There are two conservative parties in British national politics today: the Conservative Party, and UKIP. One of them represents the views of the Thatcherite, Euro-sceptic, neo-liberal right, and the other is the "Conservative Party".
Nigel Farage is the leader of UKIP, and was one of its first members, joining in the early nineties after leaving the Conservative Party in disgust over the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which turned the EU from a looser, free trade zone into a much more concrete political and legal institution, with the aim of perpetual "ever closer union".
"We'll always have Maastricht"
It's worth remembering that Margaret Thatcher was always of the view that the old EEC was good for Britain because it was a free trade zone; she supported it because it was in Britain's interests. She was pro-European in many ways; but she was also ideologically anti-EU, as it took away sovereignty from Britain over various areas of government.
The crunch came in 1989 when her chancellor and foreign secretary (Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe) had pressured Thatcher into agreeing to join the ERM, thus harmonising the comparative values of various European currencies, including the pound. Over this key issue, amongst others, Thatcher fired Howe that summer, replacing him with the little-known (harmless? malleable?) John Major. Barely a few months later, and in October Lawson quit, forcing Thatcher to promote the hitherto unknown Major into the second biggest job in the government, that of chancellor. And little over a year later, in November 1990, Thatcher herself was gone. It was surely the most tempestuous eighteen months of British peacetime politics ever known in the modern Conservative Party. And Europe had played a key part of it.
Major came to power by accident and chance circumstance; an archetypal mediocrity, in every way like the fictitious Jim Hacker from the political satire series, "Yes (Prime) Minister".
Thatcher seemed to trust him as a safe bet in 1989, seemingly channelling her own prejudices into the empty jar that was John Major; assuming he was another of the younger generation of "Thatcher clones", raised to worship at Thatcher's altar, and had already replaced many of the older "wets". But once in power under his own steam, it was clear to the Thatcherites that Major was just like the old-style "wets".
His support for the Maastricht Treaty caused a significant number of Conservatives to rebel, coming close to forcing a vote of confidence that could have brought down the government itself. By this point, a younger and more ideological MP called Nigel Farage had already left the Conservative Party. The rest of the story is well-known.
The heir to Thatcher?
Reviewing this period of Conservative history is key to understanding UKIP. Because Nigel Farage's politics and ideology are shaped by those events, and by the ideology of Thatcher. While the modern leaders of the Conservatives claim to be "neo-Thatcherites", they know the words but not the real psychology; Cameron and Osborne are too distanced from that time and Thatcher's unique sense of mission. Besides, Cameron claimed he was the "heir to Blair" before saying he was heir to anyone else; in this sense, the Conservative Party are simply an extension of Cameron's psychology and ideology (whatever that is), and "Thatcherism" is only a superficial part of it.
It was Thatcher who transformed the Conservative Party into a fearsome electoral machine under her tutelage; it was Thatcher who comfortably won three elections in a row. UKIP are criticised as a "populist" party, but it is Thatcher who is the real role model to follow in creating a "populist" political party: Thatcher was herself an outsider, a non-establishment figure - a grocer's daughter from Lincolnshire who was a convert to the neoliberalism expounded by Ayn Rand.
With her own force of will she became leader of the Conservative Party, and turned it into a neo-liberal party, forcing it to reject the "post-war consensus". Likewise, she also made the Conservative Party seem a less "establishment" party, and appeal again to ordinary people; the aspiring working classes. Norman Tebbitt is a witness to that.
It was this approach that made Thatcher the most successful Prime Minister of the modern age - a non-establishment, egalitarian political outfit that believes in promoting self-worth and economic freedom. Now, Thatcher was a divisive figure - there can be no denying that - and that was as much down to her difficult (detached?) personality as much as her view on society. What Farage has in his favour is a genuine and irrepressible personality that explains ideas in ways people can simply understand.
It is Nigel Farage who has the best claim today to be a real "heir to Thatcher". Farage made his career in the "Thatcher Eighties" in the London Metals Exchange, and doing so without even going to university. His views are those that Thatcher espoused thirty years ago, almost without exception.
What UKIP and Farage represent is, put simply, the politics of Thatcher and the Conservative Party circa 1987. There are many in the Conservative Party who look to the events of 1989-90 as a black time, when the real principles of Conservatism were betrayed and the politics of Thatcher (and the woman herself) were abandoned. The Conservatives have never truly recovered from that.
Farage and UKIP are, in many ways, an opportunity to put things back in some order. Of the Maastricht rebels and the Eurosceptics of the '90s, few are still around or in active politics. A glorius exception to that is John Redwood, who famously put up a leadership challenge to Major in 1995. The question to ask is: with two MPs already having gone to UKIP, why should others not follow? Clearly, those who admire the politics of Thatcher have more in common with UKIP than with the modern Conservative Party. Cameron's views on Europe are little different from those that John major held twenty years ago, and by being part of UKIP those Conservative MPs can at least not worry about having to toe a "party line" clearly so far from their own heart. Under Cameron, the Conservative Party has lost all real sense of purpose beyond its own, aimless, survival.
They should join a "real" Conservative Party...