It is being called a very English revolution. In a country known for its awkward shyness and disdain for continental-style exuberance, the political establishment is unnerved by an eccentric populist party composed of real ale drinkers in red trousers.
Last week’s local elections in England and Wales saw the anti-EU UK Independence Party win 26pc of the poll in the areas it stood and in the South Shields parliamentary by-election it drew 25pc of all votes.
Led by ex-financial trader Nigel Farage, an anti-politician who conducts his interviews over a pint and cigarette, and who speaks plain English in contrast to the politico-speak of the establishment party politicians, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the group is causing panic in Westminster.
Neither would it be wrong to suggest that the rise of anti-politics parties in England has lessons for Ireland’s changing society.
UKIP began life in 1993 as a protest against Britain’s membership of the EU and the three-party consensus that emerged after Margaret Thatcher’s political assassination, but as the 2000s went on it soon began to develop as a populist revolt against socially liberal Westminster groupthink on a number of issues, but above all on immigration. For that reason the party has made huge inroads into traditionally Labour areas where the Tories are politically dead.
There is a genuine sense of betrayal in these red strongholds. Under Tony Blair, the party embarked on a policy of mass immigration, a change spectacularly unpopular among the public, yet one that went unopposed because among those with power and wealth there was a consensus that “diversity” was beneficial and moral.
This dates to the cultural changes that developed after World War Two, one of which was a growing horror at the racism of the Third Reich, apartheid South Africa and the American South. This contributed to the development of a new universalist creed, in some ways a successor faith to Christianity, in which to exclude or discriminate on grounds of ethnicity or nationality would be the new cardinal sin.
This was a philosophy created by and for Britain’s comfortable middle class, for whom our new diverse society was rather colourful and vibrant – it meant diligent foreign workers, exotic food, and a smattering of different nationalities at their local schools. For the British poor the reality of immigration was competition for jobs and houses, while the demographic change in their neighbourhoods was far more sweeping and disturbing.
Britain went through two periods of mass immigration, the first in the 1950s and ’60s, and the second from 1997. The first wave of migrants came in the midst of social upheaval that made integration harder. Now when people demand Muslims adopt “British values” they are often values our grandparents would not have recognised.
Britain governed its new peoples through community leaders. Many had a vested interest in maintaining separation and this, combined with white liberal distaste for anything as crass as “Britishness”, brought about the anti-integrationist policy of multiculturalism, which came to be discredited after the northern race riots of 2001 and the 7/7 bombings.
And yet Ireland is well down the same road. In November, President Michael D Higgins addressed the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, where he said that if we are to “practice equality” we must understand that “‘belonging’ is not the imitation or the subservience of one culture to another”. Diverse cultures should instead “bring about a new sense of solidarity” and an understanding that “integration is a two-way process”.
That’s what they used to say in England, too. Yet just 40 years after Britain became the “permissive society”, forced marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation are not uncommon among Britain’s Islamic minority, approaching 5pc of the population. There is now a serious problem with segregation, radicalisation and sectarianism in many English towns.
On top of this failure there is growing evidence suggesting that cultural, ethnic and religious diversity weakens the institutions that liberals prize. At some point those on the Left, in Ireland and England, will have to ask themselves what they value more, diversity or equality? Until they can find an answer the voters will continue to drift to the Right.
This article was published in The Irish Independent