For Prospect Magazine
We are approaching a significant moment in our national history. And somehow the hitherto fringe figure of Nigel Farage is at its centre. Yes, the UK Independence party, for all the farrago of its local election successes, is still a minor party; but it has become the point around which the debate on Europe and immigration is now revolving. Ukip does not have to win a single seat in the 2015 election to change the course of British politics. It has already set the terms. It has caused the current spread of Conservative fissures and pushed David Cameron to propose legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union. And it has inflamed the one debate that even our Gilbert and George coalition might not survive. Meanwhile, Ukip is making the Labour party react—and nervously so. How has this happened? To begin with, the answer is best understood by watching its leader, Farage, in his element: on the campaign trail.
I am in South Shields—Labour heartland in the northeast. It is the day before the by-election caused by David Miliband’s resignation. The next day, on 2nd May, Ukip will alter the geometry of British politics by winning 139 seats on local councils and taking, on average, one in four votes nationwide. But Nigel Farage doesn’t yet know this. He is out campaigning on behalf of Richard Elvin, his party’s candidate. The northern sky is wide and bright, though it’s unreasonably cold if you stand in the shade. We are in the main pedestrianised street. Farage is talking with (not “to” or “at”) yet another enthusiastic supporter, a man in his fifties and a former Labour voter.
“Yes, well, that’s often true,” Farage says, leaning in to respond to a complaint about the perceived lack of visibility of David Miliband previously. He extends the point to include every Westminster politician: “The other three parties are all the same. That’s why we are drawing support very evenly across the country—now that is a strength but it is also a weakness under first past the post.”
A German journalist interrupts. She is non-specifically cross. Typically, Farage seeks to flatter her, even as he goes on the attack: “Ah, well, under your system where you have two ballot papers”—he smiles, he means the German electoral system which he is implying is more civilised—“we would have had representation many years ago. But under this system it is tough and we haven’t yet broken the dam.”
What the journalist doesn’t appear to know—surprisingly few do—is that Farage’s second wife, Kirsten Mehr, with whom he has two young daughters, is also German. Later he tells me that he “is careful to keep the family out of it.”
Someone says something about David Cameron and the promised EU referendum. Farage laughs. “Cameron is just trying to kick the can down the road. Cameron says if he wins the next general election—well there’s not much chance of that—following a renegotiation, which looks pretty much impossible, he will give you a referendum in 2017. This is nearly five years away. I don’t want to wait five years to have a referendum on this vital issue.” (Farage has recently turned 49.) “But the biggest problem is that I don’t believe him. I don’t trust him. I have heard all this before.”
I have heard that some backbench Conservative MPs have been advising the Prime Minister to offer a deal, so I ask: “Would you form a coalition?”
“Well, I think in some circumstances, you do a deal with the devil, if it gets you the right result… But until I get a referendum, until we can decide whether we govern our own country or not, it’s almost irrelevant discussing politics.” This is a verbal sleight of hand that he often deploys. Farage is attempting to discuss politics by saying its not worth discussing unless you vote for him. The South Shields man comes back into the conversation: “They keep holding that [the referendum] in front of us like a carrot.”
Farage laughs. “Oh yes. It’s jam tomorrow.” He laughs again. “Thank you,” he says. “Nice to meet you.” And off he goes. We are heading towards The Stag’s Head, which has just been hailed as a site of great architectural interest by the Campaign for Real Ale—Ukippian Elysium in other words. But I wait a moment to watch the voter after Farage has gone. He is beaming, joking and showing off to his wife. He feels listened-to, loved, re-enfranchised. Farage has connected.
How? First of all Farage approaches people on the street confidently, handling all comers with skill—the articulate, the inarticulate, the sane, the otherwise. He always appears genial. As far as I can tell, his minders don’t bother to mind him. Normally, political apparatchiks conduct their leaders though public space as if preserving a delicate bubble around them, terrified that it is about to be pricked at any moment. Not Nigel.
Close up, he smells of tobacco, offset with a liberal application of aftershave. He has dark, somewhat doleful eyes, a Marge Simpson mouth and he uses a slight nod of his head to emphasise his points. He deals with challenges from journalists and the public head-on, though calmly and maintaining direct eye contact. “Nobody has done more to damage the BNP than me.” “The three main parties are all the same on this—they don’t want you to have a say.” “We’ve made it absolutely clear that we are not against immigration, but we are for controlling immigration.” The hat he sometimes favours is a tool: it confuses people slightly, distances them, shades his eyes, gives him an extra second, confers even more likeableness when it turns out that he’s friendly after all. There is something of Harold Wilson’s pipe about it.
But his principal weapon is laughter. Instinctively, he wants to drive any conversation to laughter as quickly as he can—not laughter from wit or observation, but laughter that begins and ends with jokes of the “the world’s gone mad” variety: the very British humour of exasperation. In this way he turns the amusement of helplessness—disenfranchisement—into something that he can press repeatedly into service. It is the character trait that defines him; and on every occasion I witness, this is how he seeks to connect with people. To be human is necessarily to be exasperated; and to know this and to say that you know it—overtly, covertly, in tone and gesture—makes you very appealing.
His body language on the street is much more forcible than on television. He is neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin, but oddly mutable. With the general public, he stiffens his handshake and trims his peculiar gait. He gives off an aura of purpose (although he often lets it be known that he is off to the pub). This is in contrast to the television studio where he is often studiously more relaxed than everyone else on the panel or couch. Amidst other politicians and with interviewers, he tends to sit back more, almost to slouch, so that he conveys the physical appearance of undermining their stiffness and pomposity. But again: in the studio, as in the street, he’s after exasperated laughter if he can get it.
It is worth taking a moment to compare this demeanour to that of the other main party leaders. Essentially, Cameron’s problem in public is that he has had to begin from a perceived position of disapproval and embarrassment—about Eton, his aristocratic family connections, the masturbatory glee of the Bullingdon Club and so on. From there he felt it necessary to present another version of himself—the metrosexual, metropolitan, multicultural man—in order to reach out towards the middle ground. Let’s leave aside what may or may not be real in these manoeuvres and observe that there remains for the public an authenticity issue.
Ed Miliband’s difficulty, meanwhile, is a different though cousin one—also expressed in the very visible enactment of unease. Perhaps because he has grown up in tight political circles, it can often feel as though Miliband’s pride, his personal dynamism as a man, is over-invested in the point-scoring of narrow debate; and that he lacks the wider suite of essential character traits required in a convincing leader—not least a tangible and receptive emotional presence that is alive to the heartbeat of all that is happening in the room, the studio, the country. He senses his deficiency, but when he seeks to correct—when he aims for more emotional registers such as passion or conviction—he winds up coming across as a querulous and absurdly het-up head boy.
Now because both Cameron and Miliband—for their different reasons—suffer from this distracting dissonance between public and private personality, neither is able naturally to connect with the public. And yet the characteristic that best defines the British people is that they have the finest bullshit detectors in the world. Go to any gathering in Britain—in a pie factory or in a palace, in Brixton or Brixham—and the one character trait that we most admire and celebrate is a person’s ability to inhabit their character as proudly and directly and amusingly as possible. It’s the contortions we cannot abide.
Doubtless, it’s easier when you’re not in government or opposition; but that’s not the point: the more Cameron and Miliband have to hedge and trim and twist their personalities to appear to be what they are not, the more Farage thrives with the public by being what he is. One of the main reasons for his success is that he enjoys that happy combination of being both an effective communicator and meaning what he says.
A consonant public persona is not enough on its own. The second reason Farage is able to make his two cards—EU and immigration—count so effectively is that… well, is that he is right. Not on his policies but on the principles. He is right that the people have not been asked if they want their laws entwined with those of Europe. He is right that the EU is primarily a political project masquerading as an economic union. He is right that it is often haplessly and wastefully administered. He is right that Britain’s population is so numerous that it is placing intolerable strain on our infrastructure and resources. And he is right that in this sense the EU and immigration are, in fact, the same issue since we can’t control migration from EU countries while we’re in the EU.
I was surprised to find several Labour MPs as well as Tories who were prepared to agree. “On these big issues we come across as contemptuous and frit,” Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, told me. “He [Farage] operates in the gulf between the public and us here at Westminster. And there’s plenty of room for him there. He makes a very good point: the electorate have never been asked if they want their legislative programme embedded in Europe. Surely that’s what representational politics is about—representing the views of the people. I think he is performing us all a service. What this country needs is a politician who can walk down a street.” Field is not alone. A couple of weeks after we spoke, a group calling itself “Labour for a Referendum” was launched with the support of 15 of the most independent and intelligent Labour MPs.
The backbench Tories, meanwhile, were clamorous in their endorsements. One Tory MP, who did not wish to be named, told me: “Look, we are in trouble. We don’t tap into the working class votes. Cameron has nothing to say to the working class. Zero. He doesn’t know how to talk to them. There are 20 or 30 seats we absolutely have to win and we’re not going to do that unless we address the Ukip problem head on—which means admitting that Farage has a very good point.”
We the British people have not been asked about Europe. When backed into a corner, Farage retreats to this contention. And on this nobody can defeat him, not until Britain has a referendum. Which is why he continues to control the agenda—because although this doesn’t score with the majority of the electorate as a big day-to-day concern, it scores as the biggest possible issue with just enough people to make it really matter electorally.
And here we come to the murky byways of psephology and to the third reason that Farage has moved centre stage.
Farage tells me that he “doesn’t intend to contest any seats” in May 2015 as “he has to lead.” Pollsters such Joe Twyman, Director of Political Research at YouGov, feel that in any case Ukip’s chances of winning a Westminster seat are slim. “If they were going to pick a constituency,” says Twyman, “they would have to do a very similar thing to what the Greens did in Brighton: identify an area with base level and focus all resources on that. Maybe there’s an outside chance in Boston Lincolnshire or somewhere in Norfolk but it would be tough.” But the truth is that Ukip doesn’t have to win a single seat in 2015 in order to affect the national results.
The reason is as British as it is complicated. While both Labour and the Tories fear the impact of Ukip on their votes, it is the Tories who have the most to lose. Long before the present government, the Conservatives were already in coalition—with themselves. Theirs was a single party that encompassed people as far to the left as Ken Clarke and as right as David Davis. But now they look and sound like three parties: the liberal metropolitan left, the familiar old-school Tory centre and the Ukip-inflected right. How they plan to stay together through a European referendum is almost as big a mystery as how the Lib Dems plan to position themselves as a party of opposition in 2015. All the same, if they wish to remain a broad enough party to get back into government with a workable majority, the Tories have to win at least two dozen of the marginal seats. The more votes they bleed to Ukip on the right, the harder is it for them to muster the additional numbers they need in the centre. In this way, thanks to the eccentricity of our system, even if Farage is only taking the odd thousand here and there (and he’ll take more), he finds himself at the fulcrum of the fortunes of everyone else.
Back to Ukip, busy in South Shields. Cameron has famously described them as “fruitcakes,” “loonies” and “closet racists,” and in the run up to the election the party had problems with its vetting procedure. (One Ukip candidate in East Sussex was suspended for allegedly making anti-semitic remarks on a conspiracy theory website.) But I heard no racism—indeed I was introduced to a Hasidic Jew and an Asian candidate—two seemingly reasonable Ukip people, Schner Odze and Bobby Anwar. I also met the slightly bumbling leader of the youth “wing” Rob Comley; the no-nonsense party director, Lisa Duffy; Richard Elvin, the avuncular candidate—“I run a small travel business.” It wasn’t the sexiest gathering I’ve been to in recent years, but the people were unpretentious, warm-hearted, eager, rambunctious. And they were excited.
Ukip is indeed a rag tag bag—but not of fruitcakes; rather, of cussed, contrary, wilful, protesting, obstreperous, bantering Englishmen and women, the like of which have been with us all the way back to The Canterbury Tales. Read anything worth reading in our history and you will find the descendants of the brazen and garrulous Wife of Bath and the boisterous but genial Harry Bailey, Chaucer’s Inn Keeper. These are very English archetypes and they are forever butting in and barracking from the side-lines of our national story.
On the way back from The Stag’s Head, I press Farage on who or what he really believes in. I suggest some British thinkers and he cites only Milton Friedman. I point out, facetiously, that he was American. He begins to say that he likes the Whigs, that he sees himself as a great reformer working against the Tories from the right, that he sees himself working alone and in the face of initial unpopularity—to repeal the Corn Laws, end slavery, and overturn the status quo. This is interesting. The Whigs began as a political faction—a protest party—which stood, among other things, against absolute rule of the monarch but came to power in 1715 and stayed there for 45 years. During this period they purged the Tories from all major positions in government. They ended up as the champions of free trade, non-conformity and the supremacy of parliament with Robert Walpole as their apogee.
Aside from the Whigs, there is another political party that Farage may be seeking to emulate. On Radio 4, the day after the elections, when the interviewer cites the SDP as a party of protest that swiftly fizzled out, Farage counters—quickly, effectively—that they won: in effect, Tony Blair was the great SDP success, he says. In other words, the protestors exerted such an influence on the main party that it was forced to ditch its traditional self and become much more like them.
I don’t buy these two comparisons, though they are revealing. Indeed, I don’t really buy much of what Farage says. On subjects other than Europe and immigration, it is hard to shake the feeling that he hasn’t actually thought about it beyond his first few sentences. Many of his wider policies are risible, even conversationally. But this intellectual stuff is often irrelevant to the business of winning votes. Being a successful politician in the communication age is about making an emotional connection with people—demonstrating that you have some sense of their concerns. I left Farage’s company admiring his courage, his drive, his reach, his candour, his conviction, his real-time emotional intuition and his easy manner with the British public, friendly or hostile.
All the same, my overriding impression on our walk was the vulnerability of a man who has been living on the ragged edge of his wits in public for 15 years and the slight loneliness of being the only person he can trust to say the things he thinks need saying. Certainly, there is financial backing for Ukip; but there are few people to whom he can turn for counsel or relief. Repeatedly, he tells me, “I’ve put a hell of a lot into this.” He means his nationwide “Common Sense Tour” which began at the start of April—“bloody exhausting.” He means the plane crash on the day of the 2010 election—“I thought I was going to die.” (His sternum and his ribs were broken and his lung punctured. But he walked out of it bleeding and with his Ukip rosette still on.) He means the burden of leading this contrarian party out of the wild heaths of Britain toward 21st century Westminster. He means trying to build a national party from the ground up that has more than one policy—“this is entrepreneurial politics”—without having any time (or inclination) to think about more than one policy.
It also strikes me that the geniality, the pints, the cigarettes, the red meat, the hail-fellow-well-met—that these totems take their toll on Farage far more than he lets on. “I’ve learned how to do it,” he says, meaning his affability, “how to exaggerate it. Of course you learn in this job.” He’s eccentric in a way, but most of all he is what he is: a suburban stockbroker from a minor public school with one very good point. And perhaps his greatest significance is as an indictment of the other party leaders.
Personally, I think that it would be economic, political and historical insanity to leave Europe, though I willingly concede the administration of the EU can be an embarrassing and over-legislating mess. But the only way to stop Farage so blithely giving us all the run around is for the British people and their politicians to face the simple question which obsesses him: Europe, in or out? We need to decide and soon. Who are we and who do we want to become? Then we need to get on with living together again.
Two days after Ukip’s local election success, Farage declared that “four party politics is happening, we are here to stay.” His impact on the Tories has already been seismic, with the aftershocks felt on all benches. If I were him, I’d be tempted to take it to the next level: I’d change the name of Ukip to “New Conservative,” I’d landslide the European elections and then I’d use that momentum—what he calls “the Big M”—to tour the country again and round up every man, woman and dog I could find to march beneath my banner. And then I’d come for Westminster in 2015 with beating drum and shrillest whistle and take it to them seat by seat.
If he does so, I think we’ll actually end up thanking him for it—because he will have done what nobody has been able to do for a while now: he will have made politics feel personally relevant again, he will have made it seriously matter. He will have woken the British people and their politicians up and re-introduced them to one another. He will have forced MPs to stand for or against something bigger than themselves and their parties for a while. And in so doing, he might just have shown our parliament a way to recover its dignity.