On Margate sands: Farage, Dreamland, and the UKIP-ification of the Tories

I am standing in a Victorian-era promenade shelter in Margate, a two-hour train ride from London in the district of Thanet in north-eastern Kent, looking out over the grey-green water, hugging my winter coat around me, and trying to imagine the iron pier that used to stretch into the bay here.

It was destroyed by a storm in 1978 and has never been rebuilt. I have come to Margate to find out why Thanet was once considered a UKIP stronghold and why the party’s prospects here and elsewhere have faded almost to vanishing point since.

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T. S. Eliot would have known the old pier well. In 1921, Eliot applied for leave from Lloyd’s of London on the grounds that he was suffering a nervous breakdown, and then hightailed it to the the coast with his equally brittle bride, Vivienne, whose own cocktail of issues had largely helped to shake his. Eliot planned to benefit from the curative properties of seawater and perhaps to do a little writing. We know from his letters that there was one place in particular he liked to do the latter: the “shelter on the front”. The Waste Land was published the following year.

On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing. / The broken fingernails of dirty hands. / My people humble people who expect / Nothing.

In his book about Thanet, All the Devils are Here, Kent-based author David Seabrook suggests that these lines are most likely a reference to the war veterans that Eliot would have encountered on a daily basis throughout his convalescence, invalids limping about the now-disappeared jetty, handing out the world’s first paper poppies in anticipation of Britain’s inaugural National Poppy Day that year.

It has long been common to use this literary connection to write off Margate as an actual wasteland. That’s partly because it’s been easy to do so. By the 1980s, with mods and skinheads taking to the beach to wage war and the country in recession, the rot had well and truly set in.

Ingrid Spencer was a Conservative Party councillor for Margate between 1999 and 2007 and continues to work for the local council in an administrative capacity. I meet her in the offices of the Margate Charter Trustees, where she’s struggling to get the week’s payslips out on time. Her views are her own.

“The accepted practice had been for hotels to go into the black during the season and into the red outside of it, with a blip over Christmas if they opened,” she says. “That had been going on for God knows how many decades. Then we went into recession and the banks turned around at the end of the season and said, ‘Thanks very much, but we’re not renewing your overdraft.’ The lucky ones sold out, but many weren’t able to.”

The people most likely to rock up in Margate now were the sea-change homeless and the poor, victims of local councils elsewhere which were happy to relocate them the seaside, where the hotels of yesteryear had been re-purposed as multiple-occupancy bedsits and sold to housing associations for a song.

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“It came to be known as the ‘Costa del Dole,’” Spencer says. “If you were going to be unemployed, why be unemployed in wet, horrible Manchester? Why not come down and enjoy the sea, sun and whatever in Margate? But if such people couldn’t survive in Manchester and Liverpool, how were they going to survive here? The old industries — tourism and agriculture — were long gone.”

Other people were arriving, too: immigrants and asylum seekers. By the early 2000s, some bright spark had nicknamed nearby Cliftonville, where Eliot lived during his stay, “Kosoville,” a name that stuck despite the area’s relative lack of Kosovars. There were reports that the Nayland Rock Hotel, where Mick Jagger partied with Jerry Hall in the 1990s, was being used as a vertical transit camp for asylum seekers awaiting processing.

Kent is no stranger to invasion — Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror and the Luftwaffe all had a crack — and an invasion is what many people now felt they were experiencing. “There was certainly a perception that we were dealing with the bulk of the traffic,” Spencer says. That perception lingered even after it ceased to be strictly accurate.

But it was the closure of Dreamland in 2003, after eighty-three years in service, that arguably marked how far the town had fallen in the minds of those who live here. The Coney Island-inspired amusement park on the waterfront was immediately labelled “derelict” and “nightmarish” in the press. “You begin to believe that sort of thing when you read it everywhere,” Spencer says.

Sitting among former Dreamland rides and amusements — fading fibreglass relics now available at rock-bottom prices to collectors of kitsch — Margate’s resident fortune teller, Miranda Jane Dunn, makes me a cup of tea and tries to sum up the early 2000s.

“There were times when it felt like we were living on fresh air,” she says. She smiles widely as though what she’s saying isn’t absolutely devastating. “There simply wasn’t any money to go around. We lived on the air we breathed.”

All of which made Margate the perfect place for Nigel Farage to come marauding two years ago. The former UKIP leader and current member of the European Parliament rolled into town for UKIP’s 2015 conference and the media circus and protesters followed.

Despite not actually being from South Thanet, the national seat he was contesting, Farage smelled blood in the water: the by now all-too-familiar combination of decline, squandered promise, wounded pride, and fear of change and the other, was too tempting to pass up.

He didn’t win, but UKIP cleaned up at the local level, and the following year the area voted resoundingly for Britain to exit the European Union.

But UKIP’s fortunes have waned significantly in the wake of last year’s referendum. In a move that recalls John Howard’s adoption of Pauline Hanson’s rhetoric in 2001, which allowed the Coalition to decimate One Nation at the bargain basement price of its soul, Theresa May has so thoroughly UKIP-ified the Tories’ message on Brexit and borders that in local elections earlier this month UKIP failed to hold onto even one of the 145 seats it was defending. Farage has credited himself with May’s success: “She is using exactly the same words and phrases that I have been using for twenty years,” he told a television interviewer recently. “[T]he British Prime Minister was running on exactly the same ticket [as me] and swept the board.”

According to Dunn, Margate’s worst days are behind it. In 2011, the Turner Contemporary Gallery opened after nearly a decade in the works. Margate’s old town — a collection of shuttered shop-fronts only fifteen years ago — now appears to be thriving. Dreamland reopened the same year Farage barrelled through at the height of his powers, though closed again earlier this one for refurbishments and expansion. It’s set to open again next week and the pop group Gorillaz are scheduled to play there next month. “We’re all very excited,” Dunn says.

It’s difficult not to wonder what sort of regeneration is really under way here, though. When Dreamland reopened two years ago, many noted that it was less a funfair than an homage to or pastiche of one, more a weird museum piece than an attraction designed with modern tastes in mind. The old town is dominated by stores trading in bric-a-brac, vintage clothing and overpriced body lotions made from local seaweed. In 2014, a local company raised more than £30,000 on Kickstarter to recreate the Victorian bathing machines that once lined the beach.

In a piece about the town the following year, Vice’s Tim Burrows noted that UKIP and the gentrifying hipsters share “a desire to turn the clock back” that “speaks to the feeling of dread one has about the future in this country”. UKIP plays to the working class and the hipsters to the priced-out artistic one back in the city. It’s difficult not to notice that a striking number of the old town’s stores are only open over the weekend.

“That’s when it comes alive,” says Brian Phipps, 48, a plasterer from nearby Cliffsend. “Then it goes dead again.” He takes a sip of his beer and thinks about it a moment. “Actually, in winter even the weekends are dead.”

Phipps says he was tempted to vote for UKIP in 2015 “as a protest vote” and “to scare the Tories”. He wasn’t worried that such a vote might actually benefit the party.

“I didn’t think Farage would actually get in,” he says. “Nobody I know was going to vote for him. Nobody with a job, anyway. He was taking advantage of how depressed Margate was. He’s a parasite.”

Phipps’s friend, David Geraghty, 51, agrees. He adds that May should think twice before adopting UKIP’s message.

“During the day, the boozers are full off UKIP supporters,” he says. “If Farage has his way, their benefits will disappear. They’ll have to get a job. Especially when all the foreigners fuck off because of Brexit. I hope the Tories know they’re relying on people who don’t work.”

For her part, Ingrid Spencer doesn’t believe that May has adopted Farage’s rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to his voter base and to guarantee her success in next month’s general election. But she does admit that many in Thanet will be deeply disappointed with the prime minister – who was against leaving the EU until she wasn’t – should she fail to deliver the so-called “hard Brexit” that Farage has long championed.

“She has a very tough job ahead of her and she’s not shirking it,” she says. “But people do expect this from her.”

In striking contrast to the old town, Margate’s High Street is populated with with second-hand clothing shops, dingy tobacconists, and discount stores where everything costs a pound. There’s an old Salvation Army depot that serves now as a Polish-Catholic shop-front church and a pub where aging skinheads and punks put back pints and talk about anything but politics. Back towards the train station, two homeless people remain motionless in their sleeping bags, exactly where they were when I left them this morning, humble people expecting nothing, sleeping beneath the promenade shelter where one of last century’s great poems was written.

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“The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,” J. M. W. Turner once said. Indeed, it was in Margate, where he was sent to school at the age of eleven and where the contemporary art gallery is now named for him, that the famed painter of light first saw the sea.

There’s certainly something Turneresque about the sunset here, the light becoming ever more diffuse as the burning orb drops slowly towards the water. But I’m too busy thinking about the pier, which he painted at least once, to notice.

Will they ever try to recreate that? Would the politicians promise it? Would the entrepreneurs crowd-fund it? In Greek, “nostalgia” means “the pain of returning.” We cannot always be dragging ourselves back to Dreamland.

A shorter version of this piece was published in The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017, as ‘Waiting in Dreamland’.

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I am a freelance foreign correspondent, critic and screenwriter.

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