Britain's Nigel Farage and the Age of the Political Idiot
Call them Europe’s Angry White Men: a cast of populist politicians propelled onstage by the Continent’s economic catastrophe. Sometimes jingoistic, usually furious, almost always unfit for office, these would-be demagogues are both symptoms of the crisis and megaphones for its social distress. But where Italians swoon over a paunchy comedian, Beppe Grillo, and Greece has been terrorized by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, the British have recently taken a shine to a pinstriped former investment banker. As if to confirm the suspicion that this is some giant act of national self-parody, his name is Nigel.
Nigel Farage is head of the U.K. Independence Party, and over the past couple of months he has become possibly the most talked-about politician in Britain. That’s partly because he is one of the few British politicians capable of provoking an opinion. Almost everything about Farage and his followers is faintly cartoonish. Their core demands are simple: Britain should swagger out of the European Union and slam its door to immigrants. Where other parties’ symbols are inoffensively universal—here a red rose, there an oak tree—UKIP goes for gaudy purple and yellow and a big, bold pound sign.
Such raucousness once allowed the political establishment to write off Farage’s party, which has yet to get an MP into the House of Commons. Before becoming prime minister, Conservative David Cameron branded UKIP “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists.” But then came this May’s local elections, when UKIP rocketed from a 3 percent share of the ballot (in the 2010 general election) to 23 percent, just behind the Tories. It was suddenly the third most popular party in Britain, far ahead of the junior partner in the ruling coalition, the Liberal Democrats. Sober-minded scholars of elections declared it the biggest jolt to the party system since World War II.
Is Farage about to switch from fringe candidate to serious contender? That’s the hypothetical now exercising Westminster’s seers. The UKIP leader’s rise is also a case study of how economic depression is challenging old certainties and transforming European politics.
Chain-smoking and beer-swilling, Farage, 49, poses as that most British version of masculinity, a bloke: the sort who says what he thinks, thinks what he says, and doesn’t give two hoots for niceties. On the floor of the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this year, Farage addressed the EU president, Herman Van Rompuy: “You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. … You come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country.” It was classic Nigel: reprehensible yet funny, and expertly channeling the id of Middle England.
There is about Farage the strong whiff of actor’s greasepaint. He’s a man of the people who went to a public (in U.S. terms, private) school, Dulwich College, before working in the City. He’s a Euro-skeptic who sits in the European Parliament. And were his apparently populist policies ever to be subjected to serious scrutiny, they might not be so popular among his largely blue-collar voters. It’s the rich and big business that would do best out of UKIP’s proposals for a low flat tax and the breakup of the public health system.
“Nigel can put on a ‘hail fellow, well met’ persona. He can express nasty ideas in simple terms,” says Alan Sked, whose relationship with Farage goes back over two decades, and who founded UKIP in 1993 before leaving in disgust at its stomp rightward. “But really he sees it as a lark, a boy’s own adventure.”
The Tories have taken one glance at UKIP’s surge and gone into a meltdown. More than psephological, this feels closer to a family bust-up: It’s largely Tory voters who are defecting to UKIP. (Farage himself was once a true-blue activist.) Conservatives have reacted by pandering to the xenophobic fringe. In recent weeks, Tory MPs have floated the idea of requiring a hefty cash bond for Asian and African visitors to Britain and introduced a bill to give the public a referendum on whether to stay in the EU—a signature UKIP policy.
Some of Cameron’s more wayward foot soldiers demand more: that he “talk” to Farage, or even form a joint ticket. Not only would this be almost unprecedented in British right-wing politics, it would legitimize what remains a ragtag bunch of would-be insurgents. UKIP’s previous leader, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, stood down after admitting he had not read his own election manifesto. Among the regular items served up in Her Majesty’s press this spring have been stories about UKIP activists who have posted on their Facebook pages either boneheaded comments about Africans, snaps of themselves doing a Nazi salute, or some other stupidity.
Such stories underline the eternal difference between protest votes on the Continent and in the U.K. European systems of proportional representation mean that minority politicians, such as Finland’s Timo Soini, can have viable careers. Britain’s first-past-the-post system means that losers are, well, losers: No consolation prizes are handed to also-rans. Ambitious hacks opt for the main parties. And while Farage may be a charismatic leader, the people behind him are often plain weird.
Yet their numbers are growing. “Being white, being male, and being angry are all really good predictors of UKIP support,” says University of Manchester political lecturer Robert Ford, co-author of the forthcoming book Revolt on the Right. What’s really eating average UKIP voters, he says, is not narrow discontent about policies but anxiety about where society is heading and how they fit into it. “There’s the same mix of blue-collar backgrounds and worry about identity and immigration that you see expressed by the Tea Party,” Ford says. Farage as the British Sarah Palin? Swap the hockey for tobacco, and you betcha!
As in the U.S., Britain’s right is splintering. There are the social conservatives who’d love to take the country back to the 1950s; free marketers desperate to revive the Thatcherite spirit of the 1980s; and the rest who want the party to better resemble the diversity of today’s Britain, and who almost by default are termed “modernisers.” Into that last camp falls the prime minister. Cameron came to power with promises of an updated Conservatism, one that would be fiscally hawkish but socially liberal on gay marriage and other issues. While well-meaning, it was also ill-defined—and it didn’t stand a chance under the pressures of austerity and slump.
A right-winger who appeals to the ’50s revivalists but can also speak contemporary human, Farage is a stand-in in a bigger battle between the elites and the masses: the “chumocracy,” as Cameron’s inner circle is disdainfully called, vs. the “loonies.” This fight has been made sharper by the depression. Wages for the average worker have fallen 10 percent in real terms since the banking crisis; employees in the U.K. are earning the same as they were in 2000, adjusting for inflation.
Across austerity Europe, extreme economic conditions are producing extremist politics. Whether Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, it’s the far right that is capitalizing on discontent. Some leftist populists have also emerged, such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece, but so far they’re the exceptions. Britain’s Labour Party has tried to channel populist energy, but without much conviction. Besides, if voters are turning against politicians tout court, they’re probably not receptive to traditional social-democratic calls for more activist government.
The power of populists like Farage lies less in their policies than what they represent: vast and growing dissatisfaction with the professional political class. “You look at the mainstream politicians, and they haven’t got solutions to the crisis. There’s an intellectual vacuum,” says Sked, who’s also a professor at the London School of Economics. “The conditions are very congenial for a political idiot.”
This is the age of the none-of-the-above candidate, the shambolic rabble-rouser. However fleeting, this is Nigel Farage’s moment.