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British voters could decide next year whether their country should leave the European Union. If that vote actually takes place, much of the credit will go to the UK Independence Party. UKIP is a minority party that's having a major impact. NPR's Ari Shapiro went to the party's convention in the town of Torquay.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Agatha Christie was born here in Torquay. It's a beach resort in southwest England that has seen better days. This is known as the English Riviera because it gets more sun than almost anywhere else in the country. Even the iconic '70s TV show "Fawlty Towers" emphasized Torquay's shabby aspects over its glamour.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAWLTY TOWERS")
SHAPIRO: On this blustery day, the pier is nearly empty. The tour boats are all in the harbor. Jenny Vowden is going for a walk with her husband. They've both spent almost all their lives in Torquay, and they worry about how their country is changing around them.
JENNY VOWDEN: One of the dangers that we see in this country is that we're losing our British-ness, if you like. I mean, we are a Christian country. We always have been. And we feel that we would prefer to keep it that way.
SHAPIRO: This is part of UKIP's appeal. A growing number of people here fear that immigrants are taking British jobs and changing British culture. Some immigrants come here through the EU's open borders law, which lets people move freely from one country to another. So, as the name suggests, UKIP wants UK independence from Europe.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: At the Riviera Conference Center, a song that says goodbye in different European languages plays on a loop. A bunch of mostly white-haired men arrive wearing purple and yellow UKIP lapel pins. At this convention, one speaker after another talks about the need to break free from the rules and regulations that flow from Brussels. A UKIP official named Steve Crowder gives a speech called "Out of Europe and Into the World."
STEVE CROWDER: We must be able to choose who comes to live in our country.
CROWDER: And we cannot while we remain in the EU.
SHAPIRO: UKIP has no seats in Britain's Parliament but the party exerts a strong force on the ruling coalition government. For example, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that if conservatives win next year's elections, the people of Britain will get to vote on whether to leave the EU. In this respect, UKIP resembles the Tea Party in the United States, a center of gravity that pulls the conservative party farther to the right than it would prefer to go. Both the Tea Party and UKIP talk about taking the country back.
NIGEL FARAGE: This country, in a short space of time, has frankly become unrecognizable.
SHAPIRO: Unlike the Tea Party, UKIP is an actual political party with a charismatic leader named Nigel Farage.
FARAGE: Whether it's the fact that in many parts of England you don't hear English spoken anymore, this is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.
SHAPIRO: Part of UKIP's appeal lies in Nigel Farage's larger-than-life persona. He has survived a plane crash, a car crash and cancer. He is known for downing a few drinks with lunch. And though he's not yet 50, Farage smokes like a man from an earlier generation. At this conference, vendors sell tote bags printed with Farage's face in bright purple ink.
STEVE MORGAN: He looks a bit like Walter Matthau but slightly melted.
SHAPIRO: Steve Morgan is a consultant who advises businesses on the British political system.
MORGAN: Nigel Farage does a spew with these very right-wing policies in a very pleasant way. You would have a drink - you would go to the local bar and drink with Nigel Farage, and you would feel good about that because he talks your language in a very straight way.
SHAPIRO: The UK Independence Party was created just 20 years ago. That's a score in British terminology. Now they're anticipating big wins in the European elections this May, and they're hoping to pick up their first seats in Parliament in next year's general elections. All around the convention center, signs and key chains say: Ready for another score. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Torquay, England.
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