In his list of things you need to appreciate in order to call yourself truly British, the author Bill Bryson includes “Marmite, milky tea, and the belief that household wiring is an interesting topic for conversation”. This cultural inventory may soon need revising, however, after a report by Policy Exchange predicted that by 2051, up to 30 per cent of the UK population will be non-white.
The implications of this report are either a healthy confirmation of Britain’s ever-changing demographic, or a matter of grave cultural concern, according to your view.
While many parts of the country remain as they have done for many years, others have altered dramatically. And with the recent wave of migrants from Eastern Europe adding to this multicultural melting pot, you’re as likely in some parts of Britain to hear Russian or Somali being spoken, as you are English.
Enter Nigel Farage. He is the leader, ringmaster and all-purpose spokesman for the UK Independence Party (or UKIP for short). Committed to withdrawal from the EU, and to arresting what it considers to be the deluge of untrammeled immigration, the party was, until recently, little more than a minor political irritation and a rich source of mocking humour for satirists and comedians. And with a mere handful of MEPs in the European Parliament and not a single representative in Westminster, there seemed little prospect of them ever becoming more than a glorified protest group.
But with European elections only a month away and a guaranteed referendum on EU membership a very real prospect, UKIP has seized its chance. A recent survey suggests that up to 60 per cent of the electorate are thinking of voting for them in a month’s time.
UKIP’s leader, meanwhile, is positively ubiquitous: on talk shows, political debates, and even plastered across street hoardings, always in his trademark covert coat and trilby, often with a cigarette in his hand, and inevitably with a ready smile and a sound bite. The term “irrepressible” could have been coined for him.
To many he remains a small-minded Little Englander, using nebulous national fears seasoned with predictions about our loss of national sovereignty to further his own political ends. Indeed, during one televised debate this week in Southampton a member of the audience confronted him with the appellation “charismatic, bombastic and very dangerous”, an accusation Mr Farage shrugged off with his customary aplomb.
Yet his very outsidership is perhaps his greatest asset. A self-styled man of the people, with no established power base and little to lose, he has positioned himself as the mouthpiece of the ordinary citizen, able to express uneasy truths that other politicians dare not articulate.
That he and his party attract many who would like to live in a nation preserved in aspic sometime in the 1950s is undeniable, but he also appeals to many more who would be horrified to find themselves labelled either racist or parochial. And while he remains a figure of scorn to many, his ability to crystallise and connect with an underlying wave of public concern has resulted in his emergence as a political heavyweight.
However unpalatable it may seem to some, the fact is that while most UK citizens would now consider themselves to be at ease both with our continental neighbours and the notion of a multicultural society, many still harbour vague fears that the UK is being subsumed by European legislation, and that our unique cultural identity is being overwhelmed too soon, too quickly.
Disillusionment with European politics and anxiety about immigration might seem an unlikely rallying point for disgruntled voters; yet Mr Farage has skilfully linked the two issues, and used the vacuum left by politicians unwilling to tackle these issues head-on to press his claim.
As the political landscape continues to shift, UKIP could yet play havoc with the political status quo, even if he cannot achieve actual power. Yet to those voters who may be tempted to give Mr Farage their cross at the ballot box in a few weeks time, it may be worthwhile quoting the concluding verse of Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tale of Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion.
“And always keep a hold of nurse”, he wrote, “for fear of finding something worse …”
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins