“We need a fresh face.”

These were the words that UKIP’s one and only MP, Douglas Carswell, uttered just last Friday. He was of course talking about his desire for a change in the party’s leadership; out with the Farage and in with the new.

He was always a notoriously rebellious MP for the Conservatives; so much so that he eventually opted for the highest form of rebellion available to an MP – defection. Far be it for me to attempt to offer any constructive advice to UKIP; their political success is not something I yearn for. But in Carswell’s call for a replacement for Nigel Farage, I’ve noticed a silver lining in UKIP; one that represents a chance for a positive change to the political debate we have in the UK.

I’ve always believed Carswell to be the one good part of UKIP. A seemingly intelligent, committed, and principled Member of Parliament; his love of free market economics may be entirely at odds with my political persuasion, and I fundamentally disagree with his desire to leave the EU, but I can’t deny that he has a certain approach to public service that a good number of his parliamentary colleagues could learn from. It’s a shame that a man who makes up one hundred percent of UKIP’s parliamentary party seems to have such a miniscule degree of influence within the party as a whole.

“Farage is a populist in a way that Carswell clearly is not”

UKIP has an inherent crisis in identity that is reflected in the complete and utter contrast between the membership of the party and Mr Carswell. The party membership tends to be defined by socially illiberal, anti immigrant and, in my opinion, politically anachronistic people. In contrast, Carswell reflects another strand of UKIP, that of the social libertarian, passionately free market economic and a belief in the unequivocal sovereignty of the UK parliament.

So what is UKIP at heart? Does it even have a true identity? Is it Carswell’s UKIP or is it the UKIP of the party membership and voters?

In fact, it is most probably neither. As many have observed, UKIP seems to be whatever its helmsman, Nigel Farage, wants it to be. He is fundamental to the image of the party and what it represents.

To solve this identity crisis then, we must delve deep into the mind of Nigel Farage. It seems to me that he falls into neither the Carswell camp or the traditionalist UKIP camp. The basis for his anti EU rhetoric is, in my view, most likely based on a mixture of closed mindedness and nationalistic tendencies combined with principled beliefs in national sovereignty. Is it because he hates immigrants? I’m not certain either way, but I am certain he is not as open minded as Carswell and I’ve never been convinced he is free from all prejudices.

“Clearly there is something about the party that Carswell doesn’t like, otherwise he wouldn’t come out with such comments”

The pair of them share a passionate belief that the UK parliament should control things and the EU shouldn’t interfere. Like Carswell, Farage has a profound distaste for the arguably undemocratic nature of the EU. However, unlike Carswell, he doesn’t seem to mind playing along with the socially illiberal, anachronistic, anti-foreigner supporters. In this sense, Farage is a populist in a way that Carswell clearly is not.

Farage hit back at Carswell’s call for a new leader by telling him to “put up or shut up”. Clearly there is no love lost between the two. A browse of the UKIP website reveals just how little love the party has for Carswell too. After some searching, you will eventually stumble across a single headshot of the MP. He was nowhere to be seen on the “Key People” page of the website, and his photo was even positioned below the three UKIP members of the House of Lords. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising when Carswell makes public comments against the leader of the party, but as the only source of de jure legislative influence the party has, it certainly says something about what UKIP wants to be and who Farage is trying to please. Its definitely not the social libertarians.

Clearly there is something about the party that Carswell doesn’t like, otherwise he wouldn’t come out with such comments. When he suggested back in May, just after the general election result, that Farage should, “take a break as leader,” he mentioned concerns with the tone of the party. He doesn’t like the socially illiberal, politically anachronistic vibes that UKIP resonates. And who would? Well, I would bet a good proportion of the nearly four million people who voted for them.

“Popularity is far fickler than ideology”

So, by this logic, Carswell doesn’t like the party, but nearly four million people seem to think it’s pretty great the way it is. But then again, of course they do, that is the essence of populism- it’s popular!

But alas, populist parties like UKIP have an inherent problem. Popularity is far fickler than ideology. It may seem like the anti-immigrant, socially illiberal feeling is painfully permanent among certain people of this country, but maybe it isn’t as hard wearing as it first appears. The younger generation are quite clearly far more liberally minded and international in their thinking. As the world globalises at an increasing pace, friends, colleagues, and fellow campaigners are less and less restricted by international borders. Before long, this fresh wave of liberal mindedness will be the populist choice. The populism of UKIP doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot of life left in it; the ideology of Douglas Carswell on the other hand, is much more likely to.

If UKIP has the sense to think long term, it will listen to Carswell and break free from the recklessness of populism. As much as I inherently and vehemently disagree with Carswell’s views on many things, I would much rather see a debate between the free market and state intervention in the economy; between the desire for national sovereignty and the benefits of the EU, rather than a debate tainted by illiberal, nationalistic and outdated nonsense that is nothing short of dangerous.

Ed Matthews

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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