Farage’s contract

It’s chaos at Reform HQ but that’s how they like it…

Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich presents his Contract with America in in front of a huge map of the USA.
A man with a contract

For an insurgency polling in double digits and threatening to disassemble the most successful political party in history, Reform UK is a pretty shabby outfit. Neither a high-gloss, updated 20th Century dinosaur like Le Pen’s National Rally, nor a dark, ideological machine like Alternative for Germany, nor even a big-money hostile take-over of an establishment party like Trump’s operation. But maybe we shouldn’t expect a slick operation here, maybe it’s not very British to expect a challenger from the far right to be anything other than scrappy and a bit lairy.

The man in the photo with all the American flags is Newt Gingrich – not a British politician, of course, but pugnacious Speaker of the US House of Representatives during the 1994 Congressional mid-terms, a veteran conservative political operator who wrote the Republican party’s programme for that election, an enormously influential document that many credit as the beginning of the populist turn, the epic shift in American politics that ultimately produced you know who.

Darren Selkus, army veteran and business owner, is Hertsmere’s Gingrich. Read about him on the Reform web site.

Gingrich’s document was no mere manifesto, no mere platform. It was a contract. A Contract with America. The idea was that instead of promoting a dry programme of dry legislation to be fought out vote by arduous vote through the congressional system once in power, the party would lay out an ambitious reworking of the system itself. Gingrich was a political visionary who saw an opportunity to put the Republican party back at the heart of things. In this he wasn’t so much a proto-Trump as Trump’s inverse – he wanted to shift the power in American politics back from the presidency to a radicalised congress.

His contract was more than the usual shopping list of policies carefully weighted for viability; it was a series of linked measures that would, together, overturn decades of post-war liberal orthodoxy – economic, social, diplomatic, everything. It begins with eight pledges – reforms to the congressional system aimed at cementing a conservative model of governance indefinitely. It’s a fascinating document, not least because it self-consciously marked the end of folksy, optimistic, forward-looking Reagan conservatism and the beginning of the darker variety the whole world is now familiar with – George W Bush’s messianic militarism, Trump’s ‘American carnage‘.

Britain’s Gingrich?

Gingrich was working as an insurgent inside one of the two governing parties, of course. He’d been an operator since the 1960s. Trump began as an outsider but entered the Republican party and hollowed it out brutally. It’s his party now. Farage has not yet achieved a position inside the Tory Party but he’s been influencing the shape and direction of the party pretty directly for twenty years now. He’s a kind of parasitic shadow leader, directing the mighty, 300 year-old Conservative Party, pint in hand, from the saloon bar. It’s only a few years since Farage looked like he was finished. Boris Johnson had cannily replaced him as populist folk hero, Brexit was finally done and the man himself seemed to be more interested in the goldmine on the other side of the Atlantic. But his influence endures. And we suspect he’s not finished with the Tory party yet, whether he’s elected in Clacton or not.

The Gingrich contract must have come to mind for many on Monday when Nigel Farage launched Reform’s ‘Contract With You‘. This contract isn’t quite as ambitious – and it’s likely to be a lot less influential (we suspect it was written in a bit of a hurry – count the typos).

Reform’s document steers clear of grand claims. It’s essentially a pretty focused list of policies designed as a response to a probable Labour government. Farage is positioning his party as the effective opposition in the coming Parliament. His assumption is that the Tories, no matter how many seats they finally win, will be so diminished, so intellectually exhausted that they’ll have little to offer while the party is laboriously rebuilt. That Reform, even from a base of a handful of seats, will dominate on the critical issues. And they might be right (they’ll need to win a few seats, though).

Beginning on the very first page we’re into a sequence of commitments that are carefully weighted to offer a challenge to the likely governing party without being in any way deliverable. Finding £50 Billion of savings in the civil service, a sum equal to the whole defence budget, seems implausible to say the least, for instance. Taking back £35 Billion per year from the commercial banks without causing mini-budget levels of market chaos likewise.

Pledges pledges pledges

You will find the obligatory numbered pledges at the beginning, though – obviously an indispensable element of any contemporary manifesto. These numbered pledges, for some reason, all begin with a kind of John Lennon flourish: 1) Imagine Smart Immigration, Not Mass Immigration; 2) Imagine No More Small Boats in the Channel; 3) Imagine No NHS Waiting Lists; 4) Imagine Good Wages for a Hard Day’s Work; 5) Imagine Affordable, Stable Energy Bills.

In this rather boring package, the only place where the language soars a little is in the final policy section, headed ‘Reform is needed to defend and promote British culture, identity and values’ (intriguing use of the passive voice there). This is where we find the more inflammatory bits – the obligatory mention of sharia law (not a single mention in the whole document of Farage’s favourite ‘Judeo-Christian values‘ though), anti-woke legislation, de-banking, dumping equalities legislation and so on. But it’s striking how unambitious this all is. Farage and Reform here are not reaching for a consitutional remaking of Great Britain or for the destruction of the liberal institutions of the post-war settlement. In fact all we get are some rather managerial proposals about running the NHS more efficiently and a predictable kicking for the old enemy – the BBC.

Policy Area Annualised Savings Over 5 Year
Electoral Term Amount in £ billions
Immigration Savings £5
Employer Immigration Tax £4
Energy Savings - tax subsidies & scrap Net
Zero £30
Benefit Saving - 1 million plus back to work £15
Transport & Utilities Savings £5
Slash wasteful Government spending
Save £5 in 100 incl govt depts. quangos,
commissions £50
Stop bank interest on QE reserves £35
Cut foreign aid by 50% £6
Sub-Total Potential Savings = £150 billion pa = Almost £3,000 per Adul
Comedy cost savings

In the financial section Reform turns out to be as obsessed with the zero-sum tax-and-spend calculations as the major parties. And this is interesting, not least because it’s not very revolutionary. Only a very cautious insurrectionary party would be so interested in retaining tight control over expenditure after the revolution. Of course it’s possible that this very cautious package is meant to answer fears about Farage as a potential Mussolini, seeking election so that he can cancel elections and rule forever, but we’re ready to bet that this is it. We’ve reached the limit of Reform’s intellectual and ideological ambition.

The table of savings at the end reads like the kind of Dragon’s Den forecast that would make Deborah Meaden weep – various conveniently round numbers totted up in a table so that party spokesmen can claim it’s ‘fully-costed’. Evaluating this lot would cause the entire staff of the OBR to faint in unison.

So why a contract?

Back in the nineties, the Contract With America wasn’t quite the ideological bulldozer Gingrich hoped it would be – it was essentially cut to ribbons in congress – by hostile conservatives from within his own party as well as by Clinton’s Democrats – reduced to a pretty thin set of compromised measures, most of which failed to pass. Gingrich went from sole proprietor of a congressional earthquake to “who?” in a few years. But his aggression, his unwavering rejection of the bi-partisan conventions of congress and his disrespect for his party’s elders have all influenced American politics to the present day.

Nigel Farage raises a glass of wine in a BBC green room in May 2017. He's gurning characteristically.
Another man with a contract

So, back to the UK general election of 2024. Why would a party leader want to attach this ‘contract’ idea to his policy programme?

It stands out from the crowd. The contract language quite cleverly opens up some distance from the other parties’ documents. It’s the only set of promises in play that’s not a manifesto, not a dreary document like all the other dreary documents. At his launch, Farage said: “today is not a manifesto launch. If I say to you ‘manifesto’, your immediate word-association is ‘lie’…”

Contracts are for consumers. The idea of a contract is actually a pretty good expression of our relationship with contemporary politics. Electors in the third decade of the 21st Century are not expected to engage with politics – as activists or organised workers or even as enthusiastic private citizens. We’re expected only to consume politics, to rate its quality via occasional elections and sometimes to switch brands, in the same way we switch gas providers or mobile phones. Meanwhile, political movements are over, replaced by narrowly-focused campaign groups. Incidentally, this explains why we feel so disempowered and disconnected from politics, why so many people say “they’re all the same…” – the politicians like it that way.

Businesses love contracts. Reform UK is a business. It’s the image they’re looking for. Tice and Farage and Habib have enthusiastically embraced the ‘start-up’ idea. Journos and critics noticed ages ago that Reform UK is not a conventionally incorporated political party. Columnists and social media geniuses thought the revelation that the party is just an ordinary limited company would be an absolutely killer gotcha. “Look, it’s not a political party, it’s a scam!” Of course it made no difference at all. Nobody cares. Limited companies are famously easy to set up in Britain. It costs £50 and takes less than 24 hours. The fact that the simplest and most robust organisational form for this new force in British politics was actually an off-the-shelf company really does suit the project. A disruptive, entrepreneurial enterprise like Reform probably ought to be a business and not a fusty old not-for-profit.

Chaos suits Reform

Reform UK wasn’t ready for the election when Sunak announced it but that’s fine – it’s a start-up – the rag-tag Reform team mobilised resources with the ‘fuck you’ energy of a tech entrepeneur. ‘Move fast and break things’ could almost be their slogan. Hiring and then quickly firing candidates as they’re exposed as racists and lunatics is all part of the energy of an insurgent party. When opponents get excited about the chaos inside the Reform operation they’re profoundly missing the point. That’s how they like it – and, let’s face it, voters seem to like it too.

What’s in this contract?

Next time we’ll look at the content of Reform UK Ltd’s ‘Contract With You‘ and possibly at the policies of their unlikely collaborators, the SDP

Be prepared

Fear is back

The entrance to the world war two 'Report and Control Centre' in Radlett in the UK. A concrete-built structure with a large, arched, gated entrance, at the end of a short path covered with leaves and overgrown. An explanatory sign in the foreground reads: 'Radlett & District Museum
Radlett Control & Reporting Centre
This Wartime Nissen hut was built in 1939 by local builder Wings, as a key point of contact for civil defence. It cost £425 to construct and has two rooms plus a toilet. Today, the structure is in good shape and in the care of Aldenham Parish Council. It has been used for storage, the restoration of a vintage motorbike and the breeding of maggots for fishing. radlettmuseum.com'

Why does Rishi Sunak want us to prepare for war? Why does Oliver Dowden want us to fill the cupboard under the stairs with tins of beans and bottled water? And what’s any of this got to do with a concrete shed in the middle of Radlett?

If you walk up Gills Hill towards the park you’ll pass a lovely bit of green called Scrubbitts Wood and if you look over the gate at the North East corner you’ll see a concrete structure that looks like an old garage or possibly an air-raid shelter. Everybody used to call it ‘the air-raid shelter’, in fact, but recently a handy sign has gone up by the gate explaining that it’s actually a World War Two ‘Report and Control Centre’.

Round enamelled sign, red with white text, reads: 'Radlett & District Museum
Radlett Control & Reporting Centre
This Wartime Nissen hut was built in 1939 by local builder Wings, as a key point of contact for civil defence. It cost £425 to construct and has two rooms plus a toilet. Today, the structure is in good shape and in the care of Aldenham Parish Council. It has been used for storage, the restoration of a vintage motorbike and the breeding of maggots for fishing. radlettmuseum.com'

It’s a communications node in the wartime civil defence system. There was probably a telephone line, quite possibly female volunteer despatch riders. It’s not easy to understand why you’d put such an important bit of infrastructure in Radlett but there it is, defying the passage of time, right in the middle of the village.

Structures like this were put up all over Britain during the war, and were part of a huge – and hugely-effective – collective effort to protect Britain during what was unarguably the country’s greatest crisis for over a hundred years. Civil defence during the war was a bureacratic-voluntary hybrid, of the kind Britain is famed for. It’s how we roll, how the whole Empire was run.

The cold war

Famous still from 1984 film 'Threads' about the aftermath of a nuclear war in Britain. A man in a traffic warden's uniform has a bloody bandage with crude eye-holes covering almost his whole face. A rifle at his shoulder, dazed expression on his face.

After the war, of course, began another war. And a modernised, atomic-age version of the wartime civil defence structure came into being. One of its functions was to put the fear of God into us about nuclear armageddon. If you grew up in this period you’ll remember the public information films at the cinema and terrifying fictional visions like Threads and When the Wind Blows. Some of us are still haunted by the Protect and Survive booklets you could pick up in doctor’s surgeries and libraries right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The end of history

President of the USA Ronald Reagan against a blue curtained background making a speech behind two press microphones
Amiable B-movie schlub saves world

But then amiable B-movie schlub Ronald Reagan implausibly won the cold war. The communist gerontocracy basically died. The long Soviet experiment collapsed. Things changed, of course, and there was that odd decade during which everybody felt they could breathe again. The booklets were pulped, they scrapped the sirens and Tony Blair’s New Labour won the biggest electoral landslide in modern British history. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote a book called ‘The End of History and the Last Man‘, published in 1992, in which he proposed that the end of the cold war and the benign economic climate signalled a definitive end to the chaos and conflict of the twentieth century. Liberal democracy had won the battle of the ideologies and would become the unquestioned norm everywhere and forever. Oops. This dreamy mood lasted about ten minutes and was finally finished off by 9/11.

War without end

A large crowd of American soldiers in full uniform with helmets and weapons against a dusty background

And we entered the era of the War on Terror (capital ‘W’, capital ‘T’). The Americans recruited a ‘coalition of the willing‘ (you might not remember this but you were definitely in it) and moved onto a war footing, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. One of those wars became the longest in American history. Deaths in all of the post-9/11 wars, the wars we can classify as connected with the War on Terror, now amount to several million (including hundreds of British servicemen and women and thousands of Americans).

The USA is, in fact, legally and politically, still at war. A law passed in 2001, giving the President essentially unconstrained power to make war against enemies, real and perceived, is still in force, discussed periodically in the US Congress ever since but never repealed. Of course, here in Britain we just do as we’re told, so we’re effectively still at war too. The absence of a written constitution makes it much easier for UK governments to tag along with the Americans (as Tony Blair said to George Bush “I will be with you, whatever…”).

A century of emergencies

The happy optimists of the last decade of the last century could hardly have anticipated the drama of the first quarter of this one. A sequence of regional and world financial crises (including the biggest one since the great depression), dozens of popular uprisings brutally put down across the world, a hundred-year pandemic, a major European war, the populist turn; all overlaid on the building turmoil of the climate crisis. None of this was in the plan.

And the response of the major powers – including here in Britain – has been, in almost every case, to dial up the anxiety, to legislate, to militarise and to take a variety of increasingly authoritarian actions. Social and economic elites – even liberal and left-wing elites – almost everywhere turned to repression and away from democracy or other forms of popular deliberation.

In an emergency, all bets are off. A government may require us to stay indoors, allow us to protest but without being a nuisance or impose long prison sentences for non-violent action. Ancient rights are suspended and recently-acquired rights are reclassified and unwound. And we can expect more of this as the multi-dimensional crisis intensifies.

But hold on, what’s this got to do with tins of beans?

Well, Oliver Dowden, in his role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is in charge of resilience (in addition to a long list of other tasks, including ‘civil contingencies’, the COBRA committee and that portrait of the King…). Resilience in this case doesn’t mean bouncing back when your boss gives you a bollocking. It’s more about preparing for climate change, terrorism and war. Dowden’s brief includes flooding, heatwaves, cybercrime, sabotage by state actors and, for some reason, he’s chosen this moment to amp it all up, to dial up the anxiety and ask us to start hoarding pasta and toilet paper again.

Screenshot from UK government Prepare web site, black text against orange background reads: 'Get prepared for emergencies'

Hardly anyone noticed this but in the morning on the day of Rishi Sunak’s surprise election announcement (do you remember it? It was raining) Oliver Dowden announced something else – he announced an inexplicable new web site and a campaign to persuade us all to prepare for disaster. The web site is called ‘Get Prepared for Emergencies’ and it’s a slightly uncanny throw-back to those cold war public information booklets. There are many exclamation marks and a guide to preparing for the worst. You’ll learn how many bottles of water you should buy (three litres per person, per day, FYI), how to prepare your house for a flood and what to keep in the boot in case you need to leave home in a hurry. There’s a checklist to download.

Geopolitical dread

And this all came about a fortnight after the Prime Minister’s oddly dystopian speech warning us about, well, everything. He spoke, at his lectern, of the threat from “…gender activists hijacking children’s sex education…”, “Iranian proxies firing on British ships in the Red Sea…”, “countries like Russia weaponising immigration for their own ends…”, “criminal gangs finding new routes across European borders.” Read the speech, it’s all there: artificial intelligence, trans ideology, small boats, cancel culture, Putin’s ambitions and… nuclear anihilation.” Sunak’s painting a picture here and it’s not a happy one. It doesn’t actually mention alien invasion but we suspect it’s on a checklist somewhere.

Alien invasion movie still - spaceships hover over planet's surface, dark and frightening background

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Conservatives have decided their last chance against the inevitability of defeat in July is to weaponise dread, to trigger the entire voting-age population, to reduce us to a kind of quivering electoral jelly, waiting for the catastrophe and hoping against hope that Rishi can rescue us. The logic is that this dread will cause us to cling to the Tories when it comes to placing an X in the box, that we cannot imagine a better way out of this miserable, grinding, 14-year nightmare than to vote for the people who made it.

There’s a kind of contemporary horror movie-vibe to all this. These hollow men in suits, standing at lecterns, informing us in bloodless terms that our freedoms are to be suspended and that our larders and cellars must be filled in case of catastrophe. It’s grim.

Signing the pledge

Meanwhile, Labour, of course, in closely shadowing the Conservative policy offer, must carefully match the beligerance and dread Rishi’s bringing. Yesterday Keir Starmer made it clear that he’s not just going to retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent but double down (in fact the party’s calling it a ‘nuclear triple-lock’, which is catchy). Starmer’s promise is not new. In fact it’s consistent with the stance of all UK governments since 1962. In that year Harold Macmillan and JFK signed the Nassau Agreement, permanently cementing Britain’s dependence on the US military-industrial machine. To vary this relationship would be costly and almost certainly diplomatically impossible. Every Prime Minister since then has acknowledged the geopolitical realities of the North Atlantic compact and signed on.

HMS Vigilant, the third of the Royal Navy's Vanguard Class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Dramtically backlit against a cloudy sky

Under this and most of the subsequent agreements the British nuclear deterrent is essentially a North European branch operation of the vast American one. You don’t need to be a peacenik to feel uncomfortable with this relationship, with the fact that important parts of the UK nuclear weapons system literally belong to the United States government, that Britain’s 58 warheads are considered part of a larger US-controlled pool of weapons, that targeting, maintenance and other aspects of deployment are decided by American generals and that although it might be technically possible for a British submarine captain to launch a Trident missile independently, it would be unthinkable in practical terms and could actually be stopped by a US government with a mind to do so. According to one academic, the UK’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t meet ‘the 1940 requirement‘, meaning it could not be used in a situation when the country stood alone as it did at the beginning of the second world war.

No UK government has ever had the courage to challenge this and the economics of operating an advanced nuclear weapons system – with cold-war levels of preparedness – independently of the USA is so scary that this is very unlikely to change. It’s almost certain that even if a unilateralist government were to come to power (as it nearly did in 2017, remember) it would quickly acknowledge the realities and renew the deal. This unequal relationship is a deeply entrenched aspect of the Atlantic hierarchy. It’s essentially impossible to imagine altering it, let alone abandoning it.

Fear wins again

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Oliver Dowden’s stock of tinned food, Sunak’s dead-eyed scare tactics and the UK’s unvarying committment to the nuclear status quo are all aspects of the same, rigid security orthodoxy and the same increasingly hysterical emergency politics that govern our lives in the developed economies. Fear is a political currency – and when politicians deliberately and cynically mobilise our anxieties it’s a sign of their fragility. It’s undemocratic and regressive and we’re probably stuck with it.