Ed Miliband is telling me about Labour’s “fantastic candidate” for Newark when a true champion of unspun democracy intervenes. While party leaders and ministers breeze in and out of the Nottinghamshire market town ahead of next Thursday’s by-election, the Reverend Dr Dick Rodgers has been hauling his placards through the relentless rain around the handsome market square, alone.
Outside the Labour campaign headquarters on Appleton Gate, the tireless one-man band who stands on an anti-bankers platform, buttonholes the “next prime minister” (well, that’s what the party activists call him) with his proposals for currency reform. Politely, if a little superfluously, the next PM tells Rev Dr Rodgers “I’m afraid I won’t be supporting you” before nipping in to deliver a pep talk to the door-knockers alongside Labour hopeful Michael Payne: “immeasurably the best candidate”, Rhondda MP Chris Bryant – drafted in to help the campaign – assures me. Miliband has landed to visit Newark Hospital – cash-strapped, A&E-deprived, and a leading local vote-swayer – and so underline the party’s NHS and cost-of-living strategy.
Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker (who sits for nearby Gedling) tells me that “the positive Labour agenda” is finding doorstep approval. Just across the street, the Palace Theatre promises a future gig by “the master of nostalgic comedy”. That, in case you wondered, is folkie veteran Richard Digance. But Nigel Farage will be around this weekend.
Of course, fear of that other doyen of retro humour explains why I’m bumping into top-flight parliamentarians on a wet Wednesday in east Notts. Round the corner at the Ukip shop, Paul Oakden – the party’s East Midlands campaigns director – says that he finds voters even more “comfortable and confident” about backing them since the European poll results. On Sunday, Ukip won in Newark and the surrounding area. It took 10,027 votes, with the Conservatives on 9,641, Labour 6,601 and the Lib Dems – scraping just in front of the Greens here – 1,889. “I think that the Conservatives have to a certain extent taken the constituency of Newark for granted,” Oakden says, praising his outfit as “an open, liberal party – a party of free-thinking individuals”. That definitely goes for the gaffe-prone candidate, and re-elected MEP, Roger Helmer. He may not be homophobic (he disputes the term’s validity while condemning “hostility, prejudice or violence”) but is unarguably windfarm-phobic: “the only people who benefit are the rich landowners”. As for immigration, Paul Oakden insists: “Our argument … is simply about numbers and skills. We’re not anti-immigration. It’s not about pulling up the drawbridge, but about accepting that, as an island, there is a drawbridge and we should control who crosses it.”
In a strange way, those military metaphors suit both the place and the fight. Also on Appleton Gate, scaffolding surrounds the Old Magnus Buildings. Next spring they will emerge reborn – after a £5.5m refit – as a national Civil War Centre. Between 1643 and 1646, Newark Castle was an epicentre of our internecine strife. The Royalists held out within the citadel against three sieges mounted by the parliamentary armies. Its ruined walls and towers brood over the fast-flowing Trent as the river races past the maltings and brewhouses that made Newark rich. Beyond the castle itself, a surprising number of civil war sites survive in Newark’s pleasingly unwrecked historic centre. Prince Rupert of the Rhine – the king’s nephew, cavalry commander and supreme Cavalier – held court in the timbered Governor’s House of 1475. Now its ground floor hosts a branch of Greggs. Where royalty once dined, pasties are now munched.
In Newark today, Ukip sounds much more Roundhead than Cavalier. After all, in the 1640s Oliver Cromwell led a revolt of disaffected country gentlemen outraged by the meddling arrogance of the cosmopolitan elite. Country rose up against Court. In legend, if not always in fact, plain-spoken and rough-cut squires from the shires cantered into battle against perfumed and pampered long-maned courtiers, in thrall to foreign kings and foreign creeds. Real history was never quite like that, but the ideal endures. Ukip has let it ride again.
In Newark, the Court-Country division seems to make more sense than any left-right dichotomy. A feeling of alienation counts for more than ideology. In the Ukip office, I meet a first-time volunteer. “I am here today because we’re in a position where we stopped being given a choice,” she says. “They say that they get it, but they don’t. We want a choice.” This woman doesn’t want her name printed as she fears that stigma still clings to Ukip support. “I’m a contractor. I work around the country. I don’t want activists turning up on my doorstep.”
Local notables of a conservative outlook led England’s 17th-century rebellions. Yet they propelled modernisation rather than halting it, never managing to turn the clock back. Plus ça change? In any case, when the Mayor’s Parlour in the splendid 1776 Town Hall is unlocked for me, I find solid evidence of what the uprising of Country against Court did in Newark. The beleaguered Cavaliers had to melt down their portable bling into diamond-shaped “siege pieces”: makeshift coinage for dire straits. Talk about regaining control of your currency.
This by-election comes hard on the heels of Ukip’s barnstorming nights at the local and European counts because of one soldier’s downfall. Former army officer Patrick Mercer fell on his sword after a cash-for-questions exposure. He has left a true-blue seat (majority: 16,152) open to offers. The latest poll shows the Conservatives’ Robert Jenrick still ahead of Roger Helmer, with Labour in good heart and cheered by the chance to celebrate a thriving renationalised industry: the East Coast Main Line. As for the Lib Dems, they seem to have given up and slunk off home. I came across more support for a pro-NHS independent, Paul Baggaley.
Paul Oakden says that Mercer’s disgrace left traditional Tories angry that he had forced a by-election. “People are looking for something new and fresh. They’re giving us consideration.” He asked one couple, “Are you going to vote for us?” “Of course,” came the reply. “We’re members of the Conservative Club.” The new recruits include, he maintains, Labour voters who are saying, “We’re just pleased there’s a party we can support who have the ability to beat the Tories.” Well, ripostes Vernon Coaker, “Ukip will claim anything. They’ll claim whatever suits them.” As for Chris Bryant, he pauses to reflect on the unknown quantities thrown up by the past week of upheavals: “It feels like a large stone has been dropped into a pond… Where the waves are going, who knows?”
Wherever its ripples end, this latest provincial insurgency has already tempted some commentators into dusting down their fantasies of a monolithic Middle England. Newark itself corrects that. At several places – including, I should note, the Ukip HQ – people bring up the Polish war graves. So I visit the section of the town cemetery where 391 Polish flyers rest. During the Second World War, they fought with the RAF from nearby airfields. Planted with birches, the Polish cemetery is a lovely spot, quite unvisited by politicians. Just as much as the walls of Newark Castle, these headstones belong right at the heart of English, and British, heritage: Zakrocki, Kohut, Widowski, Lysejko, Mamanczyk, Tomaszewski, Trybus, Bugielski, Stec, Grejciun, Peski, Szarek…
Not far away I find the New Baltica grocery, packed with home-from-home treats from east of the Oder. Thanks to the wartime connection, Newark already had a Polish population before more recent migrations. The manager, Bridget from Lithuania, lives in Lincoln and commutes every day. On first coming to England, she worked in pizza and pork factories. “It was horrible!” But she likes this job, and has bought a house in Lincoln. “For me, it’s good, but other people are not so happy” – those in the black economy. Bridget isn’t much concerned with politics but makes one thing clear: “We are real hard workers.”
The soaring spire of St Mary Magdalene dominates Newark. A late-medieval masterpiece, the parish church is no cosy backwater but a cathedral-sized monument. And, inside, an Italian voice greets me. Born in Milan, church volunteer Tita Parker is the widow of a Newark-born musician. For decades, the couple had a house in Umbria, but after her husband’s death she felt she had to come back to his birthplace and the “salt of the earth” who live here. “My heart is divided between England and Italy,” Mrs Parker tells me. “I love this country. I love this place. I love the people. Maybe I don’t love the Government so much…”
As we talk, a weathervane in the form of a golden cockerel is carried into the church, regilded and ready to resume its place atop the restored spire. Whichever way the wind of protest blows on Thursday, the crowing nativists who now make all the running need to remember that people from all points of the compass have enriched not just the cities but the English heartlands too. So why do the party bigwigs on their tactical stopovers not come to honour, say, Walawski DFC of 316 “City of Warsaw” Squadron, who lies with 390 of his comrades in Newark cemetery? This is their country as much as anyone’s.