Life in the Land of Britain's Political Insurgents

From its base in a sleepy seaside town, the UK Independence Party is forcing a debate about immigration and national identity.

The pier in Clacton-on-Sea (Amie Ferris-Rotman)

CLACTON-ON-SEA, England—In 1964, as Britain experienced an influx of Asian and African post-colonial immigrants, Conservative Party member Peter Griffiths was controversially elected to parliament, winning on the slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” It was a virulently racist campaign that shocked the British establishment, leading Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to brand Griffiths a “leper,” jumpstarting the Birmingham division of the Ku Klux Klan, and evoking ire—and a whistle-stop visit—from Malcolm X.

Fast-forward 50 years, and Britain is once again engaged in a row over racism in the lead-up to a general election on May 7—this time centering on the UK Independence Party (UKIP) headed by Nigel Farage. The beer-guzzling euroskeptic leader is perpetually surrounded by scandal, whether as a result of his unabashed dislike of Romanians or his call for the abolishment of race laws aimed at preventing prejudice in the workplace. His party’s positions, which include exiting the European Union, imposing tougher laws against migration, and increasing defense spending and free trade, have cultivated criticism but also pockets of UKIP support across the country. Britain’s net migration rate—the difference between the annual number of people entering and leaving the country—has declined from nearly five people for every 1,000 in 2007, before the global financial crisis, to just over three people in 2013, which puts the U.K. rate around the EU average. But according to the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory, the percentage of the British population with an immigrant or ethnic-minority background will likely double between now and 2050. Farage, for his part, has dismissed claims that he is racist, saying his party is “color-blind.”

With this in mind, I traveled to Clacton-on-Sea, the unofficial seat of UKIP’s success. It was in this town on the North Sea, in October of last year, that Conservative member of parliament Douglas Carswell did something previously unfathomable: He defected to UKIP and won a race, securing the party its first ever seat in the U.K. parliament. A month later, another Conservative MP, Mark Reckless, switched to UKIP as well. Farage has since predicted that his party will win at least 10 of Westminster’s 650 seats in next month’s election. UKIP may still be a pint-sized political player, but it’s having outsized influence on the political conversation in Britain at the moment.

Clacton is run-down, with many of its Victorian-era townhouses in decay. In the wider district, unemployment is high, one in five children lives in poverty, and one in three residents is a pensioner. The city center is dotted by charity shops and the walk to the seafront is flanked by garishly lit arcades; inside, unemployed young people pass the time. “I’ve got no choice but to vote UKIP,” Ivy Levi, an 86-year-old former shop assistant, told me. She leaned in so I could hear her above the clamor of seagulls scouring the area for discarded fish and chips. “Even the immigrants don’t want more coming in. The Poles and Romanians do work hard, but they’ve got to go.”

Ahead of Carswell’s win, the satirical British artist Banksy graffitied a mural on a Clacton building by the sea. Five dark gray pigeons were depicted on one side of the painting, with a little green bird on the other. The pigeons hoisted signs with messages such as “Migrants not welcome.” The work, estimated to be worth around $600,000, was whitewashed by the local council shortly after it appeared, ironically on the grounds that the mural itself incited racism. Today, in its stead, several layers of white paint face a brownish North Sea.

Carswell disputes the notion that the debate over immigration to the United Kingdom has played a key role in UKIP’s election campaign and success. “The fundamental issue is not Europe or migration. It’s a political disconnect, and this is common across the Western world,” he told me. “It’s about being left behind economically and politically. The smug politician on the television is out of touch with the rest of us.”

Regarding migration, Carswell called for Britain to model its immigration system on that of Australia, where a small number of skilled migrants who pass a test of their English-language ability and education level receive visas—and where the United Nations alleges that torture and human-rights violations are taking place at offshore processing centers for immigrants. UKIP officials are incensed that workers from new EU countries like Bulgaria can come to the United Kingdom and use its free and overburdened National Health Service. “It’s a slightly daft world where an Indian doctor cannot come into this country but a Bulgarian with a criminal record can,” Carswell said. He is silver-tongued, in sharp contrast to the gaffe-prone Farage (the UKIP leader hasn’t just come under fire for his comments on race; he recently theorized that women who have children are “worth less” to employers, and suggested that businesses ask women to “sit in a corner” when breastfeeding).

Concerns about immigration, along with other factors like disaffection with economic-austerity policies, have boosted far-right political parties and groups from hamlets on the Aegean Sea to the high-rises of Berlin. Paradoxically, a number of right-wing, anti-EU parties, including UKIP, have risen to power through European systems. UKIP’s shocking win in last year’s European Parliament elections—they beat all British parties by amassing 24 seats—injected the party with the self-assured chutzpah on display today.

UKIP voters, who tend to be older and male, “are angry at British elites because of the way they handled issues like corruption, crime, European integration, and immigration,” said Cas Mudde, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

The United Kingdom has generally enjoyed healthy voter turnout in the post-war period. But general-election turnout plummeted to its lowest level since World War II in 2001, when just under 60 percent of the population voted, rebounding slightly to 65 percent in 2010. The figures reflect growing apathy in the country about establishment politics. According to government data released last year, 42 percent of those aged 16 to 24 report that they have no interest in politics, compared with 21 percent of those 65 and over who say the same. And Britain’s young people, who are more likely to be unemployed than any other age group, are not just saying it; 44 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2010, compared with 76 percent of those 65 and older. One such youth is 22-year-old Bradley Collins, an unemployed Clacton native who told me he wasn’t sure whether he would vote next month. “The government is not strict enough on migrants,” he said between puffs on a cigarette beside the town’s popular McDonald’s. “They let them all in, and my generation suffers as a result. We can’t get jobs.”

In this environment, populism—both on the right and on the left, in the form of the Green Party—has soared. “With more older people voting in the U.K., and fewer younger people taking part, our country is more likely to be dragged further to the right as politicians battle to ‘out-UKIP’ UKIP,” said Nick Ryan, a spokesman for Hope not Hate. The London-based anti-extremism organization has mapped and ranked 15 U.K. constituencies where there is a “risk” of UKIP keeping or taking a seat in May. Clacton is firmly in first place. Coming in second is South Thanet in Kent, where Farage is standing for election.

Carswell dismissed characterizations of UKIP as far-right as “lazy analysis,” and the party has refused to form an alliance with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front in France. But UKIP has undoubtedly changed since Alan Sked founded the anti-EU party in 1993 at the London School of Economics, where he teaches international history. Sked has called Farage, who took the reins in 1999, a “racist political failure” and UKIP “a Frankenstein’s monster.”

On the streets of Clacton, where just eight percent of residents are foreign-born, immigration is a charged topic. “They say we take their jobs, but I don’t see how that’s possible when we have the lowest positions, for the least amount of money. Brits don’t want this work,” said 27-year-old Beatrycze, who came from Poland to waitress at an Italian restaurant on the seafront three years ago. Beatrycze shares a single room in the town with two other Polish workers. Across Clacton, residents spoke of the Dickensian conditions that migrant workers are willing to endure in order to save money. “Normal people [non-migrants] can’t live off these wages. They want a separate kitchen, living room. They have families,” said Ali, a kebab shop owner. He is proud of becoming a British citizen after arriving from Turkey 15 years ago. Ali pointed to the adjacent building, which he also owned. It’s currently UKIP's Clacton campaign office. “Nothing ever changes with politics,” he said playfully. “As long as they pay their rent on time, I’m happy.”