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The Facilitated Rise of UKIP and How Economic Discontent Ignited the British Populist Flame


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The United Kingdom Independence Party, also known as UKIP, is an established right-wing populist party in the United Kingdom. In a country that has embraced the long-standing political competition between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, seeing UKIP’s rise in its influence during the 2016 European Union membership referendum marked the growing influence of right-wing populism in the UK. The party’s success may be attributed to a commitment to its name–UKIP simply wanted independence from the European Union. This simple appeal allowed them to navigate through the complexities and intricacies of Westminster politics that seemed too distant from the public. The purple pound sign in the party’s logo signifies its staunch support for liberal economic policies to ensure everyone’s prosperity. UKIP stood up for the people at a time when they suffered in the face of economic insecurity. In times of trouble, UKIP presented itself as a highly attractive defense against the unjust elites. Therefore, UKIP found itself lighting the British populist flame unawares.


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At the core of populist thinking is the people. It is the people’s act of rallying together, fighting the common battle against the liberal elite population. Mansbridge and Macedo sum this populist phenomenon as, “the people in a moral battle against elites.” (Mansbridge and Macedo, 60) Populist parties are capable of unifying people across social categories, which results in “new collective identities, group solidarities, and political commitments.” (Pappas, 79) A populist cause brings together a diverse array of people, forging it to one unified face of the people. In many cases, charismatic leaders are behind the success of populist parties as they possess the ability to quite intimate relationships with their followers. (Pappas, 98) Upon having demonstrated to their followers that they are one of them, populist leaders would concentrate on their anti-elite message and rhetoric. They would instill the idea that “the existing political system has ignored, neglected, or outright worked against the interests of the people.” (Berman, 73) Thus, under a populist umbrella, the people find refuge.


The British population has had their share of populist leaders, dating back to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership starting in 1979. Thatcherism, the essence of Thatcher’s policies, is a brand of nationalism for “[Thatcherites’] disdain for established elites, in their appeals to common sense, and their hatred of the left.” (Fieschi, 119) Thatcher’s anti-elite rhetoric proved that populism could be adopted by any party on the political spectrum, even the right-leaning Conservative Party. As Rodrik writes, “The economic anxiety and distributional struggles … do not necessarily determine its political orientation.” (Rodrik, 13) Discontent is a universal feeling, and economic issues are valid grounds for people to switch party loyalties for a better life. The idea of ‘turning back the clock’ became synonymous with Thatcherism–the desire to restore old glorious days by strongly opposing immigration and contemporary party politics. In an attempt to weaken the entrenched elites, Thatcher made a return to traditional values. (Fieschi, 121) This is manifested in Thatcher’s popular “No. No. No.” speech at the 1990 European Council summit meeting in Rome, in response to plans for greater European integration. Thatcher wanted power and sovereignty to be concentrated in the hands of the British people, thus her Party became widely known as Eurosceptic. It can be argued that, when the Conservative Party departed from its populist outlook, the people found themselves clinging to UKIP as a way to fill the populist hole that the Conservatives had dug deep.


Jaywick, Essex, pictured in 2015 (BBC)

Economic grievances seem to be one of the most popular causes behind the reason why people gravitate towards populist movements. Berman writes, “Economic developments have created deep divisions within many societies between rich and poor, elites and so-called average people.” (Berman, 74) When the distribution of wealth has not been the fairest, this creates a favourable breeding ground for antagonism between those sitting at the top of the income bracket and those at the bottom. When citizens become dissatisfied by the workings of the economy, “populist politicians have been able to find the words to channel their anger.” (Schmidt, 248-249) The economy has a direct influence on the people–it concerns their livelihoods, quality of life, and future. Therefore, economic grievances play a larger role as the people are capable of rallying their cause.

Researchers use the Gini coefficient in order to gauge the income distribution –the higher Gini index indicates greater inequality, and vice versa. The UK’s Gini index score in 2011/12 was 33.8%, which rose to 34.4% in 2012/13, and 35.3% in 2013/14. (Statista, 2021) The increase in the UK’s Gini index score before the 2016 EU referendum not only illustrates rising inequality, but also a growing antipathy towards the government for causing such economic failure. This antipathy led to distrust and lack of confidence in the incumbent Conservative government, especially because the Tories are branded as the “party of billionaires.” (Merrick, 2019) The Conservative Party has generated widespread dissatisfaction caused by economic grievances, easing the entry of a party that is willing to take the stand for the people. As the political elites reap the benefits of an unfair system, “they became increasingly indifferent to fulfilling the social welfare promises they had made,” and they became more “responsive to the policy preferences of wealthy elites than of ordinary people.” (Sitaraman, 537) (Tushnet, 643) It is easy for the ruling elites to be complacent in implementing their promises because the political system they inherit serves them well.


Alliance - DPA

UKIP was originally the Anti-Federalist League, a right-wing Eurosceptic party established in 1991. The party was founded by Alan Sked, a professor at the London School of Economics. Since its founding, UKIP has been in opposition to the European Union, campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. The party decided to rename itself as the UK Independence Party to set itself apart from the British National Party. (Ford & Goodwin, 22-24) UKIP had troubled beginnings as it suffered from sparse financing and internal struggles. During the 1997 general election, UKIP managed to win 0.3% of the votes, while Nigel Farage secured 5% of it. (Ford & Goodwin, 30) Not long after, UKIP faced a leadership challenge as a party faction (led by Farage) pressured Sked to resign. To this, Sked claimed that the party had been steered to the far-right. (Ford & Goodman, 37)

UKIP rose to prominence in the years between 2004-2014. During the 2004 European Parliament election, UKIP secured 16.1% of the votes. UKIP continued to cement itself as a single-issue party, a niche that UKIP proudly embraced. Farage eventually became party leader in 2006 after overthrowing his internal opponents. He brought with him xenophobic, conservative ideals to fill the gaps of an ever-centering Conservative Party under David Cameron’s leadership. Farage is a “man of the pub,” who is equally disillusioned by elite politics as the populace–he simply “wants his country back.” (Farage, 2015) Farage understood the political climate of the time, and used the majority’s discontent to build rapport.



In an increasingly interconnected world, global economies have benefited from growing efficiencies in the production of goods and services while lifting many from the mires of absolute poverty. It is helpful to look at individual countries, specifically the various demographic groups that are affected by the interdependence of world economies, as “the decline in global inequality was accompanied by an increase in domestic inequality and cleavages.” (Rodrik, 23)

A Pew Research finding states that, similar to the results taken before the 2016 EU referendum, many felt “left behind” and “swept up” by the pervasive forces of economic globalisation. (Silver, Schumacher, Mordecai, Greenwood & Keegan, 2020) Respondents claimed that the winners of globalisation were those who “experienced job creation in their city,” whereas the losers were those that “felt the decline of industry.” (Silver, Schumacher, Mordecai, Greenwood & Keegan, 2020)

Industrial shifts became a central part of economic globalisation as the British markets opened themselves up to international competition, mainly “the fault of imports from China or low-wage immigrants, or both.” (Wolf, 2019) Laissez-faire economics asserts that states must surrender to the natural workings of the free market to best allocate resources. Efficiencies, unfortunately, lead to the closings of key national industries since imports may be cheaper (thus more favourable) than domestic production. Those who suffered most would be the workers who faced job losses and pay cuts. Northern England, the industrial hotspot, saw cities like Newcastle having to close down coal mines, steel mills, and other industrial sectors. To make matters worse, Newcastle respondents reported that their area “receives less in terms of job training, education, and employment opportunities now than they used to” compared to decades back. (Silver, Schumacher, Mordecai, Greenwood & Keegan, 2020) Shutting down key industries puts an effective halt to the income cycle–households saw a decrease in their disposable incomes, leading to a decrease in consumption and quality of life. Additionally, unemployment becomes pervasive as it becomes more difficult for laid off workers to reenter the workforce. Companies can easily offshore its production internationally, or simply hire capable workers with a much lower wage level. As heavy industry and high street shops were lost out in global demand, the British government failed to shield them from the disruptive impact of economic globalisation. Hopkin writes, “There is strong evidence that voters prefer greater government action to combat economic problems such as unemployment and inequality.” (Hopkin, 59) Groups considered underdogs were disproportionately affected by trade liberalization, allowing populism to metastasise into a necessary force against economic globalisation.


Andy Rain/EPA/EFE

Supporters of UKIP, and Nigel Farage himself, would cite the British membership to the EU as another root cause of economic discontent. The UK first became a member state of the EU from January 1, 1973. The EU began as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which sought to preserve peace among European countries by promoting economically beneficial deals. The ECSC later evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC) as codified in the Treaty of Rome. The Treaty created a common market, which includes the free movement of people, goods, and services across borders of member states. Free movement of people meant an influx of migrant movement into the UK (many of which came from low-income eurozone countries such as Ireland, Italy, and Lithuania), as the UK resident population from other EU states has “more than doubled, to more than 3 million.” (Portes, 2016)

Immigration has been a salient issue, to the extent that UKIP used it as a point of reference in their 2014 election campaign, which reads, “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?” (UKIP, 2014) Such an emotionally charged message convinced the economically grieved peoples that EU migrants came to the UK to steal their jobs. UKIP scapegoated the migrants who moved into low-skilled employment sectors, such as construction and hospitality, taking jobs away from the British people on British land. Britons who were already harmed by the competition arising from economic globalisation had their low-skilled jobs “taken away” from them, thus putting a downward pressure on wages. In a sense, the Leave campaign (predominantly UKIP supporters) believed that the taking away of jobs was synonymous with the relinquishing of national sovereignty to a muddled ultranational government. By focusing on “regaining sovereignty and autonomy over political and legal decisions,” UKIP wanted to protect jobs for native workers while alleviating the country from a migrant crisis. (Donoghue & Kuisma, 189) By alienating the “other” to reel the people in, UKIP is essentially “strengthening ingroup affinity” which hopes to rebuild the people’s faith in the old, capable Britain. (Goodman, 383)


David Levene (The Guardian)

We must look at the conditions of the British welfare state to fully understand the economic grievances of the people. The UK has an extensive history of welfarism, and the country became known as a liberal welfare state system. (Esping-Andersen, 1998) The welfare state of the UK underwent massive transformations in the twentieth century. The destructive Great War left many in need of government intervention in the form of benefits to lift them from hunger and depression. In addition to unemployment benefits and better education, one of the institutions that became the British national pride is the National Health Service (NHS).

However, the 2008 global financial crisis constricted the British welfare state as the Conservative government implemented austerity measures which reduced public spending and tax rises. Between 2010 and 2019, welfare payments including social services and housing subsidies saw a budget cut of over £30 billion. (Mueller, 2019) The public’s discontent stemmed from being unwillingly exposed to food and health insecurity by the government they elected. Between 2014 and 2015, pervasive hunger drove more than one million people to the food banks, indicating a “19% year-on-year increase in food bank use.” (Butler, 2015) Under the Conservative Party’s austerity policies, poor people were hit the hardest as the act of stabilising public fiscal deficits took a toll on people’s rights and living standards.

According to a 2019 report by the Human Rights Watch, the government began to introduce a cap on welfare benefits a family could receive in 2013. Single mothers were disproportionately affected by this cap as they struggled to provide for their families. Additionally, the government “froze” welfare benefits to unemployed households to incentivise work. Income caps and no welfare benefits did not help British workers that were already drowning in the currents of mass migration and competitive international labour.

When the UK was still a part of the EU, an EU national could receive access to benefits in the host country as long as they are in the workforce. The 1994 Habitual Residence Test determined the eligibility of foreign workers to receive benefits, which includes income support, housing benefit, pension credit, housing assistance, and others. It allowed non-Britons to access the British welfare state, hence the EU is “cast as a criminal body that represents an active threat to British welfare.” (Donoghue & Kuisma, 194) Supporters of the Leave campaign argued that, since the British people were already suffering under the unforgiving hand of the Conservative Party’s austerity policies, why should they add to their suffering by extending our hands to help foreign nationals? Farage voiced his frustration on migrant benefits: “We must be completely mad, as a country, to be giving people from Eastern Europe in-work benefits.” (Farage, 2014) The sentiment shared by Farage and many UKIP supporters taps into the idea of welfare chauvinism–the belief that welfare services should be restricted to “our own.” (Donoghue & Kuisma, 178) Welfare chauvinism is closely related to nativism, as welfare makes up the British national identity and ‘Britishness.’ The prevailing argument states that the British government has lost its control and sovereignty “in part by globalisation, mass migration and changes to traditional social institutions.” (Donoghue & Kuisma, 181) UKIP’s promises became sweet sounding to the disillusioned British people as they hoped to reverse the British globalised ‘mess.’


Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock

Farage did not shy away from voicing the hidden discomforts of the people by adopting them into his policies. UKIP launched its manifesto, titled “Believe in Britain,” prior to the 2015 general election. The name suggests a desire to return to the British glorious old days that are long gone. In fact, Farage claimed that the manifesto had been “‘fully costed’ and independently verified by the Centre for Economic and Business Research.” (BBC, 2015) This verification added a layer of security to UKIP’s proposed economies policies, allowing voters to trust their future on real and proven research. The strategy was especially helpful to let disenfranchised Tories comfortably switch party lines. An excerpt from the party’s economic policies reads, “Our approach to the economy revolves around restoring incentives for workers … and ending the current ‘open door’ arrangement for European labour.” (UKIP, 2015) Much of the party’s stance on the economy emphasised workers’ rights and the economy that belongs to the British people. Farage’s commitment to take back power from the distant ruling elites to the hands of the workers caused him to earn the title of a mouthpiece for the disaffected working class. (BBC, 2016) The people needed him to deliver them from the elite oppression that has been in power for far too long.


Sun and Daily Mail

A disillusioned majority, a failing government that worked against the people, decades of falling real income, and rising inequality all make the perfect environment for populism to gain traction. (Inglehart & Norris, 447) The electorate grew increasingly tired of the ruling Conservative government, who had turned its back away from the working class. Their hopes of a better future were confronted by the fact that there were simply little political choices. The biggest parties no longer served the interests of the majority, hence a revolutionary populist party such as UKIP seemed to be the most compelling option. UKIP played its cards right by delving into the media, as tabloids proved an effective tool for British populism (Fieschi, 130) In fact, “80 percent of voters were reading a Leave newspaper,” thus demonstrating the power of grappling rhetoric behind voter psychology. (Fieschi, 131) The tabloids highlighted the British desire for taking back sovereignty, while putting their trust in UKIP to deliver this promise (for example, the Private Eye cover for their November 2014 edition reads, “UKIP in Driving Seat). Although the public may not realised the pressing need for UKIP, the media led them to internalise such desires of a populist movement to build a better Britain.


In conclusion, UKIP inherited a land well-prepared for their success through a disillusioned public that had long suffered from pervasive economic grievances. The populist role in casting doubt on national institutions effectively won public support from the underdog populations. Farage did not shy away from employing xenophobic, nativist narratives to propagate the claim that immigrants were taking away British jobs from the British people–a message that the people heard loud and clear. By placing the blame on foreign nationals and outside institutions such as the EU, UKIP capitalised on the public economic discontent, using it as ammo to isolate the country with hopes to take back power to the hands of the British people. And just like that, UKIP managed to light up the British populist flame using a misled populace.


Works cited

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Portes, Jonathan. “Immigration, Free Movement and the UK Referendum.” Vox EU. 16 May 2016.

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