English conservatives don’t really take to the streets, at least not with dispatch. In the United States, only eight weeks elapsed between the passage of the 2009 stimulus bill and half the country erupting into Tea Party-themed protests. In Great Britain, the first noteworthy rally in opposition to excessive spending and debt took place this spring, and the offending government, the Labour Party under Gordon Brown, had already been voted out of power a year ago. It was, one could argue, a bit late.
Two of the primary movers behind the effort were the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a British pressure group founded in 2004, and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which was founded in opposition to the European Union and has been gaining in support among voters—earning over 3 percent of the vote in the last general election, up nearly a third from the previous election. It also has eleven seats in the European Parliament, only two fewer than the number held by the Labour Party.
Both the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the UKIP have affinities for the Tea Party movement in the United States. The TaxPayers’ Alliance has been getting advice from FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s organization in Washington; and UKIP leader Nigel Farage has drawn parallels between his own organization and the American Tea Party. I went to their rally hoping to see what the British version of the Tea Party might look like—if, that is, it can actually catch on.
The event had its origins in recent left-wing protests. Late last year, hooded students who’d been angered by a tripling of public university fees smashed their way into the headquarters of David Cameron’s Conservative Party, vandalized police vans, and threw bins at a car taking Prince Charles to the theater. Then, on March 26, during an otherwise peaceful London rally of around half a million public-sector workers to oppose cuts in ministerial budgets, dozens of anarchists sneaked off to break windows at the Ritz Hotel and occupy branches of Vodafone and the drug store chain Boots.
That unrest prompted the TaxPayers’ Alliance, UKIP, and others to organize their “Rally Against Debt.” The protest took place in Westminster on a Saturday in mid-May. The TaxPayers’ Alliance had vowed to send over its truck-mounted national-debt clock for the occasion, and although some news outlets reported sightings, I never saw it. Instead, under soft gray clouds, a few hundred people gathered in a pen of police barriers across the road from the House of Commons. They held placards above their heads: “STOP SPENDING MONEY WE DON’T HAVE,” “THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE” (a saying of Margaret Thatcher’s), and “LEARN TO BUDGET!!” One of the dozen or so police officers assigned to control the protest stood nearby, watching calmly. “I’m pretty sure we can handle it,” he said.
While attendees ranged from passionate to a bit more ironic (one touted the slogan “‘MAKE TEA, NOT ANGER,’ OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT”), most seemed to acknowledge that their side of the economic argument had essentially already prevailed in the U.K.—where David Cameron has imposed rather severe fiscal austerity measures. “This is a very British rally,” said Stephen Sobey, a Conservative Party activist, who had crossed the Atlantic in 2008 to volunteer for the McCain-Palin campaign. “We are essentially pushing for more of the status quo.”
Perhaps because the protesters were already getting their way in Britain, much of the anger at the rally was directed toward the European Union. And no one personifies anti-EU anger quite like Farage, a sharp-tongued 47-year-old, who, in addition to being ukip leader, is a member of the European Parliament. Since he wants the U.K. to withdraw from the European Union, he spends most of his time in Brussels causing offense. “Just who the hell do you people think you are?” he shouted during a debate about the European debt crisis last year. This morning, though, Farage was in a good mood—snappily dressed in a blue blazer and blue tie, and laughing at the placards (“FU EU,” for example) that he particularly liked.
I asked Farage if all this could mark the beginning of a Tea Party-style movement in the U.K. “There is a pretty strong religious basis to the Tea Party,” he said, “and I would suggest that you’re witnessing a pretty irreligious lot.” Farage said he was going to get the crowd going by talking about Britain’s financial contribution to the European Union ($12.5 billion this year) and the recent rescue packages for their faltering neighbors. It’s a harangue he brings to every event, but Farage was confident the crowd would like to hear it again. “Come on,” he said, “if you go to a Tom Jones concert, you want ‘Delilah,’ don’t you?”
Soon it was time for speeches. Mark Littlewood, head of the Institute for Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank, spoke about the danger of “tax-eaters.” Farage gave his usual dire warnings. “Britain is skint, and we’ve got the courage to come out and say it!” he shouted.
By one o’clock, an hour earlier than advertised, the rally was over, and the crowd broke up. Quite a few people were headed to the Westminster Arms, a nearby pub, for a drink. Meanwhile, in a final gesture of defiance, someone tossed an EU flag onto steps leading up to a statue of George V and set fire to it. The flag burned for a minute or so and left a black stain. Soon volunteers were wondering what to do about it. A graying police officer wandered over and suggested that cleaning it up would be good for the protesters’ image. But he was smiling. It had not, after all, been a difficult policing assignment. “We don’t normally get demonstrators who can spell stimulus,” he said.
Sam Knight lives in London. He writes regularly for the Financial Times.This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.