Published — Thursday 16 May 2013
Last update 16 May 2013 3:43 am
In the puckish leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, British people are acquiring an unofficial prime minister. Though he does not have a seat in the British Parliament (he is a member of the European Parliament), Farage is effectively setting his country’s political agenda. He is doing so because he champions stringent control of immigration and the right of British people to decide, at the earliest opportunity, whether they wish to remain part of the European Union.
The potency of Farage’s “little Englander” posture was dramatically demonstrated by the extraordinary success of his party in this spring’s local elections. The signs are that great numbers of anti-European Conservative voters are defecting to UKIP. Indeed, thanks in no small part to Farage’s impact on the European debate, the Conservative Party is in turmoil over Europe, with party elder statesmen explicitly calling for withdrawal and two current Conservative ministers declaring that they will vote to leave in a referendum on the issue. The party’s leader, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, remains opposed to holding a referendum until an attempt has been made to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership following the next general election. This week, however, in a desperate effort to pacify his party, Cameron had to rush out a draft bill to guarantee an in/out referendum by 2017.
Spawned by public cynicism about mainstream politicians, Nigel Farage is an ebullient maverick whose hostility to the European Union is widely shared inside and outside the Conservative Party. Until recently, Cameron and other senior Conservatives scoffed at him and his party as a clownish rabble.
Now they are having to eat humble pie. Prioritising tough immigration measures, the new legislative program of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government over which Cameron presides might have been dictated by the UKIP leader.
Farage, whose face readily creases into a huge mischievous smirk, is smirking like never before. It is not just in terms of policy, however, that Nigel Farage is upstaging mainstream politicians. Perhaps his greatest asset is that he seems like an ordinary human being, the very reverse of the soundbite mouthing androids who typify contemporary politics. His joshing, undiplomatic, un-spun approach, combined with an anti-European message that many regard as plain common sense, has endowed him with mass appeal. You would hardly guess that this tribune of the people is the son of a financier who enjoyed a costly private education.
Fueled by the financial crisis that began in 2008 and which shows few signs of ebbing, this is a season of populist politics all over Europe. And as often before in times of crisis, populists of the right are having a field day in exploiting popular hunger for scapegoats. Like his rightist French counterpart Marine Le Pen, Farage has turned to maximum advantage the collapse of public faith in established parties and the widespread impulse to blame all that has gone wrong on lax immigration policies — policies which can in turn be blamed on the free labor market imposed on member states of the European Union.
Though he has Dutch ancestors and a German wife, Farage is an English nationalist who could also be described a right-wing extremist. His politics are a continuation of what the late Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher stood for: free markets and minimal state regulation. But not least is he Thatcher’s heir in deftly articulating the resentment of those who feel that their country no longer belongs to them. Before Thatcher came to power in 1979, the far-right, immigration-obsessed National Front Party was steadily gaining ground in Britain, but by signaling her solidarity with people who believed that they were being ‘swamped’ by immigrants she reduced the National Front to insignificance. Farage is similarly undermining the far-right, maniacally Islamophobic English Defense League. Like Thatcher’s Conservative Party, UKIP is an altogether more respectable vehicle for English racists and xenophobes. What gives its leader an inestimable PR advantage is his mirthful demeanor.
Accusations of extremism are hard to level at so genial a figure as Nigel Farage.
Yet UKIP’s rise bodes nothing but ill for Muslims and other British minorities, for all who are identifiable as outsiders, and can only damage social cohesion — especially if Britain continues to experience a palsied economy. Not that the party’s popularity bodes well for the entire British body politic. Arguably indeed, the politics of Nigel Farage portend something altogether more far-reaching than UK independence.
UKIP may well play a large part in accomplishing British withdrawal from Europe; certainly current polling indicates that, allowed a decision on the issue, British people will vote to head for the exit. What is more, though, the party could become implicated in the break-up of the United Kingdom itself, for Scotland, governed by Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party, is looking forward to voting, in September 2014, on whether to opt for total national independence from England, as distinct from the devolved government it enjoys at present. But where will be the collective gain if separatism triumphs?
Truth to tell, the success of Farage and UKIP is inseparable from national desperation. Its roots lie in an endemic sense that Britain has fallen victim to alien forces and that once liberated from them will rediscover the dynamism that built the British Empire. However, it is hard to see how a depleted postimperial island nation with a huge burden of private and public debt and a decimated manufacturing base will flourish by going it alone. In Britain, as elsewhere, North Korea is often mocked for its weirdly self-referential isolation. But a UK made in the image of Farage and his followers with their unshakable conviction that they alone are living in the real world scarcely suggests a model of sanity. It might even turn into the North Korea of the North Sea.