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Friday, 22 May 2015

Consensus: A Historical Lesson from UKIP

UKIP is 100% united, said Nigel Farage earlier this week, making a public pronouncement of the consensus that exists within his party in much the same way as early medieval rulers did when they proclaimed that their laws etc. had been promulgated with the advice and consent of all their leading men.  Indeed the whole episode has a sort of medieval flavour about it, if perhaps not quite as expressed here (which is hardly the first time that 'medieval' and 'feudal' get used in a rather looser way than is entirely helpful). 
Anyway, for those outside the UK, who are not familiar with the continuing tragicomic saga of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, the deeply unpleasant demagogue at its helm promised that he would stand down from the leadership if he failed to win the seat of South Thanet in the recent (disastrous) general election, making various high-minded statements about how he could not credibly lead a parliamentary party if he was unable to win a seat inside parliament.  And so he rode off like many another hero of English history (like, er, Hengist ... the immigrant) to do battle in Thanet.*  Ah, but - alas and alack - he was defeated by the Tory candidate and so had to make at least a show of being an honourable man of his word and resigning the leadership.  For many of us this was one of the few rays of light on May 8.
After three days, however, he rose again, claiming that his resignation had been refused by the party, who had begged him to stay on.  (This is one area where all this starts to look quite familiar to medievalists.)  Probably with wailing and rending of garments (...which is a horrible image that I am now trying to wash out of my brain).  When it was pointed out that the tendering of resignation had to bring about a leadership contest, various comic excuses were wheeled out about how the resignation letter had to be typed and Nigel's was only hand-written, and by the time he had got it typed up the party executive had determined not to accept his resignation.  Nevertheless, just as an early medieval king's defeat in battle produced political crisis (and the possibility of deposition or abdication) various of King Nigel's leading aristocrats stated that the whole non-resignation affair was shabby and that his leadership was less than ideal (see here and here and here).  Lesser aristocrats (local councillors) defected.  A crisis appeared to present itself.
Within a few days, however, the revolt had been squashed and the rebels punished.  Those who had spoken out resigned from their positions (stripped of their honores) and public apologies were elicited (public penance; confessions?) (see here).  People removed from their posts made public statements about how they had not been fired but had chosen to go (here).  (See also this.)  And so, having ruthlessly purged it of any dissenting voices, Farage proclaimed that his party was '100% united'.  The only person he had to tread carefully with was Douglas Carswell, UKIP's one and only MP, with whom a front of unity was patched up.
The whole story seemed to me to illustrate what I have been saying for some time about 'consensus politics' in the early middle ages.  Does Farage 'need' to rule by consensus?  No.  Clearly not.  All he needs is a public rhetoric of consensus and 'union'.  After all even the Soviet communist party liked to promulgate the idea that all were unified behind the leader and get those who were purged to admit their treason.  That rhetoric functions to deter further disagreement or rebellion.  What we normally have in our sources is the equivalent of Farage's eventual declaration of consensus, sometimes with a partisan account of the antecedent proceedings.  Many years ago, Stuart Airlie wrote a very good piece for (I think) Past and Present about the trial of Tassilo of Bavaria, reading it in much these terms, but I think the lesson is much more widely applicable to internal politics.  We need to foreground the general nastiness that doubtless preceded cosy ritual declarations of consent and union.  We need to interrogate much more critically the precise form of political community that lies behind the obsession with proclaiming consensus.  Above all we ought to beware this insidious vocabulary whether in academic politics, or in national politics, past or present.  As I argued at Kalamazoo, we need to create a politics within which disagreement and diversity are acknowledged as constitutive of community and debate, not something to be swept under the carpet.
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* - Perhaps he gets his history from 1066 And All That, where people land in Thanet by accident and therefore become king.

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