I’ve always rather liked Douglas Carswell. I know I made fun of his book, The End of Politics, the one in which he said, five years ago: “As a process for deciding how most western democracies are governed, politics has come to an end.” I’m not sure if he still believes that. A lot has happened since then. He defected to Ukip; won a by-election; was re-elected in the general election; and then there was a referendum that voted to put Ukip out of business.
Carwell’s recent history is, from his point of view, a triumphant example of politics working the way it should to deliver the end that he sought, on behalf of the British people. Perhaps in his new book, Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy, he argues that a referendum is not “politics” in the conventional sense. If so, it is still some way from the internet-based iDemocracy that he once thought would take its place.
Anyway, Carswell has always been a freethinker and he has always been a liberal. I realise that this is a relative term in Ukip politics, but the main cause of his dispute with Nigel Farage was immigration, and Carswell was the main obstacle to Ukip becoming an anti-immigration party pure and simple. He was always against the European Union because he thought it was undemocratic, not because it allowed the free movement of people into the UK. I agreed with him about that – it’s just that I thought the economic argument for EU membership had to be weighed against it.
More simply, any enemy of Arron Banks cannot be all bad. It was Banks, the British Trumpling, ally of Farage and former Ukip donor, whose response to the attack on Westminster by a British citizen was to blame Theresa May as Home Secretary for allowing “over a million illegals” into the country. Banks had threatened to stand against Carswell in Clacton at the next election. Well, he can try, but I suspect Carswell would win comfortably under whichever party label he chose to stand.
Carswell won’t be returning to the Conservative Party just yet because, as he candidly admitted in his statement, “crossing the floor” of the House of Commons would require him – by his own principle – to stand again in a by-election, as he did when he switched to Ukip in 2014. I suspect he will follow Winston Churchill’s example of “re-ratting” back to the Tories just before the general election in 2020.
That, then, is it for Ukip. The referendum deprived it of its reason for being. Farage’s last resignation (the third or fourth, depending on your definition) thereafter deprived it of its most charismatic personality. His successor Paul Nuttall’s defeat in the Stoke by-election last month ended its chance of being the anti-Labour protest party of the North and Midlands. Now Carswell’s defection deprives it of its only MP. All that remains is for Britain actually to leave the EU in two years’ time, which will not only give effect to the referendum decision but will also deprive the party of its MEPs and their expense accounts.
So we can start the assessment of the party’s role in history, and Carswell’s place in that role. He said today that it was “the most successful political party in Britain ever” and that “we would not be leaving the EU if it was not for Ukip”. The first claim is an exaggeration and the second depends on a meaningless counterfactual, because there was always bound to be an anti-EU party of some kind. The more interesting question is whether Ukip helped or hindered the Brexit cause.
Carwell’s reading of history is that Farage took Ukip to a certain point, but became a liability for the final push, and for the referendum campaign itself. He claims, in Tim Shipman’s All Out War, to have joined Ukip as a deliberate attempt to detoxify the party’s brand and to widen its appeal. Referring to Farage’s radio interview about living next door to immigrants, he said: “If it became a choice between being rude about Romanian immigrants versus the economy, we would lose 60-40.”
This is what might be called the Carswell Paradox: that by being the acceptable face of Ukip he may have softened the party’s image and enabled the Leave side to win the referendum. In the end, though, I don’t think Carswell was that important. Ukip was still toxic enough by the time of the referendum for the official Vote Leave campaign to have nothing to do with it. For those who think individuals sway history, Boris Johnson was more important as a leading “liberal” face of the Leave campaign. For those who look to impersonal forces in society, anti-EU sentiment was strong and independent of Ukip, Farage or the Tory Eurosceptics, and if Johnson hadn’t put himself at its head then May probably would have done.
So I think we can judge Carswell on his merits, and on the whole I’m glad he diluted the concentration of xenophobia in Ukip and in British politics generally. In that, at least, he did his country a service.