The decision was made one December afternoon as we poked bare toes into the clean, golden sand outside the Pavilion on Broadstairs seafront.
The beach curved around us and the sun shone while the rest of the UK shivered under grey skies and sleet. Why the hell, we asked ourselves, aren’t we living here? Our inner-city children spent their lives, whey-faced, staring at various screens, our tiny flat cost a king’s ransom, and this was all so beautiful: why weren’t we enjoying this Swallows and Amazons life, all cream teas and crab sandwiches?
Nine years later, I realise that, despite its gorgeous location, the Pavilion is a shitehole boozer that sells horrible food, the children are still stuck to their screens, despite our best efforts (including joining the sailing club: brief pause for the hollowest of laughs at that one), and something nasty is stirring in my adopted home town. Until recently, when I spoke to people about where I live, it was about those miles of beautiful beaches, the microclimate, the Georgian and Edwardian architecture, the flourishing art scene, the glorious Kentish produce. It is a part of England brimming with life and energy and passion, from both locals and incomers. But that nastiness means that when I now say “Thanet”, people hear “Ukip”. Ukip has my constituency firmly in its sights, parachuting in its main man, Nigel Farage, in an act of bullish intent. When Farage ran for election here in 2005, the party was regarded as a bunch of marginal wackos, rather than serious contenders. Now, South Thanet is a bellwether seat: victory here might be just the chisel in the crevice that Ukip needs to split the political landscape wide open.
So Farage knows the turf. I know it, too. For a couple of years, in an attempt to integrate with my new community, I ran a tiny cafe, selling the crab sandwiches I couldn’t find elsewhere. But I gave up: the introduction of one of the UK’s first lobster rolls was treated with as much suspicion as if I’d labelled them Bulgarian Homosexual Wedding Pies. A Pearly King from Ramsgate swore violently for a good 10 minutes because we couldn’t do him a fried egg sandwich.
There’s a faction here that regards innovation with jittery distaste, and that extends to incomers. Urban refugees are dismissed as DFLs (Down From Londoners), irrespective of where we come from (I’m from Scotland, so I guess that makes me a DFS). But if the odd local blog bristles that us lot should “go back where we came from”, the antipathy to immigrants from farther away (8.59% of the local population, according to a recent Oxford University study; far lower than the 12.5% national average) is much stronger: especially to the eastern Europeans, many of whom have landed in scruffy parts of Cliftonville, where they have belligerently set about opening shops and car washes, and trying to get on with their lives. When I moved here, Cliftonville’s main drag, Northdown Road, was dying and decaying; it is not about to rival Bond Street any time soon, but it now has stores selling all kinds of food, Indian and Thai restaurants, and a wonderful artistic community at Resort Studios. Still, a typical conversation about immigration can go like this:
Alan (not his real name), house agent: “Ukip knows what’s going on.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Alan: “All the Bulgarians.”
Me: “All the time I have lived here, I have never seen loads of Bulgarians. Where are they?”
Alan: “One drives around in a big car.”
Or John (ditto), plumber: “Well, Ukip are a bit fascist, aren’t they? Like the Nazis. But they might be better than what we’ve got right now.”
At the end of 2013, when our MP Laura Sandys (Conservative, excellent) announces she intends to stand down at the general election, citing “a wide range of family demands”, I start to watch Farage’s steps with a sense of impending doom.
By autumn 2014, the candidates are announced, and it’s not looking great. In addition to the creeping inevitability that was Nige, there’s twentysomething local boy Will Scobie for Labour – seems like a nice chap, makes all the right noises, but his youth and lack of battle scars lead many to suspect that Labour have just abandoned hope. Spooked by a challenge some way to their right, the Tories have put forward former Ukip treasurer and vice-chairman Craig Mackinlay, a move that’s seen as an attempt to out-Ukip Ukip, and a big shift away from the considerably more moderate Sandys. The Green candidate, Ian Driver, has meanwhile been busy proposing a cannabis cafe and lodging council standards complaints – against himself (for his “disgraceful and disreputable actions” in entering the derelict Pleasurama site on the Ramsgate seafront). He is ex-Militant Tendency, ex-Socialist Labour party, former Thanet Independent Group. Politics here is a flexible pursuit.
Then come the various fringe parties, including Nigel Askew, the landlord of Ramsgate’s cool Queen Charlotte pub, who is standing for former Happy Monday Bez’s Reality Party; and comedy turn Al “The Pub Landlord”Murray for FUKP (Free United Kingdom Party). There’s a stout, gingerish chap in African robes who styles himself the Prophet Zebadiah of the Al-Zebabist Nation of Ooog and advocates the eradication of “arrogant, elitist, violent” Broadstairs. (He is also known as grime artist Robert Boaler.)
It’s all a bit toe-curling, but pretty much a contained, local joke until the Al Murray announcement in January. My Twitter stream, largely metropolitan, explodes with mirth: this’ll take Farage down a peg or two! Me, I worry it’ll further dilute the vote in an area of high deprivation, desperately in need of politicians who actually care. Murray is clearly all about Murray, his pint-toting, “British moon on a stick” shtick a parody of Ukip’s main man. But the irony seems lost on a number of Thanet voters, who reckon he’s quite the card. Even those who get the irony are tempted; after Murray comes for a visit, brewer Eddie Gadd tells me, “I got a sense that he and his team have a very real, serious purpose here – to maybe, just maybe, pinch sufficient votes to prevent these postmodern fascists from getting elected. I’m all for him. I’ll vote for whoever is most likely to stop that sneering, opportunistic wanker from getting elected.” He means Farage.
Yes, there are pockets of wealth in Thanet, much of it retired wealth and therefore fertile Ukip territory. But the poor are fearful, too, and Ukip knows how to manipulate those fears. Thanet suffers from immense shortages of housing and jobs. When pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer abandoned its Thanet plant in 2011, it had a seismic effect on employment: 3,000 out of a job in one blow, in an area with some of the highest youth unemployment in the country. Boarded-up shops and businesses mushroomed. In 2013, Stagecoach boss Ann Gloag bought the local Manston airport for £1, and there was excited talk about a new Richard Branson; seven months later, she shut down all flights and sold a majority stake to “regeneration specialists”, I imagine for considerably more than a quid. It is now empty and mouldering. There is also desperate child poverty, a shocking 50% or higher in parts of Cliftonville. Somehow, I can’t see Bez or Murray doing a whole lot to address any of this.
The media, meanwhile, can’t believe its luck: what a gift! A farce populated by improbable characters, all played out in real time. Last month, BBC2 screened a jaw-dropping documentary, Meet The Ukippers, in which former Ukip councillor Rozanne Duncan outlined her problems with “negroes” and “negroid features”, and there were delighted comparisons with The League Of Gentlemen. The day after its broadcast, Mark Gatiss, co-creator of the TV show, tweeted: “Thanks for all the kind words about the new ‘League’ series last night. #MeetTheUkippers.” Oh, ho ho: Ukip may have since booted Duncan out, but she still serves on Thanet district council.
In Broadstairs, meanwhile, the Ukip leaflets are arriving, yellow and purple as a bruise, urging us to join the Thanet People’s Army. It makes me feel motivated, but not in the way that’s intended.
It’s a bitter evening, sea winds strafing the sand as we trudge towards the Walpole Bay hotel in Cliftonville, a self-styled “living museum” where I once saw a punch-up between pensioners over a draughty window. Tracey Emin is a regular. Farage is speaking this evening, and we’d like to hear what he has to say.
It turns out we can’t get in. Despite being billed as a public meeting, it’s “by invitation only”. So we join a shivering band of protesters outside, a slightly bedraggled bunch being filmed for Polish TV. Where are the young people? There aren’t any, on either side. If this is the Thanet People’s Army, it’s possibly running on Voltarol. Two women laugh: “It’s only us tough old birds who can face the cold.” A man in a linen suit and panama hat sweeps past into the hotel, looking for all the world like Colonel Sanders; he’s by far the nattiest dressed of the Kippers who, on this showing, seem to be late-middle-aged women in bad anoraks.
Many local anti-Ukip protests are galvanised by a tiny, loud woman who goes by the soubriquet Bunny La Roche and who last December lambasted Farage from the audience on Question Time, her blue hair and cries of “racist scumbag” making a lasting impression. Her group is called Thanet Stand Up To Ukip. I ask people whom they’re voting for; several say Al Murray or Nigel Askew, “to split the vote”. No one seems to worry this might split the vote in a way that helps Ukip. There is no sign of Farage all night: they must have huckled him in and out of the back entrance.
There has been a fracas on Broadstairs high street, where people distributing Ukip leaflets have been shouting abuse at locals: “communist scum”, “Paedophile protection party” and (my favourite) “Go home and knit another scarf”. Ukip denies all knowledge, spluttering that the leafleters are fifth columnists and impostors.
Iain Aitch, a Margate-born journalist, has helped make a series of “Ukip put me off my beer” beermats to distribute around local pubs. “It’s a non-party-aligned protest that gives Ukippers a taste of their own medicine,” he tells me. “They make people feel uncomfortable on the basis of their race, where they come from, their sexuality or religion. They are golf club bores with a former NF candidate leading their local campaign.” He means Martyn Heale, South Thanet Ukip chairman.
On another freezing night, we join a protest outside the Pavilion; again, Farage is expected. And, again, it’s invitation only. What is he afraid of? I turn up with a local journalist, Jane Wenham-Jones, with hopes of scoring a press entry, but when she tries to get in to question Chris Wells, Ukip councillor and father of 11, she is taken by the arm and firmly escorted outside.
Another activist stalwart at these gigs is Christine Tongue, film-maker and editor of Thanet Watch magazine. She has been banned from attending Ukip meetings since publishing last month’s cover lampooning Farage, his beaming face flanked by Al Murray and the Prophet Zebadiah with a shared speech bubble: “I’m the joke candidate.” This kind of strong-arm behaviour seems par for the course: two young chaps saunter in, looking very different from tonight’s retired-double-glazing-magnate-with-small-brushy-moustache style. They’re ejected, despite having invitations; party security has identified them as “not Ukip supporters”. The meeting has been billed as “open to everyone”.
Several older people join our protest, thinking we are waiting to get in. Some younger people mistake us for the queue for the cinema next door. My feet feel frostbitten. If I’m going to continue being a political agitator, I am going to have to invest in some thermals.
A hustings in Ramsgate, with candidates from all the major parties, plus the Prophet Zebadiah, a nice lady, Ruth Bailey, who wants to talk about the future of Manston airport, and a bloke from the iPUT Thanet First party. There is a lot of waffling, none of which seems particularly relevant to Thanet: a question about the minimum wage reveals that only the Green and Labour candidates have any idea what it is. The Prophet chap commits the unforgivable crime of being a comedy character who isn’t funny. Farage isn’t here, of course; he’s at yet another invitation-only gig elsewhere in town.
The only issues that get any real traction are digs (from all the parties) at Thanet district council’s notorious “brown envelope” culture, and promises to clamp down on corruption. The most impressive performance comes from Labour’s Will Scobie, despite a sense that he is fighting a solitary battle – an impression amplified when he later tweets Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, attempting to tap them for a grand each towards his fighting fund: “£1,000 could make a big difference to us.” (Other, choosier candidates have made a point of refusing Blair’s money.) Even so, Scobie seems more poignant than grasping, especially compared with Farage’s plea that “ordinary people” in South Thanet “chip in a few bob”.
Russ Timpson is persuasive for the Lib Dems, and there is a bravura anti-fracking speech from Reality’s Nigel Askew. But, all told, nobody comes close to the clammy glamour of Farage. He wins without even turning up.
It’s the big one: the anti-Ukip demonstration timed to coincide with February’s party conference at the Winter Gardens. The day before we arrive, a troupe of local dancers performs Springtime For Hitler in front of the venue; they’re publicising a forthcoming local production, and seem to go down well with the party faithful. One, Roger Helmer MEP, quoted Joseph Goebbels in a spirited blog response: the producers of The Producers “seem to have taken at least one move out of Herr Goebbels’ play-book”, he writes, before adding sagely, “Of course, that doesn’t mean that Goebbels was right – or not always.”
We meet at Margate station, the cold and rain no impediment to a festive atmosphere: music, face painting, some slightly lame chanting of “Nigel Farage, you’re so foul/You are just like Enoch Powell.” A double-decker bus in lilac Ukip livery circles mournfully, empty. From inside the conference, we hear that Janice Atkinson MEP, candidate for Folkestone and a woman who last year described a Thai constituent as a “ting tong from somewhere”, has called our band of about 600 (not 250, as reported elsewhere) “the great unwashed”. All of us – restaurateurs, B&B owners, sixth formers, teachers, antiques dealers – try not to take this too personally. Just as well: last week, Ukip suspended Atkinson over allegations of a “serious financial nature” related to inflated expenses claims.
Placards here are mostly of the “Frack off Farage” variety, but there are some deliciously “Down with this sort of thing” efforts: “Dear Ukip, it’s not too late to change your mind”; “Racism is illogical, Captain”; “Ukip in, Waitrose closes” (admittedly that last is the work of my husband).
The conference slogan is Believe In Britain, and Farage’s entrance, greeted like that of a rock god by his superannuated followers, is to the Monkees’ I’m A Believer, which makes me really cross, because I’ve always liked that song. Bulletins from inside mention the merchandising: condoms captioned “Don’t waste an election”, and fruitcake. And leaflets that argue anti-homophobia initiatives in schools are “sexual grooming”. There is no manifesto.
This strikes me as fiendishly clever, allowing the disaffected and fearful to project their own hopes and desires on to Ukip’s shape-shifting blank slate. They’ve a few soundbites, though, and seem particularly proud of “It’s the National Health Service, not the international Health Service”.
Our march is very jolly until the English Defence League, Britain First and East Kent English Patriots show up. I may have led a sheltered life – too busy having lunch – but I’ve never seen them in the flesh. Their faces are either covered in England scarves or contorted into ugly fury, spitting their rage in our direction. They, too, seem concerned about our personal hygiene, bellowing that we “get a wash”. One, in a car, just seems perplexed: “What the fuck are you doing? You’re white!” They’re hellbent on getting a rise out of our peaceful rally, but a woman from Britain First is the only person arrested. Comments on the group’s Facebook page, under a later report about the arrest, offer the likes of: “omg thats ridiculous poor woman bet she wouldn’t off been arrested if she was muslim!!” Ukip has tried to distance itself from these nationalist groups, but their members clearly see something in the party that resonates. And perhaps that distancing message hasn’t quite hit home: Thanet South Ukip’s own Facebook page has “liked” a notorious far-right hoaxer and antisemitic internet troll.
I get carried away and attempt, with a bunch of others, to storm the barricades keeping us out of the Winter Gardens. (What we plan to do should we succeed, I have no idea – liberate some fruitcake?) We fail spectacularly and slink off to the Lifeboat bar. Bunny La Roche is there; I ask what the reaction was to her Question Time appearance. She’s clearly a tough little thing, but says it was “truly awful – I cried for days”. She later emails me some of the material to which she was subjected, and it’s genuinely horrifying: “Lets [sic] hope some immigrant scumbag comes to your house and rapes you to death, vile bitch,” reads one, accompanied by a picture of a dead child captioned: “hung by Muslims because his family is Christian”.
After Meet The Ukippers was broadcast, I thought that sheer embarrassment might put a stop to some of my more undecided neighbours from flirting with Ukip, but no: at the time of writing, local polls are looking favourable. The party seems to be Teflon-coated down here, immune to gaffe after gaffe, and local chairman Martyn Heale’s National Front past is airily dismissed as a phase, at what he maintains was “a bit of a social club”.
Farage’s glamour factor can’t be overstated, either. He has been on TV so often now, he’s seen as a celebrity. (Even after that frankly weird show with the comedy-drunk poshos from Gogglebox. They’re from Sandwich, which is in the South Thanet constituency.) In the event of victory for the “batrachoidal Farage” (thank you, Alan Bennett), South Thanet will for ever be tarred as the launchpad for Ukip. Nigel is not a stupid man; he must be pretty confident of where this is going.
But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant critic; I write about my tea. But I do know what it’s like to live here, to see an area that has been pulling itself up by the bootstraps become a national laughing stock. Apart from a spot of last-minute kneejerking in the direction of Manston airport, I have never heard Farage utter a word to indicate that we matter to him as anything other than a means to his end. And still they’re snowed – the old, the insular, the fearful – dazzled by his beer-and-Rothmans Everyman drag. If he loses and resigns his leadership, as he has promised, it would be a body blow for Ukip, one from which it will struggle to recover. But if he wins, many of us will have a hard time living with the shame.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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