March 19, 2012 Published originally in National Review
He’s a tolerant man, Nigel Farage, a devotee of John Stuart Mill, a cricket-loving happy warrior, an “accidental politician.” The leader of the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP), and, since 1999, a member of the EU’s Potemkin parliament, he is standing expectantly at the bar of his local, the George & Dragon (of course) in Downe, a friendly low-ceilinged Kentish pub as English as its name. I’m ordering the beers. There’s a traditional, brewed-by-two-yokels county bitter for him (of course) and for me an industrial, vaguely Teutonic lager, bitte. “Euro-piss, I see.” Mock shock: Live and let live. Later on we share a bottle of good red wine. French.
We met up earlier at a railway station in a spot where the countryside emerges from London’s shadow. As we drove past tall hedgerows and stark winter trees, the late-fortysomething Farage proudly played guide: “I’ve always lived around here.” There’s landscape, history, old graveyards to inspect, English Shinto. Up there (he gestures) are the remnants of the oak where William Wilberforce resolved to launch his great anti-slavery campaign, and over here is the splendid pile where Pitt the Younger once lived. I point out Biggin Hill, an RAF redoubt during the Battle of Britain. Replicas of a Hurricane and a Spitfire stand guard. “They had real ones when I was a boy.”
Farage feels the past in this place. He’s a history buff, a battlefield maven, just finishing reading a book on Allenby of Great War fame. We stopped off at the small town of Westerham to inspect a statue of its most famous son, General Wolfe, conqueror of Quebec. Nearby, a restless-looking Churchill seems ready to leap out off the chair on which his sculptor sat him. The last lion’s last den — Chartwell — is nearby. Then on to the George & Dragon, just past the house of another Farage hero, Charles Darwin: The woods where the great scientist wandered are “just as they were . . . almost.”
But to believe, as many critics like to suggest, that Farage and his party are golf-club xenophobes wanting their country back as it was (. . . almost) is to subscribe to a very partial version (in both senses) of the truth. To be sure, there is a trace of the 19th hole about them; oh, what a horror. And is the idea that the country has gone to the dogs imprinted in UKIP’s DNA? Maybe, but the country has gone to the dogs. Claims of xenophobia, however, are difficult to reconcile with reality, in ways both small (Farage’s second wife is German; their two young children are being brought up to speak the language) and large: UKIP is a defender of de Gaulle’s Europe des patries, fighting the bureaucratic drive to remold the continent into a homogenized administrative unit in which history has been sanitized, tradition reduced to decoration, and difference regulated away.
If there is an era for which Farage is nostalgic, it’s more likely to be the 1980s, a time when big government was in retreat and big opportunity was round the corner. Not the most diligent of students, he skipped university and went straight into the City, London’s financial center, just as Mrs. Thatcher’s reforms were transforming it from an entertainingly seedy, mildly run-down club into today’s chilly international hub. It was “like a gold rush,” as we both recall. And there’s still the hint of an Eighties trading desk about Farage, an engaging, quick-witted risk-taker (a survivor of testicular cancer, he still enjoys his Rothmans) with a taste for a good time that has sometimes got him into trouble. Rick Santorum he’s not. Smart, direct, and impressively fluent, he speaks in paragraphs, punctuated with one-liners: He has a way with words, and he knows it.
If you doubt that, just check out the way he welcomed Herman Van Rompuy to the European Parliament shortly after that discreetly sinister Belgian had taken the EU’s top job at the beginning of 2010. Farage’s speech was brutally iconoclastic, rudely funny, and, in its warning of the threat that this official with “the charisma of a damp rag” posed to European democracy, deadly serious. It created uproar across the EU and made UKIP’s leader a YouTube star. Check it out, and you will see why.
“You’re a bit of actor, aren’t you?”
Farage grins his confession. His only regret — a very English regret — is that he may sometimes appear “too shrill.” In fact he doesn’t, but, endearingly, he insists on explaining that the microphones in the EU parliament’s chamber are set up in a way that makes it difficult for viewers to hear the barracking to which he is, not infrequently, reacting. But if it’s not always possible to make out the jeers, you can, I tell him, occasionally see the faces of his critics twisted into something that looks a lot like hatred.
“Oh, it’s hatred.” He names a couple of names. “They have their dream. It’s their religion. These are dangerous people.” They cannot accept dissent, especially when they know they’ve been rumbled: They just don’t want to be told how anti-democratic they really are. Wouldn’t they be happier if bolshie John Bull just quit the EU? “Some of the Euronuts,” maybe, but not the Merkels and Sarkozys: They’d be too nervous about which country would be next.
But is UKIP the right vehicle to extricate Britain from this mess? Since its founding in 1993 as a party set on taking the country out of the EU, it has woven an unsteady path, marked by scandal, factionalism, sporadic incursions by the far right, PR disasters, leadership crises, damaging outbreaks of eccentricity, and, above all, the pervasive, persistent sense that it was not ready for prime time. This was probably inevitable, and not just because small parties tend to be a lot like that. There was also the matter of UKIP’s great cause.
Euroskepticism was hardly unknown in Britain at the time — particularly amongst Conservatives — but it was house-trained. Withdrawal from the EU was widely considered a step too far even amongst those who loved Brussels least. “Banging on” about Europe (to borrow David Cameron’s notorious phrase from a decade or so later) was portrayed by media and political grandees alike as obsessional, retrograde, and profoundly damaging to the governing Tories’ unity, the last a development that, in a paradox understood by just about everyone, could only help sweep the slavishly Europhile Tony Blair into power. And, it turned out, keep him there.
Smears can be self-fulfilling prophecies: The nascent UKIP attracted more than its fair share of cranks, outsiders, and the hopelessly adrift. And it continued to do so, creating the image of the party to which David Cameron played when, in 2006, he referred to UKIP as a bunch of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly.” The feigned reasonability of that “mostly” was a clever touch.
Farage is no fan of Cameron. Is the prime minister a Christian Democrat on Rhineland lines? Not really. “Dave” (“an affable chap,” he adds, kindly) is more of a social democrat, a paternalist, a statist, and he’s not going to do much about Brussels: nothing that counts, anyway. Farage, a staunch Thatcherite back in the day, doesn’t have much time for the way in which the Conservative party has evolved. To read what UKIP would stand for, at least in theory (once Britain was out of the EU), is to be presented with an attractive mix of the hard-nosed and the libertarian, including deregulation, flat taxes, strict immigration controls, proper schools, tough policing, an aversion to multiculturalism, and a reversal of the kamikaze greenery of the Cameron years. Compared with the Tories, what’s not to like?
The problem is that Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system guarantees that, in most elections, a vote for UKIP is wasted — or worse. It’s “difficult,” Farage admits, an understatement. In the 2010 general election, UKIP scored some 3 percent of the vote, but took no seats, and, by nibbling away at Tory support, cost the Conservatives an absolute majority, thus (more or less) forcing them into coalition with the Eurofanatic Liberal Democrats. UKIP hoped that the Lib Dems would use their new position to push for the adoption of a voting system friendlier to small parties. They did, but they failed: A switch to the Alternative Vote was rejected in a referendum in May 2011.
Farage still wants electoral reform (AV+, since you asked). A glance at Britain’s elections for the European parliament (where a type of proportional representation is used) in 2009 explains why. Led by Farage since 2006, UKIP came in second (slightly ahead of Labour) with 16.5 percent of the vote and, like Labour, won 13 seats out of the UK’s total of 72. Even allowing for the low turnout and the fact that European elections are an excellent opportunity for Britons to register a protest against the EU, the result was a triumph.
Stymied at home, however, by the uncooperative electoral system, UKIP continues to struggle domestically, even as it stands at about 6 percent in the polls, not so far behind the Liberal Democrats. But Farage is determined, stubborn, and resilient (he has survived a plane crash as well as cancer). He’s not giving up. And he’s going to do it his way. Deals with the Conservatives, such as (one suggestion) an agreement not to challenge the party’s many genuinely Euroskeptic MPs, seem out of the question for now. Farage clearly wants UKIP to be seen as more than a Tory offshoot (he takes pains to tell me that its membership also includes “patriotic old Labour and classical liberals”). Those Euroskeptic Tory MPs? Useful camouflage for a Conservative party unserious about the only thing that really counts: prising Brussels out of Britain. “Unless we sort this out, we can’t do the rest.” The financial cost of EU membership is enormous (in direct payments alone, a net £10.3 billion in 2010, UKIP estimates). The democratic toll is still higher: About half of all “British” laws are now passed at the EU level. True enough, bad enough, but by splitting the right-of-center vote, Farage risks helping the Europhile left, which is always pressing to make matters even worse.
So there he stands athwart a political conundrum, Captain Sparrow at the head of UKIP’s motley crew, but something of a one-man band too, harrying the Eurocrats, embarrassing Britain’s establishment, deftly playing new media and old, deftly playing politics, new style and old. He crisscrosses the country, addressing meetings (he truly is a terrific speaker), talking to schools, retail stuff, good stuff. He’d like UKIP to take first place in the next European elections (2014), but what Farage, the gambler, wants most is a referendum — in or out — a high-stakes, binary game (a vote, however reluctant, to remain in the EU is every Euroskeptic’s nightmare). It would bypass that domestic impasse. And he believes it is winnable: His much-disdained UKIP has, “like Stalin’s [Red Army] punishment battalions, softened the ground up.”
The polls suggest that Farage might be right, but he understands that fear of what lies outside (possibly exaggerated further, and ironically, by the instability that the battered euro is leaving in its wake) could make voters pause. To calm that, he’s looking for business support to rally behind his idea of a country that sees its future in a world far wider, and freer, than the EU’s inward-looking, closed, and highly regulated customs union. That’s a vision that ought to be made all the more sellable to clearer-headed voters by the damage that the euro-zone crisis has done to the whole notion of Brussels’s “ever closer union.” And that crisis is unlikely to end soon or well. Farage doesn’t know what’s coming next. If he did, he’d be “in the betting shop.” He guesses that Greece will exit sometime in 2012, followed by Portugal, and believes that the “ultimate question” is France. But he’s not waiting to find out. To him, the issue is this: If Britain does not quit now, then when? Remaining in the EU is death “by a thousand cuts.”
I ask Farage whether he’d like Pitt the Younger’s old job. No thanks, he’s not interested in rank. He’d rather be remembered like a Wilberforce, for having changed things for the better.
Put another way, he will damn the torpedoes and steam on ahead.