Nigel Farage’s ‘insurgent’ party is gaining a following among the faithful – much to the consternation of the bishops of England and Wales

If you asked someone to picture a typical member of Ukip, they would be unlikely to come up with someone like Steven Woolfe. The 47-year-old Ukip MEP was born in Moss Side, Manchester, and baptised a Catholic. He had a black American grandfather (a GI stationed in England during the war) and a Jewish grandmother. “I was bullied at school,” he tells me when we meet in London. “I was the only one with curly hair and a tan.”

After his home was demolished to make way for road expansions, Woolfe spent his childhood in nearby Burnage, where he counted Noel Gallagher among his classmates. There he won a scholarship to the city’s prestigious St Bede’s College.

After gaining a law degree, he worked for several years as a barrister. Last May he was elected to the European Parliament for the North West England region after the “people’s army” won a combined vote of 480,000 there.

Woolfe’s mixed-race, working-class success story is a tribute to the Catholic school system. He is exactly the kind of person you might think the hierarchy would be proud of. Yet he says the bishops will not return his calls – surely a massively discourteous way of treating an MEP. That’s because Woolfe represents a party that now commands the support of an estimated one in six Catholics – but is causing increasing alarm among Church leaders.

The former altar boy says Catholicism has shaped his worldview. “The education I got in that school was fundamental to my values: the idea of social justice,” he says. “I did charity work for Cafod – we all did.”

Woolfe voted for Tony Blair in 1997, like more than half of Ukip supporters. But he is now one of a growing number of working-class, northern Catholics turning to the radical eurosceptic party led by Nigel Farage. Ukip hopes to continue its rapid growth thanks to its so-called “northern strategy”, the brainchild of Paul Nuttall, the party’s deputy leader who, like Woolfe, is a northern Catholic.

Ukip is an “anti-politics” movement, appealing to voters who see the old parties as socially liberal, politically correct and captured by minority interest groups. Major party membership has haemorrhaged and many people no longer believe in the messages coming from Westminster, proclaimed by baby-faced politicians who speak as if they are members of another species.

This disengagement from mainstream politics echoes the growing detachment from mainstream religious groups. White, working-class Brits have deserted the pews, which are now occupied by immigrants from India, Nigeria and the Philippines. In England’s former Catholic heartlands, such as Liverpool archdiocese, fewer than one in 10 baptised Catholics attend Mass. Nearby in Preston – the very heart of recusant Catholicism – a historic church was about to close before the Syro-Malabar faithful from India agreed to take it on.

The trend is clear: more and more British people no longer belong to our country’s great institutions and care little for our leaders, whether they are bishops or politicians. Instead, they believe in nothing and everything.

Out of this political wasteland has emerged Nigel Farage, whose chief attraction is his very unpolitical way of saying what many think and his ability to annoy the po-faced liberal establishment. The “people’s army” is taking a stand against prevailing metropolitan trends. Ukip members like to see themselves as “insurgents”, and Woolfe compares the party not only to the New Model Army, but also to the Levellers, the Diggers, the Chartists and even the Suffragettes.

Ukip is clearly an anti-establishment party, although it is more counter-revolutionary than revolutionary. It’s comparable to the néo-réactionnaire movement in France, whose members see the social revolution of 1968 as a terrible mistake. “Kippers” also resemble American-style culture warriors, although in Britain they are pursuing a war that was lost long ago, making them the equivalent of Japanese soldiers still fighting the Second World War in the jungles of the Philippines in the 1970s.

The Ukip of today is not what the party’s first leader, Alan Sked, had in mind when he founded the United Kingdom Independence Party in 1993. Sked was a Liberal and the group was a broad association of eurosceptics of Right, Left and Centre. But as the 1990s wore on, Ukip increasingly became a home for disaffected Tories bitter about Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration by europhiles.

The party’s fortunes changed after 2004, however, when the European Union stopped being a small collective of rich, western European nations and expanded east. Roughly a million eastern Europeans have, as a result, settled in Britain – the majority of them Catholics. Since then British voters have consistently named immigration as their number one concern.

For people from Woolfe’s background the issue is of acute importance. “Labour was the party most of my family voted for,” he says. “I voted for Blair. But he and his coterie had no values, and that’s what put me off the Labour Party. The issue of immigration impacted northern cities more than most. You’ve got to understand, none of us want to go back to the signs my grandmother had to put up with – ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ – and I don’t want to go back to the bullying I faced.

“Our world is significantly better now that we are more integrated. But mass unskilled migration had a very detrimental impact on people without a university education.”

Recently many Labour politicians have expressed reservations about the level of immigration – a cynic might say under pressure from Ukip – but no Church leader has. Bishops prefer to speak about the benefits of immigration. Their sympathies lie with migrants because Catholicism is a universal faith and helping the stranger beyond the tribe is central to the Gospel. Moreover, many priests and bishops are directly involved in caring for impoverished newcomers to Britain.

But immigration is a complex issue and there are no pain-free outcomes. It’s true, as the bishops point out, that immigrants staff our hospitals and care homes. But there are also 100,000 British nurses not working in the profession because the wages are too low. Immigration has widespread economic, social and cultural effects that can’t be fully addressed by a homily on the Good Samaritan. The Catholic Church in England and Wales has campaigned for an amnesty in Britain – thereby, say critics, encouraging a huge surge in illegal immigration. In addition to refusing to take Woolfe’s phone call, the bishops seem reluctant even to acknowledge that an open-door immigration policy can destroy the jobs of their own flock.

The other thing the bishops refuse to discuss in any detail are the pro-Ukip sympathies of many perfectly nice Catholics. Although English Catholics still vote Labour far more than they vote Tory, a recent poll by the British Election Study put Ukip on 12 per cent among Catholics (compared to 18 per cent among Anglicans). Many Catholics are, of course, from minority backgrounds, and a more recent study suggested that 18.58 per cent of white Catholics support Ukip – just a fraction less than white non-Catholics.

Ukip remains strongest in the east of England, in the traditionally Protestant areas from Kent up to Lincolnshire. Once upon a time the party might have been anti-Catholic, and while the leadership embraces Catholics some of its members have expressed anti-Catholic prejudices. MEP Roger Helmer once described the Catholic Church as “systemically paedophile” and Arthur Misty Thackeray, acting chairman in Scotland, claimed that the initials of Glasgow City Council stood for “gays, Catholics, Communists”. (Mr Thackeray also suggested that Holyrood was an “institutionally catholicised pretendy parliament” – which was certainly news to Scottish Catholics.) But such sectarianism is largely a fringe phenomenon.

The Catholic hierarchy’s suspicion of Ukip is not solely to do with immigration. The bishops are nostalgically attached to the European project, which dates back to Pope Benedict XV and his noble, doomed attempt to end the Great War. Many of the EU’s architects were deeply religious and Church leaders credit it with keeping the peace in Europe.

Birmingham auxiliary Bishop William Kenney said last year that he saw no alternative to Britain’s membership of the EU. “I am not at all convinced that the policies that Ukip are proposing are the best things for the poor and underprivileged,” he explained.

Catholic politicians are freer than churchmen to express their criticisms of Ukip. The Conservative former Cabinet minister Lord Deben describes Ukip as “a rag-bag that collects everyone who is dissatisfied for one reason or another”. He sees the party as an amorphous populist group “with parallels in the far Right” and says the party’s supporters have “swallowed what they’ve read in the Daily Mail and want simplistic answers”.

Ukip also appeals to some Christians because it opposed the legalisation of gay marriage.“We were the only party that said same-sex marriage had not been put before the people,” says Woolfe, who calls the move “undemocratic”.

The bishops, who also oppose gay marriage, have given Ukip no credit for their stance. Lord Deben says the gay marriage issue is simply “another excuse for people who don’t like the modern world, people who don’t understand we live in a world with people from different countries and different attitudes, people who want to stop the world and get off”.

He adds: “It seems to me impossible for a practising Catholic to vote for an antagonistic view towards anyone who is an immigrant and a party that doesn’t accept the science behind climate change. Ukip is opposed to aid for the poorest people. What Catholic can support not helping the poorest? It is not a party that Catholics in good conscience can vote for.”

Woolfe, of course, disputes this. “We believe that foreign aid is essential,” he says. “But we’re spending too much of it on things that don’t work.”

Nigel Farage is not especially religious, though he describes himself as an Anglican. But recently he has started talking about Britain’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage, a phrase associated with the American religious Right. Woolfe also drops the term into our conversation. For him, the party is more than just a working-class protest vote. He regards Ukip as a true “one-nation party”, with support across the country, and “a natural party for Roman Catholics like myself”.

Catholic bishops would dispute that – but not, it seems, by engaging with representatives of Ukip. If they do regard voting for the party as un-Christian, they have yet to explain precisely why. The same is true of their Anglican counterparts. Ironically, the only Church leader to have met representatives of Ukip, and debated Britain’s Christian heritage with them is the Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, a Pakistani immigrant.

The bishops of England and Wales will shortly issue their general election advice to Catholics. They will not, of course, tell Mass-goers how to vote, but they are expected to warn the faithful to stay away from “single-issue parties” and show special regard from the “dignity of migrants”. This will read to many people as a coded attack on Ukip by prelates who, perhaps not coincidentally, would be facing a catastrophic fall in Mass attendance were it not for unprecedented immigration into Britain.

But if the polls are right, a significant number of Catholics will ignore their advice when they enter the polling booth on May 7. Perhaps the bishops would do well to take Steven Woolfe’s call the next time he rings.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/1/15)