UKIP and the British Kitsch

Discourse analysis of British national identity

In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera defines the kitsch as a political term, in opposition to the common artistic definition about excess of sentimentality and lack of good taste. In his own words, every type of kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit.” An aesthetic ideal that excludes all bad or negative characteristics from a given representation of the world, which results in a deformed reality that can be even grotesque. In Kundera’s political understanding of the kitsch, the ideal comes as parties’ and politicians’ strategy to survive by denying their reality’s flaws.

This representation of the political kitsch is Kundera’s introduction to the risks of what he calls “the totalitarian kitsch,” where everything that becomes an obstacle to the achievement of the ultimate goal ought to be eliminated. In the past, fascism, communism or even democracy have created their own kitsches. Each of them has ignored or suppressed the possible flaws of their ideologies to achieve “the categorical agreement with the being.”

I argue that the ontological and epistemological foundations of the kitsch provide a good framework for the analysis of identity debates. Here, the kitsch would be understood as the framing of “the other” as an obstacle to achieve a community’s potential, as well as the idealization of one’s identity.

In this essay, I develop a methodology to analyse UKIP’s “British Kitsch.” That is, how UKIP’s discourse is constructing British national identity, and in particular, what their definitions of “British” and “the other” are. What is UKIP’s idea of British national identity? Which groups are they framing as an obstacle to fully enjoy the benefits of the Great Britain they wish to build? What symbols have they created?

Unlike other right-wing populist parties, UKIP has tried to avoid references to race and ethnicity in its nationalist discourse. Halikiopoulou and Vasilopoulou (2010) point out that the party’s nationalist ideas are based on civic virtues, and that the requirement to be considered British is to accept British liberal values. But what are those? The emphasis is put in common law, individual freedoms, and especially, sovereignty. In this regard, the biggest obstacle in the path of UKIP’s civic nationalism has usually been the European Union, blamed for interfering in British matters and taking control away from its citizens.

However, can UKIP’s friction with the EU be attributed solely to issues of economic prosperity and sovereignty? After the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, UKIP leader Nigel Farage blamed “the rather gross policy of multiculturalism” for paving the way to the rise of Islamist terrorism. He also gave a speech in the European Parliament saying “we must stand up for Judeo-Christian culture and values,” and later wrote an op-ed in which, besides clarifying that “we need to stand by British Muslims […] who are outraged,” “Western societies should also reject illiberal practices introduced by other cultures.” Through these claims, Farage seems to have defined the British people as “Judeo-Christian” and “liberal,” blamed other cultures for illiberal practices taking place in Western society, and conceded the “British” label only to those Muslims who distance themselves from their origins.

I therefore argue that the civic nationalism that Halikiopoulou and Vasilopoulou attribute to UKIP is also given a cultural dimension that goes beyond the basic understanding of civic values. Othering the European Union consists of rejecting the regulations that endanger British national sovereignty, but also the multiculturalist approach that puts “British liberal values” at risk. Moreover, I consider the Charlie Hebdo statements sufficiently clear to theorise that the “other” that is an obstacle to UKIP’s “British Kitsch” is not just the European Union, but also “illiberal Muslims.” Each of them threatens two core characteristics of UKIP’s understanding of British Identity, one through immigration and the other one through regulation.

Captura de pantalla 2015-06-05 a las 2.28.56 p.m.

Finally, considering that any discourse is embedded in a historical background that links it to wider issues, I theorize that UKIP’s discourse on British national identity is not just a national issue, but one that fulfills an active role on the broader global debate about multiculturalism and the clash between cultures.

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