The life (and luck) of Nigel

Photo: Gage Skidmore. Wikimedia Commons

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage

Michael Crick, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 606 pages, £25

KEN BELL reflects on the career of Brexit’s cheeky chappie

Many of the people involved in the Brexit debate will merit footnotes in the histories of the period that have yet to be written. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, will have whole volumes dedicated to him, and Michael Crick’s biographymarks a worthy first contribution to the many that will arrive down the decades to come.

Farage is without doubt the most successful politician of our times. He did more than virtually anyone else to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and so has succeeded in all his political aims. He is also the luckiest. How much his success owes to pure chance is something for future historians to debate, but reading Crick’s work it is hard to argue with the notion that Farage was incredibly lucky with the opponents that he was given.

UKIP, the party he came to dominate, was founded in 1993 and would have probably remained a fringe outfit that would have been lucky if it had ever won a clutch of council seats. But then Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown came together, to provide the party, and Farage, with their first big break.

Prior to the 1997 general election, both Blair and Ashdown had discussed ‘The Project’, a plan to combine Blair’s Labour with Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats. But once Blair won his massive majority in 1997, he reneged on most of that, which left his erstwhile partner desperate to avoid being left completely out in the cold. Crick notes, ‘Ashdown fought to ensure that as a kind of consolation prize he at least got Blair to stick to his public pledge of PR [proportional representation] for the European elections of 1999.’ Blair tossed him that particular bone, but this also meant that minor parties now had a chance to gain seats.

UKIP took three seats in 1999, and came close in a clutch of others. It must be chastening for a Liberal Democrat to realise that had that election not been fought with PR, then the party would not have won any seats, and would probably have contented itself with another one of its internal rows that activists loved and real people hated. UKIP could quite possibly have split into its various factions, and the whole EU debate would have been held back for another generation.

One of the newly minted MEPs was Nigel Farage and given that UKIP had now gone from being a fringe outfit to a serious political party, invitations to appear on television came thick and fast. Farage could be relied upon to get his party’s supporters cheering at the TV, and at the same time enrage his party’s opponents. It made for perfect television, so Farage became almost overnight the household name he remains today. Again, luck played its part as the ‘Cavalier’ Farage was surrounded in UKIP by some pretty gruesome ‘Roundheads’ whom nobody sane would want anywhere near a television studio, representing the party or anything else.

Farage’s womanising activities are awarded a chapter all to themselves, which they deserve as Farage is an enthusiastic swordsman. However, I was struck with just how disapproving his ‘Kipper’ colleagues were with his women, and his carousing in general. Farage clearly enjoyed himself hugely in Brussels and that left his opponents looking even more gammon-like than usual. As he left to take up his seat in Brussels, a journalist asked if he was worried that he might become corrupted by the ‘lunches, dinners, champagne receptions’ and the like, to which Farage replied: ‘No, I’ve always lived like that.’

Anyone who has met Farage will recognise at once that he is very introverted. I met him once in 2013 after he had raised the roof at a rally. I asked him to agree to have his photo taken with me and he quite grumpily replied, ‘Yes, alright,’ before taking my hand and going into full grin-mode for the camera. As soon as it was over he scampered off before anyone else he didn’t know could talk to him. As an introvert myself, I knew immediately how difficult it must be for Farage to interact with strangers in any un-staged environment.

The author and Nigel Farage in 2013

Fast forward to 2019. In the run-up to the European elections, Farage came to address a monster rally in Edinburgh. I was one of the activists who were told to hang around after the event to go backstage and meet Farage. The idea was a bit of ego-stroking for us from the leader, with a few photos to show to our friends and handshakes all round. Instead, Farage left as soon as he walked off stage, which left a group of about a dozen people feeling very miffed indeed. Politicians know that a short pep talk to their senior activists is a big ingredient of any campaign dish. The politician tells the activists how important they are, mentions a few by name, before having the photos taken and then scampering off to the next campaign stop.

Farage broke that rule as he broke so many other rules of the political game. He got away with it partly because of his incredible luck, but also because for us it was always about campaigning to get Britain out of the EU, and nothing more. Nigel Farage, with his beer, his cigarettes, his women and cheeky grin, was the symbol of that but never its organiser.

Why two tribes went to war – Brexit’s background

KEN BELL reads a useful analysis of what led to the 2016 vote

Brexitland, Maria Sobelewska and Robert Ford, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 408 pages, £11.99

Porfirio Díaz, the man who dominated Mexican politics for a generation until his downfall in 1910, once remarked that nothing ever happened in his country until it happened. What he meant was that there has always been an enormous time lag between cause and effect in Mexican politics, and in Brexitland, Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford show that the same is true of Britain.

In doing so, they have also managed to demolish the myth that is now an article of faith in Guardian-reading circles that nobody was bothered about the EU until a couple of years before the 2016 referendum. What the authors demonstrate rather well is that many issues that were of importance to the population were suppressed by the main political parties from just after the Second World War. Viewed in that light, Brexit is about more than just leaving the European Union; it is shorthand for a lot of long-standing factors that have led to a new political division in Britain.

Immigration, of course, is the most important factor and for that reason several chapters of Brexitland are devoted to it. Starting in 1948 when the great and the good created a nationality act which allowed Commonwealth citizens to settle freely in the UK, the aim was to tie the fully independent white Commonwealth states to their mother country and to create an Anglosphere long before that word was even coined. What nobody realised was that New Commonwealth people would take advantage of this liberalism, even though since most of their countries were not independent at that time they did not need this legislation. As Sobolewska and Ford point out, both parties supported immigration even when it became obvious that many of their traditional supporters did not.

The opposition to that policy, begun in places like Smethwick in 1964, continuing on via Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 and culminating, possibly, with Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 comment about people being afraid of being ‘swamped’ by new Commonwealth immigrants certainly helped the Tories acquire a reputation in the public mind as the party that was sounder on immigration than Labour. However, as Edward Heath proved when he decided to allow around 30,000 Ugandan Asians to enter the country, that soundness was often more in word than deed. As the country moved into the 21st century, with Labour allowing a major influx of eastern Europeans – many of them settling in areas that had no previous experience of immigration –people woke up to the fact that neither party was prepared to speak for them on that issue, so they began to support Nigel Farage and UKIP.

Other factors were in play, such as the growth of the university sector, which led to many inner city areas becoming home to students and graduates, who often made common cause with ethnic minorities to create a new voting core for Labour. That new core strategy was based on the gamble that the party’s traditional, collectivist, industrial working class voters would stay onside as they had nowhere else to go, but UKIP proved the flaw in that argument. As the authors also make clear, the new core was not as tribally loyal as the old one had been and was quite willing to dump Labour if they disagreed with particular party policies.

Out of all this churning, new identities were created, and a new political division was created. The referendum campaign, with its binary choice, forced people to choose one side or the other – and having made their choice they often found that they had more in common with people on their side of the referendum debate than they had with the parties with which they had once identified. Leading on from that, as the authors do, we can see that the referendum campaign made people aware of this new division, as well as helping to shape it. At the end of it, Britain had “two new tribes aware of who they were, what they stood for and what they opposed”.

A good example of this in action is not included in Brexitland, probably because it happened too late for inclusion. During the European election campaign in 2019, Featherstone Working Men’s Club (near Wakefield) played host to a Brexit Party rally. One of the main speakers was Anne Widdecombe, arguably one of Thatcher’s more ghoulish ministers, who was nicknamed “Doris Karloff” back in the day. The club’s members, men who had stood on the picket lines during the miners’ strike of 1984/85, cheered her to the echo, to the utter disgust of the Guardian.

 The 2016 referendum was very much the victory of one identity, which was the geographically rooted, socially conservative, but often economically radical section of the population against the Metropolitan, white-collar graduate element. Although the authors do not quote Theresa May, she may have had a point when she spoke about people from somewhere clashing with people from nowhere. Brexitland is a heavyweight, academic text that should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand this new political alignment in Britain and how it came about.