This article first appeared in The Oxford Student in October 2014. Nigel Farage and Bob the Builder seemed a lot more important back then. It was the first article I ever wrote, and looking back it’s a bit rough in places – I essentially hit on one joke that got old after a couple of hundred words – but I learned loads from it. So here it is, and I hope it’s enjoyable in some weirdly morbid way.
Last week it was announced that Bob the Builder would be returning to television, revamped for the modern age. You may have seen the pictures floating around social media; the new, CGI-ified Bob staring out at the viewer with cold, dead eyes and a nightmarish grin, surrounded by his entourage of beaming, anthropomorphised goons, usually captioned with words to the effects of “What have you done?”, or “childhood ruined!”.
Now, while I personally think the new design looks a bit creepy, a) none of us have actually seen the new show yet, and b) even when it does come out, none of us are going to be watching it anyway. Frankly, if you’re old enough to be reading this, you are probably too old to care about Bob the Builder- I mean, when did you last watch it? Whether the new show is successful or not is down entirely to whether its actual target audience of young children, as opposed to teenagers and twentysomethings on Twitter, enjoy it. And that’s something that none of us know, and indeed does not really affect us.
But I bring it up because seeing a bunch of people on social networks demonstrate a knee-jerk reaction to change reminded me somewhat of a political party whose popularity stems from knee-jerk reactions to change. You know the one.
That UKIP’s first MP was elected around the same time as this announcement is an amusing little parallel, and not just for all the obvious jokes about freeing Bob from Brussels’ red tape. Bob the Builder debuted in 1998- New Labour had just been elected, the Good Friday agreement had been signed, the UK had agreed to the European Convention on Human Rights, and Birmingham played host to both the G8 summit and the Eurovision Song Contest. Things, as the song went, could only get better- Britain was moving forward, and doing so in a way which involved ever-increasing international co-operation and coordination. As the poet hath wrote, “Can we fix it? Yes we can!”
And now Bob the Builder returns to a Britain where that sense of optimism has long since expired.
Where the desire to move forward has taken a severe battering, where the UK is reluctant to become involved in foreign conflicts, where the public is increasingly sceptical of the European Union and disillusioned by mainstream politics. Enter UKIP, who seem to offer an alternative to both. A knee-jerk response to new ideas, embraced by people who haven’t engaged with them for years. Don’t get me wrong: while I am ultimately in favour of British membership, the EU is a deeply flawed and in many respects thoroughly ridiculous organisation, in need of extensive reform if it is to operate effectively and efficiently. But UKIP’s response is unhelpful- rather than attempting to engage with the problems of Europe, it suggests that Britain opt instead to ignore them and head for the exit, to take its ball and go home. Can we fix it? No we can’t, so why bother?
UKIP exacerbates this problem by refusing to engage the wider world beyond the so-called “brexit”- it never, for example, talks about the importance of refocusing on trade outside of Europe, which is declining in relative economic importance, despite the fact that this argument clearly supports their anti-EU sentiment. They don’t do this because UKIP is a fundamentally backwards-looking party. It doesn’t seek to leave the EU so that Britain might better itself further afield; it seeks to leave the EU because doing so allows it to continue living in a bygone fantasy where Britain can still punch above its weight on the international stage.
All of which is why, despite the similarities between the backlash against the new Bob the Builder and the backlash against the EU, the title of this article is ultimately misleading; the image of a builder is entirely the wrong one for UKIP, because their ideology is the opposite of construction. This will be evidenced the moment that, should the UK leave the European Union, multinational firms begin to leave Britain once they are denied access to Europe’s common market. The moment Britain attempts to engage in trade negotiations and finds itself at a disadvantage without the weight of the entire EU backing it up. The moment when it realises that you do not fix a problem by simply walking away. Like the angry critics of the new Bob the Builder, all UKIP can offer is nostalgia for a half-remembered past. By staying in the EU, we have the chance to reform it, and better adapt it to the modern world. Can we fix it? I don’t know, but I do know that if we simply throw up our hands and decide to leave, we definitely can’t.