Widespread panic seems to have taken hold of much the political landscape as the realisation sinks in that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) could now be, as Farage has declared, ‘Serious Players.’
Indeed, UKIP's apparent appeal has not been lost on the Christian community. This was highlighted recently in a survey carried out by the Evangelical Alliance on voting intentions for Thursday’s election; 16% of people said they were going to vote UKIP, which is more than the Green Party (15%) and Lib Dems (11%) and very close behind Labour (19%) and Conservatives (17%).
Why do people vote UKIP? It seems clear that people feel disillusioned, threatened on a number of social levels and ultimately angry at the way things are at the moment. Things are not going well for a lot of people in the UK and it is understandable that they feel angry at the Government and those they feel are responsible for their situation (unfortunately 'responsibility' is usually pinned on immigrants thanks to UKIP and the rightwing media).
However, rather than focussing our frustration and efforts on attacking UKIP, and subjecting those who voted for UKIP to a social-media-style rebuke, we need to explore what can be done to address the underlying issues and disillusionment that are causing people to turn to UKIP in the first place. UKIP are a symptom, rather than the cause, of a number of underlying problems in the UK.
Fear and Understanding
One of the major underlying issues behind this surge in UKIP support is the increasing polarisation of our society. Polarisation leaves a lot of room for fear of the ‘other’ social groups outside of our own. A massive amount of UKIP’s popularity relies on and is fuelled by this fear. In Farage’s opening message to UKIP’s 2014 Manifesto, he states:
“On 1st January 2014, the UK opened its doors to people from both Romania and Bulgaria.
Up to 29 million more people are, therefore, entitled to come here, to take advantage of our benefits, social housing, primary school places and free health care, having contributed nothing to them. If we want to keep the National Health Service free, prevent developers from concreting over the countryside and protect our pensioners and our young people seeking work, something must be done.”
In this case, ‘the other’ is the Romanians and Bulgarians - a relatively distant, unknown group of people who are used as the perfect scapegoat for us to pin the blame for our problems upon. In the current polarised social climate, UKIP’s scaremongering is thriving. This means we need to work to breakdown polarisation and increase our understanding of ‘the other’ social groups in both local communities and the UK as a whole.
Understanding is important: understanding breeds compassion and compassion works to diminish fear and anger.
‘Rain is to fire what compassion is to anger...” [Arthur Schopenhauer]
Understanding can be fostered by increasing people’s exposure to one another, encouraging them to start a dialogue and to work together in their communities for common goals. The people we previously felt threatened by and angry towards become human in our eyes and we are able to consider them as valuable members of our communities who we would not want to lose.
“Nothing removes our spiteful attitude toward others so easily as adopting a point of view in which they appeal to our compassion” [Schopenhauer]
The Church should be leading the way on this. Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate act of breaking through social divides to make a sacrifice that is for everyone, regardless of their social group. In light of the cross, Christian communities should be acting as pioneers to work against polarisation in the UK and the fear and anger of ‘the other’ it brings. As the political theologian Miroslav Volf puts it;
‘The significance of the crucifixion is not only what God does for us; consistently throughout the New Testament the crucifixion is portrayed as the pattern that we are to follow. It is a model of social behavior toward the other as well as a statement about what God has done for us.’ [Miroslav Volf]
How realistic is this kind of vision?
Increasing a nation’s exposure to social groups that are different from their own is not an easy task, but it is possible.
Two projects highlighted in David Barclay’s recent publication, Making Multiculturalism work: enabling practical action across deep difference, show how increasing understanding & compassion between social divides in a community can be achieved. His study of Community Organising and Near Neighbours showed that ‘ordinary relationships across religious and cultural difference are the key to addressing the malaise of the public square...’ and that the most effective way of fostering these relationships is through ‘common action; everyday side-by-side activity’ that brings people together.
Projects like these are where the Government and the Church should be focussing their efforts in response to these elections – particularly in areas where UKIP have gained a stronghold. It is important that they do, as a lot could be at stake; the effects of remaining a fragmented and polarized society made up of ‘Others,’ is serious:
‘...the moment we feel threatened, or special, privileged and entitled, the moment we distance ourselves from ‘the Other,’ is the moment we take our first steps on the road to cruelty.’
[Paul Gilbert, The Compassionate Mind]