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UKIP is in fact a four letter word, but we need to learn to say it without discomfort. Two recent posts by colleagues; Adam Lent on UKIP's inconsistent approach to freedom and Anthony Painter on UKIP's success being a symptom of democratic stress, got me thinking about another way to understand their recent breakthrough, if indeed that's what it was.

I wonder if their sudden appeal relates to the way they might be tapping into certain kinds of 'moral' foundations that are largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties.

Many have argued that the three main parties are too close together in spirit and policy, and that huge swathes of the population do not see themselves adequately reflected in this group. On this account, UKIP is not just for people who believe immigration is insufficiently controlled, or who strongly dislike Europe, but more generally for those who do not identify with Westminster, or who have been 'left behind by the relentless mark of globalisation and glib liberalism'.

On policy, UKIP's ideas are nascent and hard to pin down, but perhaps their lack of credible policies is because they are not really a party of ideas at all. Instead, I wonder if their sudden appeal relates to the way they may be tapping into what some social psychologists view as 'moral foundations', which appear to be largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties. To be clear, I am not saying they are more or less moral than anybody else, but rather that they are tapping into certain kinds of moral sentiments that a significant number of people feel and seek expression for.

Six Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Theory has recently been popularised by Jonathan Haidt, who spoke at the RSA last year, and kindly stayed afterwards to speak to Social Brain about his work in more detail. While I hugely recommend Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind, I also recommend the more sophisticated critiques which suggest that the gap between science and morality cannot be bridged with quite as much conviction as Haidt seems to suggest.

The book includes a detailed account of the evolutionary, psychological and anthropological case for social intuitionism, which is a particular account of cognition and morality. Crudely, it says that certain adaptive pressures in evolution gave rise to quick automatic associations that are largely emotional in nature, leading us to make evaluative judgments extremely quickly, which forms the true basis of our morality. On this account, reason only emerges after the fact, to rationalise the moral position we have already intuited.

For now, a quick overview (unashamedly via Wikipedia) of Haidt's palette of moral foundations is below.



  • Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.



  • Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)



  • Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.



  • Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)



  • Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)



  • Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)


The claim is that we all have these moral foundations to a greater or lesser extent, but the degree to which they matter to us varies hugely depending on our political outlook; while our political outlook is shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise.

Haidt's earlier and more controversial statement of this argument "What Makes People Vote Republican?" offers evidence to show many vote against their economic self-interest because they are motivated mostly by the extent to which candidates speak to the values above, and those on the right tend to speak to all of the moral foundations, while those on the left usually only offer a very concentrated form of the first and a little of the second and third.

One way of thinking of UKIP's appeal

***Disclaimer: What I'm about to say should not be read as an endorsement of any position, nor a justification for why it is held***

If you tune in to the tone and language of what UKIP say, rather than analyse the claims rationally, you begin to see the breadth of their appeal- they are touching lots of these moral foundations, in ways that the other parties may not be.



  • When they ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into 'the legitimate authority foundation'.



  • When they speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into 'the loyalty foundation'.



  • When they opposed gay marriage they were trying to tap into 'the purity foundation'. 



  • When they speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into 'the liberty/tyranny foundation'.



  • When they speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into 'the justice foundation'.



  • They actually say very little about 'the care foundation', which is why people on the left, who see the world mostly through the care foundation, tend to think of UKIP as barmy, extreme, or callous.


None of the above serves to justify UKIP's positions, but I hope it serves to indicate why people may well vote for them in spite of their policies, not because of them. Moreover, it may also indicate why it will take much more than a simple shift of policy on immigration or Europe to erode their appeal.


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