told those who agreed that if they came with us we would give them back their country. As we found, there is no future in that kind of approach for a party that aspires to govern, or appeal beyond a disgruntled minority. We cannot “dog whistle” to them that we share their view, in the hope that nobody else will notice.’ Ashcroft predicted Ukip’s triumph at the European elections, and the Tories’ drubbing. But it was nothing to be alarmed about: people had told his researchers that the European elections had as much meaning as the Eurovision song contest, and their votes were just a way of making a protest.
Ukip’s county council advance last spring was harder to dismiss. In Thanet, the history of the established parties is blighted by treachery, malfeasance, bullying and incompetence: fertile territory for an insurgency. In 1983, Cyril Hoser, a senior Conservative on the council, was jailed for six years for fraud and forgery. In 1999 Jonathan Aitken, Tory MP for South Thanet for 14 years, got 18 months for perjury. Last year, the former Tory leader of the council, Sandy Ezekiel, was sentenced to 18 months for abusing his powers to buy two neighbouring properties in Margate, one of them owned by the council, for himself. In 2013, a company called Transeuropa, which operated a ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend, went bust after a secret conclave of senior Labour and Conservative councillors had allowed it to build up £3.4 million in unpaid harbour fees. The council had to write off the debt. In 2012, a Tory member of the council, Ken Gregory, was cautioned by police after he left a voicemail message on the phone of a fellow councillor, the independent John Worrow, who is bisexual, saying: ‘With a bit of luck, you’ll get Aids.’ Not long afterwards the police called on a Labour councillor, Mike Harrison, who had described the bisexual Green councillor Ian Driver on Facebook as a ‘shirt-lifting gender bender’. When last year the council’s own standards committee noted the collapse of trust between the people of Thanet and the hung council, and the vindictive, aggressive atmosphere between the parties, the council rejected the report, and all four independent members of the standards committee resigned.
Driver is a defector from Labour. In the noughties, the head of the council’s planning committee was a Labour councillor, Ken Gregory. When Labour lost power and the Tories came in, Gregory left Labour, joined the Tories and kept his post. The candidate the Conservatives have selected to run against Farage, Craig Mackinlay, is a founder member and former party leader of Ukip. Some have wondered whether Ukip’s recent success might cause the Conservative Party to split. In Kent it’s already happening; many of Ukip’s councillors are defectors from the Tories.
‘In seaside areas, traditionally, politics have been quite fluid,’ said Norman Thomas, who produces Thanet Watch, a local investigative magazine. ‘There’s a feeling that lots of Tories are waiting to see which way the wind blows before jumping ship to Ukip.’ Thomas believes those most likely to vote for Ukip belong to one of two groups. The first is white flight migrants from London. ‘They thought London was this idealised place of jellied eels and pearly kings and queens and then these black people and other minorities came in and spoiled things so they came to places like Broadstairs and Margate. Thanet was seen as a sort of white enclave where they could be happy again. Lots of these people are still here and will be voting in their droves for Ukip – reasonably well off, probably without a personal axe to grind, but historically prejudiced. I’ve spent many an hour selling magazines in the town centre and inevitably, especially in Ramsgate, I won’t be there very long before someone comes up and starts telling me how wonderful the country was before all these foreign people came here.’
The other group is those trying to get work. Unemployment is at 10 per cent in Thanet, higher among the young. The coast is busy with rumours of Britons being passed over for minimum wage jobs in favour of East Europeans. Many people mention Thanet Earth, a set of four giant greenhouses in the countryside west of Ramsgate where in computer-controlled conditions Dutch industrial farmers grow tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for British supermarkets. The scale of the operation is gigantic: they have nearly a million tomato plants. ‘Thanet Earth was opened to great acclaim,’ Martyn Heale said. ‘It was going to provide hundreds and hundreds of local jobs. These jobs have gone entirely to people from Eastern Europe and Holland.’ I asked Thanet Earth if I could visit, or at least talk to them about Ukip’s claim. The PR agent for the site’s operators, Fresca, declined, and sent me a bland statement: ‘Thanet Earth has a diverse, cosmopolitan workforce of which we are very proud … A candidate must have a legal right to live and work in the UK, but their nationality is not a relevant consideration for us.’
According to the government’s migration advisory committee, half a million migrants from Eastern Europe have come to Britain to do low-skilled jobs since the EU was enlarged from 2004 onwards. Since 2010 tens of thousands have come from Spain, Portugal and Italy. The latest government estimate suggests that 4 per cent of the population of Kent is made up of non-British EU citizens. The committee’s most recent report is much less bleak about the impact of immigration from Europe than Ukip would like. Most of the problems, it suggests, are caused either by government failures or by exploitative employers, or both: employers take advantage of lax enforcement of the law to make cash-hungry, non-unionised migrants work excessively long hours, in poor conditions, for less than the minimum wage. In 2012 a chicken-catching firm in Kent, D.J. Houghton, was shut down by government agents after it was found to be treating its Lithuanian workforce like slaves, docking their wages for the privilege of sleeping in a damp, rodent-infested house or for spending a week living in a minibus roaming from farm to farm, the length and breadth of Britain. There are so few inspectors monitoring whether bosses are actually paying the minimum wage that at the present rate it would take two and a half centuries to get round every employer.
It’s no consolation to an 18-year-old in Ramsgate who can’t find work, but it’s hard to imagine Britain coping without immigrants. With Britons living longer and longer, someone will have to do the hefting and hauling. Since 1971, the population of Britain has increased by 25 per cent, but the number of men of retirement age has increased by 70 per cent.
Nonetheless, the immigration issue presents a challenge to traditional left-wing thinking about the protection of hard-won workers’ rights in countries that have them, and how to extend them to people from countries that don’t. It’s hard for liberals to answer the question, ‘If you don’t believe in absolute freedom for anyone in the world to live and work in Britain, where would you draw the line?’ The beginnings of an answer might be: ‘Where immigration is a means to undermine people’s existing rights, together with the rights of the people who are being used to undermine them.’
In the decorous company of sixth-formers or international businesspeople, Farage will insist he isn’t against immigration, or Europe, or Europeans – only against British membership of the European Union. Being anti-immigration, he has said, would be ‘moronic’. He says he wants a Switzerland-style trade relationship with the EU, and an Australian-style immigration system, based on points, with the world: fewer Polish builders, more Indian scientists. But this isn’t the message Ukip is putting out on the street, where, as Lord Ashcroft correctly noted, EU membership isn’t an issue. Immigration is. All immigration. Foreignness. Otherness. ‘Say no to mass immigration,’ a Ukip flyer in Thanet says. Rumours and urban legends about victimised indigenous Britons and pampered foreigners fly across the internet. Hate anecdotes in the right-wing press become generalised: if one foreigner is found to be cheating the system, there must be thousands like them, millions. Farage is the beneficiary. Ukip’s discourse isn’t so much a dog whistle as the full dog orchestra.
Whenever you mention Farage to people who like him, the conversation goes straight to immigration, without your having to mention it. I got chatting to two railworkers, Steve Hughes and Simon Breach, who were having a pint outside a pub on Ramsgate High Street. Both had it drummed into them by their fathers to vote Labour, with tales of the horrors of the Thatcher years. Both feel they were let down by their union, the RMT, in a recent dispute with their bosses. Both now intend to vote Ukip. ‘Farage tells you as it is,’ Hughes said. ‘What he’s for is a good thing because we are getting overrun. I’m not racist in the slightest. I’ve got a lot of friends who are black. But it seems like they’re getting more rights than we have, the immigrants … I’m 51 years of age. In my opinion, in fifty years time, I think this country will be run by the Muslims. I actually do.’
‘All this terrorism,’ Breach said. ‘There’s a lot of them here to cause a lot of problems. In London it’s one in three. It’s scary.’
Each told me a story about a deserving Briton close to them who’d had trouble getting money out of the welfare system, and each told me a story they’d heard from a third party about an immigrant popping into a government office and walking out with a fat loan cheque.
‘I’ve got a friend that runs a business,’ Hughes said. ‘He has about 15 or 16 Polish people working for him, because he only has to pay them £200 a week each. He doesn’t have to give them holiday pay, sick pay, annual leave or anything like that.’
‘They’re everywhere, the Polish,’ Breach said. ‘If they come over here and work for a living that’s fine, but they’re putting people out of work as well. You won’t get a harder worker than a Polish, they’ll work very hard and get paid peanuts. Who’s going to turn that away?’
‘We all know Ukip will never ever get into power,’ Hughes said. ‘But Farage is a fighter. He’s a gentleman. He likes a beer.’
In her 1938 novel The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen describes a train trip from London to the Kent seaside. It’s one of the most extraordinary journeys in English literature. Without stretching the bounds of the real, she takes her young protagonist, Portia, from a 19th-century milieu – a stuffy, oppressive, metropolitan townhouse, gloomy with servants, sexual frustration, snobbery, hypocrisy and heavy furniture – to a bright 20th-century world of freedom, consumerism and erotic risk. For decades, until the advent of cheap package holidays to Spain put an end to it, versions of that journey – from Britain’s dark, class and custom-bound cities to the beaches, amusements and liberties of the South Coast – kept Margate going. Cliftonville, the easternmost part of Margate and the only bit that lies in South Thanet constituency, was the site of street after street of tall terraced lodging houses, where the funsters slept and, I suppose, a significant proportion of my peers were conceived. ‘The town used to double, treble, quadruple in size in summer,’ said Clive Hart, one of Cliftonville’s Labour councillors. ‘Birmingham used to close down and send everybody here for a fortnight. I was born in a council house a mile from the sea. In the summer months my mum had to put a sign in the window saying “No places” because people were knocking on the door.’
In the early 1980s the holiday trade collapsed. The guesthouses of Cliftonville emptied out. Too big for family houses, their dozens of bedrooms, each with a sink in the corner, made ideal cheap bedsits. For the next thirty years, seized by the shifting tides of the economy or government policy, many of the most troubled inhabitants of South-East England washed up here, while Cliftonville decayed around them: refugees, victims of the bedroom tax, the unemployed, drug users, difficult neighbours other boroughs didn’t want. In recent years, two new groups have moved in: immigrants from Eastern Europe, including many Roma from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and middle-class migrants from London, looking to salvage, strip and repaint Cliftonville’s vintage heart.
Cliftonville as a whole is historically a Labour area, but Hart admitted he was struggling to hold the line against Ukip. Until recently he was the leader of the council, but he resigned in May after a Saturday night Twitter brawl ended with him tweeting at his critics in block capitals. ‘The working-class people, many of them are disgruntled, they feel let down by politicians of all sides,’ he told me. ‘I’ve done what I can for the underdog, the vulnerable. But I think they look at the three [national party] leaders and, you know, it’s hard to tell any difference between them. Even I sometimes feel that way. It’s all homogenised into the same type of person who’s running the country.’
The line dividing South Thanet from North Thanet – which Heale expects the Conservatives to hold – runs between Cliftonville and the east end of Margate’s main beach, putting the pearl of Margate’s recent revival, the Turner Contemporary art gallery, on the non-Farage side. The civic activists of the Ramsgate Society look with envy and admiration at the way their counterparts in Margate encouraged the council to back the project, the way it has acted as a gentrification bomb: it has given impetus to other efforts on Margate seafront, like the restoration of the Dreamland amusement park. They call it the Turner effect. One much talked about scenario is of Margate as the new Whitstable: first the artists come, then the commuters and the tourists.
I walked up the hill from the Turner one blazing afternoon and crossed into Cliftonville, into what may soon become Farageland. The railings of the old guesthouses were hung with black plastic rubbish sacks marked reusable seagull proof bag. The streets had the shabby grandeur I imagine Notting Hill might have had in the 1970s, and the sea was turquoise in the haze. I walked into Athelstan Road, where at one end a grand Victorian warehouse has been turned into studios for artists and craftspeople. Further on I started talking to the young men and women sitting out on their steps in the sunshine; they weren’t artists or craftspeople.
It’s hard to represent those conversations, because everyone was talking at once, and only one of them told me his name, and most of the men, stripped to the waist, flaunting their tattoos, were drunk, emphasising their points with waves of the cans in their hands. I only had to say I was writing an article about Ukip, and they were off, saying how much they loved Farage, how they wanted him to sort out the immigrants. ‘I swear to God, Ukip needs to do something,’ said one man, who described himself as a car dealer, and said he was trying to sell the silver car parked at the kerb opposite. ‘You live on this road for three months, I’m telling you now, if you wasn’t racist, you soon would be. The Polish are all right, I’ve got time for them. At the end of the day they’re putting money in the till. Here, they sit outside their steps drinking, spit bird seeds out, just a drain on our resources.’
‘I’ll vote Ukip,’ the woman next to him said, ‘because my little boy, when I was younger, you would rarely see a black person, and now it’s “spot the white person”.’
As I was leaving, one of the tipsy rhetoricians took me aside. His name was Chris. He’d had a good job working on the wind farms but something had gone wrong. As we talked his partner was weaving to and fro on the periphery, her face dark and blotched as a result of substance abuse, her calves below the hem of her dress complex with weeping sores. Chris told me how much better she was than she had been; it was only recently that she’d started wearing dresses again. He searched for the right euphemism to explain her plight. ‘She’s a former user of the brown,’ he said. He took me to the alleyway leading to their basement bedsit. His neighbours threw trash down into the back yard, he said, and pointed to the line of pot plants he’d bought and arranged around their door. He must have been drinking all day, but he wanted to show that he was trying, that he cared.
Around the corner in the next street I met some of the neighbours. What may have been an entire family of Slovaks, perhaps a dozen of different ages, was sitting and standing out in front of their house. The only one who spoke English, a 15-year-old girl called Jessica, began to talk, then became hard and suspicious. ‘Why are you talking only to Slovaks?’ she asked.
A few doors along a group of Czech Roma guys, all sober, were chatting outside. Miroslav had a head of Christ with a crown of thorns on a thick silver chain around his neck, a tattoo of a pistol and roses on his left pectoral and, in the middle of his chest, the emblem of a Kalashnikov with the words ‘50 Gypsies’. ‘I don’t like them,’ he said, referring to the Slovaks, ‘because they make us look bad.’ Miroslav had been in England since he was 11. He’d just left a factory job and he was about to start work in a Mercedes showroom. ‘I don’t have a British passport, but I feel totally English,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I am English, but because I’ve been here for such a long time, I feel part of the English.’
In Britain the Roma are often mistaken for people from South Asia. Miroslav told me he’d been randomly attacked in the street – for racial reasons, he assumed – but he didn’t seem to see anything unusual about it. He made it sound as if it was just one of those things, like getting caught in the rain. The remarkable thing, and the only reason he mentioned it, was that after he was attacked a white English person came to his aid. He wove for me a touching imaginary scenario in which Farage might be attacked in the street, and one of the Czech Roma might come to his aid, take his bloodied body in his arms and comfort him. Like many working immigrants, Miroslav sympathised with some of Ukip’s ideas without sympathising with the party. ‘You’ve got to see who’s trying to come to work and pay tax, and see who is coming here just to claim benefit,’ he said. ‘They’re a racist party. You can’t chuck all people in the same bag.’
Despite the widespread belief to the contrary, EU immigrants have to overcome extra hurdles before they can get benefits in Britain. In Broadstairs I met P., a 25-year-old from Wrocław, who, after five and a half years in the UK and a masters in linguistics from King’s, has acquired perfect English – good enough to get a job teaching immigrants the language. She works on a government programme called ‘conditionality’. Claimants with poor English skills have two rounds of 24 weeks’ teaching. If they don’t show improvement, their benefits are stopped.
I showed her some of the milder Ukip literature, which she found unexceptionable. ‘There are so many people who just stay here and stay on benefits and I’m also paying for their houses so I’m not supporting that, really,’ she said. ‘But at the same time there are many people who are trying to contribute to the taxes and the welfare of the country.’ I showed her the ‘Sorry, we’re full’ leaflet. She wrinkled her nose. ‘That’s horrible. I think it’s targeted at not really educated people.’
Having lived in London for most of her time in England, P. felt she had emigrated all over again by moving to Thanet. ‘When this came up I didn’t even know where Margate was,’ she said. ‘This is my first encounter with the real English. All the little traditions. The things they talk about at work. Not about culture, nothing political, about families, about pub outings and karaoke nights and promotions at Iceland. And everyone eats really badly here. I thought it was just a myth people are fat here but they eat really badly and they don’t cook.’
One of the ideas behind the design of the current EU was that, in terms of labour, it would become more like the United States; that people would be able to do exactly what they are doing, crossing the continent to where the jobs are, moving from Poland to England as easily as Americans move from Oklahoma to California. But even in America, ‘as easily as’ isn’t always easy, and Europe’s working class is far less culturally cohesive than its American counterpart. The US also has a federal minimum wage. Besides, a United States of Europe is exactly the dread spectre Ukip evokes in opposing British membership of the EU.
So far the Conservatives have suffered most from the depredations of Ukip, but Farage raises an awkward issue for Labour that it has yet to acknowledge: the EU is a hybrid project. It serves the interests of social justice and global capitalism simultaneously. The EU that forces mobile phone firms to lower their roaming charges and Britain to clean up its beaches is also the EU that is giving multinationals the power to sue governments. The EU that tries to give British workers greater rights is also the EU that makes it easy for employers to play national workforces off against each other. Reacting to this, in Britain, in France, in Sweden, in Finland, in Germany, in the Netherlands and in many other EU countries, an ad hoc pan-European alliance of right wing anti-immigration parties is growing in strength. As a Europe-wide confluence of ideas and action, the progressive left is dallying in the coffee shop.