Nigel Farage has humiliated the British political class. By topping the poll in the European elections, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has placed himself at the head of a huge popular uprising.
Farage is a nationalist of a peculiarly English type. He feels most at home in the pub. If anyone asks to interview him, he is likely to suggest a meeting in the Marquis of Granby, a pub close to the BBC’s headquarters in Westminster, near the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street. According to Farage, “every pub is a parliament.” He uses these establishments not just to drink pints of beer but to display his credentials as a man of the people.
In any English pub, there will be drinkers who say the country is being betrayed by its greedy and treacherous politicians. This is precisely the line taken by Farage. With wit and spontaneity, he expresses the anger of the man in the pub who feels ordinary people have been ignored and taken for granted for many years.
The political establishment observed with alarm that Farage was on course to triumph in these elections and made great efforts to destroy him. His outspoken hostility to unrestricted immigration from the European Union was condemned as racism. When he said he would feel “concerned” if a group of Romanian men moved in next door to him, Farage was thought by some to have wrecked his chances. They were mistaken. The more mainstream politicians condemned Farage, the more he was seen by the man in the pub as a champion of free speech who would break through the blanket of political correctness that was being used to stifle debate on difficult subjects such as immigration.
Farage leads an insurgency that centers on three key themes: hostility to immigration, hostility to the European Union and hostility to Britain’s political class. But if the UKIP’s appeal were to be reduced to a single phrase, it would be “Life was better in the 1950s.”
The image that UKIP supporters have of the 1950s may or may not be accurate. But to them, it was a golden age, when a working man could earn a good wage without having to compete against a lot of foreigners who would do the same work for a fraction of the pay. One of the things that baffles Farage’s opponents is that he seems so old-fashioned. But this makes him fit to lead a rebellion against modernity. His followers doubt if they can ever prosper under modern conditions.
A typical UKIP activist might be a retired man in a blazer who used to be in the army and now lives on a barely adequate pension in a bungalow on the edge of an unfashionable seaside town. He was once a member of the Conservative Party, but cannot bear the metropolitan elite who now dominate the party, with its modish enthusiasm for causes like gay marriage.
But a large proportion of UKIP voters are also from the white working class, which feels that both the Labour and Conservative parties are now led by privileged members of the middle class who have never done a day’s work outside of politics and have not the faintest idea what life outside Westminster is like.
Farage was born in 1964 and became a member of the Conservatives in his youth after hearing a talk by Sir Keith Joseph, one of the main intellectual influences on Margaret Thatcher. Farage is quick on the uptake but certainly no intellectual. He is a man of abundant energy, whose interests include golf and fishing. His father was a stockbroker who drank too much. Young Farage was sent to Dulwich College, a fee-paying school in south London whose famous old boys include the humorist P.G. Wodehouse and the noir writer Raymond Chandler.
He made the decision to skip university and go straight to work in Britain’s financial sector, the City of London. He became a metal trader who, like his father, drank too much. He was a raucous, quick-witted gambler whose bets sometimes made him a lot of money and sometimes were a complete flop. Early on he showed he could survive setbacks that would have destroyed a less-resilient man. At the age of 21, he tried to cross the road while drunk, was hit by a car, suffered severe injuries and was also found to have testicular cancer.
Farage still dresses like a metal trader: in a pinstriped suit. His refusal to change either his clothes or his drinking habits lends him an authenticity that most politicians lack. Instead of trying to control everything, as conventional politicians do, he is prepared to risk meeting ordinary people without attempting to screen out those who might ask him awkward questions.
But the paradox of Farage is that he, too, is a politician. In 1992, he left the Conservative Party, furious that it had endorsed the Maastricht Treaty, which led to the launching of the euro. The following year, Farage became a founding member of the UKIP, and in 1999 he was elected to the European Parliament.
He is now engaged in the most colossal gamble of his life: He hopes that by playing the anti-politics card, he can become the arbiter of his nation’s future. Since his victory, he has spoken of winning seats in the Westminster Parliament in next year’s general election, with his party holding the balance of power.
But Farage’s weakness is that while he plays with genius on the general belief that things were better in the past, he has no vision of the future. He does not know how to convert a protest vote into something more durable. His party has been divided throughout its 21-year existence by rancorous infighting and has always attracted more than its fair share of corrupt or otherwise unsatisfactory candidates. The Farage bubble could soon burst.
Whether it does or not will depend on how well the other parties cope with the disaster they have just suffered. Some of Britain’s mainstream politicians already look as if they have suffered irreparable damage to their careers. If the rest of them want to drive Farage back toward the margins of politics, they will first need to work out how to address the insecurities felt by Farage’s growing army of followers.